Overcoming Adversity To Achieve Success
While giving his first President’s Report to the House of Delegates on June 12, 2021, New York State Bar Association President T. Andrew Brown reflected on his past, referring to the hardships of his youth. Andrew noted the contrast of his earlier life’s experiences with poverty and the life he lives now.
He spent most of his early years in a single-parent household. He was very close to his mother. His father developed mental illness around the time Brown was born, which took him away from the family home. “His absence from my life had a lasting effect.”
Andrew’s earliest recollection of his father was meeting him in a mental institution. Not until many years later, well into adulthood, did he develop a close relationship with his father. “I eventually came to know and accept him exactly as he was. Both a schizophrenic, a mathematical genius, and a gentle loving, caring human being.”
Growing up poor meant living in a house without hot water or central heating, no car or other material possessions to speak of. “But we always had more books than anyone I knew. Our prized possession was a set of encyclopedias.” There was always a tremendous value placed on education and learning in Brown’s home.
Perseverance was learned from his mother, despite the challenges she faced, she managed to return to school obtaining a nursing degree when Brown reached his teenage years. “A great sense of pride flowed from that.”
While in high school, Brown’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She stopped working as her illness progressed. She never recovered and eventually died from her illness during his senior year of high school, leaving him and his older brother to care for themselves.
He and his brother, a year older than him, “persevered and got through it,” Brown said. “But it was the hardest and darkest period of my life.”
Education became Brown’s salvation. Despite his family hardships he kept his grades up and excelled on the football field as a running back. However, with no money, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that he would go to college.
Continuing past high school became a real possibility when colleges started contacting him as a result of the successes in the classroom and on the football field. He came to see college as an opportunity to reinvent himself and escape the circumstances of his youth.
In an attempt to escape the realities of life Andrew left his hometown shortly after graduating from high school and never returned except for short visits.
For Brown, graduation from high school and the prospect of going away to college was a way to start over. One of the schools that contacted him was Syracuse University. Syracuse made it possible for him to attend despite his inability to pay for it. “I will forever remain indebted to Syracuse for that opportunity. It literally changed my life.”
Syracuse opened doors for Brown, presenting him with opportunities he had never thought possible, including the chance to live and study abroad in the Netherlands. Before that trip, he had never even been on a plane, let alone traveled out of the country.
When abroad, he traveled extensively throughout Europe for seven months. Since then, he has traveled extensively throughout many parts of the world. Exposure to different people and their cultures across the globe contributes to Brown’s broad acceptance and depth of tolerance and recognition of different viewpoints. “That has served me well in many ways over the years.”
It was a combination of that tolerance and a desire to assist people in difficult circumstances, much like those he experienced in his youth, that attracted Brown to the law.
“From my own family hardships and challenges, I knew there were many people who didn’t have a voice, and I thought the law would be an opportunity to help bring about change. I thought I knew what lawyers did and I viewed them as change agents. I thought the law was an admirable and noble profession and that I had talents and skills that would serve me well in the profession.”
After graduating from Syracuse, Brown went directly to law school at the University of Michigan.
“I’m able to sympathize with people on the fringe, the more vulnerable populations in our country, which really helps me to understand the plight of people on the unfortunate end of justice,” he continued. “Whether it is Black and Brown kids seeking educational opportunities, or LGBTQ rights or gender rights, people with mental illness, or the disabled, among others, I think I have a better understanding of their circumstances and the inequities they face. And I want to be somebody who speaks to those issues.”
Brown enjoyed his time at Ann Arbor and when he graduated, he had an interest in going to Washington D.C. to work on national policy. Instead, Brown accepted a position in private practice with Nixon Peabody. He worked in the firm’s New York City and Rochester offices. “For the first time I had a job that was paying me a decent buck and that was nice,” Brown explained. “But at some point, I know I wanted to do trial work and that is why I eventually left the firm.”
After four years with Nixon Peabody, Brown left the firm when one of the firm’s partners accepted a job as Monroe County attorney in a new county administration. Then in his late 20s, Brown started over again, as deputy county attorney. Brown took this position for the opportunity to do first-chair civil trial work. “It was there that I developed civil trial practice skills that most shaped my career as an attorney.”
Brown’s experience in the City of Rochester, which he still calls home, shaped the foundation of much of his adult life. It was there that he met his wife, Carole Bilson, who is now the president of the Design Management Institute and where the couple had their daughter, Alina, now 15 and known as “Ali.” It is also where Brown decided to eventually hang his own shingle, launching a firm with only his list of contacts and, as he recalled, “a cell phone and a legal pad.”
When it was time for his next move, he “turned down offers from larger firms to have a chance to choose his own clients without fear of conflicts,” Brown said. At that point “I had no clients, but 20 years later, the firm had developed a thriving practice with 15 attorneys and a wide range of clients, including some of the largest multinationals that enabled me to then be able to represent individuals who would never otherwise be able to afford us.”
Along the way, Brown took a short leave from the firm, Brown Hutchinson, to serve as corporation counsel and chief legal officer to the newly elected Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren, who had an upset primary victory over then-incumbent Mayor Tom Richards, also a friend of Brown’s from his years at Nixon Peabody. This paved the way for Warren to become the first woman and second African-American executive of the Flower City.
“I’ve always loved government and politics to this day,” Brown said. “I enjoyed working in the public sector. To be a public servant is the highest calling. And it’s nice to be on the front end of a new administration, which I’ve now done twice.”
Through his professional career, Brown also carried his abiding belief that education can serve as a path out of poverty and to success, especially for impoverished individuals of color, as he had been. It was what drove him to seek a seat on the Board of Regents, the state’s highest level education policymaking body, to which he was elected in 2012.
Brown was elevated to the post of vice chancellor in 2016, and then served as acting chancellor when his predecessor, Betty Rosa, resigned in the summer of 2020. Brown himself stepped down from the board this past January to focus on his future role as NYSBA president.
The coronavirus pandemic had a significant impact on Brown and his firm, causing him to temporarily put things “on hold” and close an office in New York City. He is now reevaluating in light of the new realities of the post pandemic world, which also has been reshaped as a result of the newly reinvigorated social justice movement.
“Over the past year, the world has changed and we’ve been pushed in ways we were slowly leaning more and more,” Brown said. “To talk about getting back to normal as being exactly how things were before the pandemic would be unfortunate. It’s a matter of looking for the new normal and the new order of things. As smart lawyers we should recognize that, and embrace it.”
Brown also plans to continue his focus on equity – he served over the past year as co-chair of NYSBA’s Task Force on Racial injustice and Police Reform – and plans to use that as a lens through which to seek improvements on a wide range of issues impacting the rights of many New Yorkers. As a Black man, he said, he has many times felt the weight of societal prejudices and injustice acutely and personally, and he’s determined to try to make an impact on those long-standing and deep-seated issues.
“I’ve been subjected to certain conditions that would not have happened if I were not Black. I know that for a fact,” Brown said. “Race and racism bear out in every major facet of American life. I want to be able to speak to that – not only from the vantage of race, but also on behalf of those other populations who suffer similar injustices. There is much work to be done.”