Meet the General Counsel: Julia Brickell

BrickellJulia Brickell is executive managing director and General Counsel of H5, an expert search and eDiscovery company, where she oversees the legal, corporate governance, and compliance issues and advises on corporate strategy. Previously, Ms. Brickell was associate general counsel of Altria Client Services, and vice president and deputy general counsel of Philip Morris USA, where she advised on an array of litigation, commercial, and electronic data management matters. Before that, she was a litigator in New York. Ms. Brickell frequently speaks and writes to advance awareness and professionalism in the age of expanding use of artificial intelligence and on methods of evaluating and addressing risks posed to companies by the explosion of electronically stored information. Ms. Brickell also serves on the faculty of Columbia University’s Executive Master of Science in Technology Management, and on the boards of Lawyers for Civil Justice and the American AI Forum.

Nicholas Gaffney (NG): What career path you would have pursued if you weren’t a lawyer?

Julia Brickell (JB): When I headed to college, I planned to pursue a career involving prison reform. In my view, the prison system in the United States was (and is) sadly deficient, negatively rather than positively influencing the future prospects of the incarcerated. I majored in sociology at Smith College. After a brief stint working in costuming, my avocation, I took a job at the American Arbitration Association, which led me to law school and a multi-year career in litigation.

NG: Name a person who has had a tremendous impact on your career. Maybe someone who has been a mentor to you? Why and how did this person impact your life?

JB: When I moved in-house as deputy general counsel of Phillip Morris USA, my boss, the general counsel, was a terrific mentor. I still think of his advice almost every day. Whether coaching me on corporate dynamics (clients notice if you are at the departure dinner or can manage a budget – they’ll never read the brief you are working on), modeling calm regardless of the issues at hand, or giving me opportunities for visibility that he could easily have taken for himself, he modeled effective behaviors and guided my transition from litigator to in-house counsel. I think often of how much of an impact a mentor can have.

NG: What is one issue that keeps you up at night?

JB: From a corporate perspective, cybersecurity risk is my biggest concern. Most risks can be managed if they materialize, but cyber breaches really need to be prevented. That takes focus, prioritization, know-how, tools, training, monitoring and testing, and vigilance from all employees. The threats are organized and constantly changing. From a personal perspective, social justice keeps me up at night. Particularly in the current climate, individual rights are increasingly threatened, and respect for minorities and the underprivileged is diminishing. The difference in opportunities between racial and economic groups is profound.

NG: How do you select outside counsel? What can an attorney do to get selected?

JB: When I select outside counsel, I look for expertise, smart thinking, and practicality. I pick individuals; I rarely pick firms. However, if I find counsel who has these characteristics and is cost-effective, I may well test out another lawyer at that firm who has other expertise to see if the characteristics are replicated. I often find this combination in regional firms. Otherwise, I’ll seek referrals from lawyers in legal organizations in which I’m involved. I value personal connections because relationships motivate both in-house and outside counsel to communicate clearly to stay aligned.

NG: What is the highest value activity that outside counsel brings to you? What is the lowest?

JB: High value: street smarts. Low value: memoranda. I like smart, practical advice delivered efficiently. I like bullet points, redlines on drafts, outlines before briefs are written (outlines are much faster to discuss and edit), lists I can copy into an email. There are many simultaneous initiatives in-house and I change topics and thought processes moment to moment. I also value lawyers who think about my needs outside of specific matters on which I’ve engaged them. Surprisingly few outside counsel bring news or emerging issues to my attention to be sure I am aware; counsel who do really stand out.

NG: What does the legal profession need to do to improve opportunities for diverse lawyers?

JB: The legal profession has a poor track record in diversity. We all know the statistics. Promoting diversity is every lawyer’s job. It isn’t solved by a committee or by something a law firm did last year. Each of us should ask if the choices we make–whom we interview, hire, consider as experts, invite to a meeting, take to lunch–reflect diverse choices. We should value diverse backgrounds, thinking, and experience; this will make us better lawyers–more insightful, more attuned to the diverse audiences with whom we deal. We should be thoughtful about creating a diverse pipeline. We need to promote equal experiences and not assume they are available to all, even at the same firm. We should be role models and become mentors, particularly to those who may not have lawyers in their families. I volunteer with an organization that provides coaching and experiential learning (resume writing, mock interviews, office visits) to high school students. The students benefit from exposure to lawyers, business people, experiences, and coaching they may not otherwise have.

NG: What’s the best book you’ve read this year?

JB: Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil, in which O’Neil teaches the risks associated with the use of algorithms trained on biased data sets that are then deployed by people who have no data on effectiveness or bias. These AI-enabled systems are working their way into our criminal justice system for sentencing, predictive policing, suspect identification, and more, and are being used for decisions on hiring, housing, credit, and social programs, which will exacerbate bias and social injustice. Next book: Law Man, Memoir of a Jailhouse Lawyer, by Shon Hopwood. I just heard an inspiring talk by Hopwood–a former prisoner who somewhat serendipitously made his way from jail through law school and into teaching law. He attributes his success to support and encouragement from several mentors who were able to see him as an individual with untapped potential.

About the Author

Nicholas Gaffney is the founder of Zumado Public Relations in San Francisco and a member of the Law Practice Today Editorial Board. Contact him at or on Twitter @nickgaffney.

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