Q&A: Charles Robinson, Louise H. Renne Pioneer in The Public Sector Award

The vice president and general counsel for legal affairs at the University of California talks about promoting diversity and taking career risks

Read profiles of all the winners here.

Law school: Yale Law School

Age: 55

Favorite woman in history: Rosa Parks

 

Q: What was your first job after law school?

A: My first job after law school was serving as a law clerk to a federal judge, [U.S. District Judge] William Orrick in San Francisco. From there, I became an associate attorney at Heller Ehrman. I had actually been a summer clerk with Heller Ehrman prior to my clerkship with Judge Orrick and had received a job offer before I went to the clerkship. The clerkship was a year long, and then I started at Heller Ehrman.

I was there from ’83 to ’95, or thereabouts. I was there for about 12 years, became a partner there after about seven [years], and then moved to several in-house legal departments.

 

Q: What made you want to become a lawyer?

A: I grew up in Philadelphia, and my family knew a number of lawyers and judges. There was kind of a group of black professionals in the Philadelphia area—doctors and lawyers. So I had a lot of exposure to lawyers and judges, and enjoyed talking to them about what they did, and I decided to go to law school. It was actually down to a decision between architecture and law. During my senior year in high school, I had the opportunity to do an independent study project that I put together that involved working in the chambers of two federal judges who were friends of the family. One judge at the trial court level, the federal district court level, and one judge in the 3rd Circuit. So I did that for about two months, and that sealed the deal, so to speak.

 

Q: What kind of support did you get from your superiors?

A: It varied. There were a couple of lawyers in particular at Heller Ehrman who were significant mentors to me. And it tended to be on pro bono projects, as opposed to the paying-client matters. So Robert Borton and Charles Freiburg, among others, I think were significant mentors to me. I did a substantial amount of pro bono work, and they were committed to pro bono work and supervised a lot of it for the firm.

Beyond that, the partners at Heller Ehrman did a lot for me in terms of how to think through legal issues, how to structure a persuasive legal brief, that sort of thing—the kinds of things that more junior associates learn in a big, established law firm.

 

Q: Did you encounter any obstacles?

A: I would say so. Frankly, some partners were less inclined than others to give me significant client responsibility. And one can draw one’s own conclusions as to why that was.

I don’t recall a circumstance in which a client, either directly or indirectly, at least by way of me hearing about it later on, declined to have me work on their matters. But I sensed some reluctance in some partners to give me that client responsibility.

Beyond that, there are other subtle obstacles. During the time that I was in l was firm practice, I can probably count on one hand the number of times that I encountered another African-American or Latino lawyer in any matter that I was working on. And a number of the cases that I was working on involved between 15 and 20 lawyers, because it was large-scale litigation. And that's an obstacle, to some extent, because it’s very difficult to envision being at the top, being a partner, being a senior partner, when no one around you looks like you.

 

Q: What have you done to help women or other minorities with their careers?

A: I do get calls from time to time from people asking for advice or mentoring help, and so I certainly do that. I encourage people to explore and to take advantage of leadership and development opportunities—formal ones, outside training courses and that sort of thing, but also internally. At the various places where I’ve worked, there have been opportunities to serve on task forces and committees and that sort of thing, and that gives people exposure and an opportunity to lead an effort.

Q: What advice do you have for a younger lawyer who wants to have a successful career?

A: Try to identify a mentor or someone to whom you can go to ask questions—someone you can observe and feel comfortable asking questions of. It’s almost like an apprenticeship or a mentorship kind of relationship. There’s nothing like observing and doing in order to develop.

The other thing I would say is: Take some risks, and be willing to move outside your comfort zone. I think that has been, at times, very uncomfortable for me, but by and large, it has worked out when I’ve taken some risks.

A good example is when I decided to leave the comfortable environs of Heller Ehrman where I was a partner, where, at least at that time, it appeared that Heller Ehrman would continue to be one of the most successful law firms in the state, if not the country. Partnership at that time was essentially a tenured position. But I decided to leave there to go in-house, to transform myself basically from being a big-firm litigator to a company lawyer responsible not only for litigation, but also for transactions, counseling and advice. And, at that time at least, it was not as common for a litigator to be selected by a company to go in-house because they typically wanted business lawyers or transactional lawyers. But I was fortunate enough to find a general counsel who himself had been a litigator, who was willing to take me on.

So I was able to make that transformation, but there was something of a risk there. Because, as I said, at least at that time, it looked as though I had a tenured position in a successful firm where one would have expected that my compensation would continue to rise.

 

Q: What is your proudest moment as a lawyer?

A: There are a number of moments. Going way back, early in my career, I was the law clerk for Judge Orrick, who drafted the opinion that accepted the consent decree for school desegregation in San Francisco. That was a proud moment.

A proud moment was being appointed general counsel for the University of California. We have since participated in a number of important matters, policy matters. We wrote an amicus brief in the stem cell case back in Washington D.C. We succeeded in the California Supreme Court in being able to continue offering in-state tuition to undocumented students. That’s a case we won in the state Supreme Court. We recently filed an amicus brief in the case that will be heard in the U.S. Supreme Court challenging the affirmative-action admissions processes at the University of Texas. Those were all  proud moments for me.

 

Q: How do you manage work-life balance?

A: Not very well. The best I can say is that I try to pace myself. I do try to pay attention to burnout. I don’t have a lot of time, but I do slot in time for recreation. It’s not as much time as I would like. For example, I tend not to go 35 straight days at 10 hours a day or 12 hours a day without taking some time. And most people can usually find several hours of an afternoon, you know, to do something else.

 

Q: What other things would you like to do to help advance careers of women or minorities?

A: I would love, at some point, to be able to teach. Not so much in the classroom or talking-head lecture teaching, but clinical work, working with people perhaps in a legal clinic or something along those lines, and essentially mentoring people in something of an apprenticeship.

 

Q: Do you have anything else you’d like to add?

A: In light of a pending Supreme Court decision on whether race, and ultimately gender, can continue to be viewed as a compelling state interest, particularly in the legal profession, it’s very important. It’s about dispensing justice, and it’s very hard to have a credible system of justice without having a system that includes everyone, and where all races and both genders are at all levels of the system, and certainly leadership levels of the system.

Join the Conversation

Advertisement. Closing in 15 seconds.