Success Stories

Rhonda Joy McLean

Interview with Rhonda Joy McLean, Esq.

Associate General Counsel, Time Inc.

Friday, January 26, 2007

SR: Would you like to tell us anything about yourself that you would like us to know about what you do now, or how you got to do this or how you started off as a young person, what you wanted to be, or anyway you would like to start?

Rhonda: I grew up in a little tobacco town - Smithfield, North Carolina - where my parents were public school music teachers. It really was quite an experience that has informed my life in many ways. While I am a practicing attorney - this is my 22nd t year of legal practice - I’m also a performing musician - a mezzo soprano and classically trained pianist. I’m also very active in the public sector. I’m on several non-profit boards and am currently most proud of my position as Senior Vice Chair of the Board of Directors of the New York Women’s Foundation. We raise $2 million a year to grant awards to small, below the radar women-founded, women-led organizations that enhance the lives of low- income women and children in the five boroughs of New York City. In my day job, I’m currently the Associate General Counsel at Time Inc. and responsible for reviewing marketing materials and proposals from over 300 clients, the consumer marketing personnel here at Time. They develop nearly 8,000 marketing proposals each year that must be reviewed and cleared before they reach the marketplace in the U. S. and Canada.

SR: How did you originally develop your interest in law?

Rhonda: Through the back door. I grew up thinking that I would be a music therapist. I always thought my life would be in music, since my parents were public school music teachers and I grew up performing in my church, school and community. When I was in the eighth grade, 11 years after the United States Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board decision had been rendered, only after a number of lawsuits had been filed by the local NAACP were we given the option to integrate the public schools in North Carolina. My family and I discussed this concept and decided that I would integrate the high school in my town. Two of my girlfriends and I did this in 1965. I was 13 years old and they were 14. The four years of high school were very challenging and certainly helped to shape who I am today. Bad things happened, including threats of physical violence and harsh words spoken nearly every day, but I still feel that I had an amazing high school experience because most of the teachers went to exceeding limits to be fair. Eventually my mother joined me at Smithfield High School as the first African-American to teach there, and we were together throughout the rest of my high school years. Many of the Caucasian teachers and students were obviously trying to see how far can they go?” Well, we went as far as we could go because it’s all about studying and working hard.

So, when I graduated in 1969 at the age of 16, I received a four-year National Merit scholarship that would follow me anywhere. My father insisted that it be some place near a relative so I went to a little school, Aurora College in Aurora, Illinois because it was 30 minutes from my paternal grandmother’s home in Chicago.

At Aurora, most of us hadn’t seen much of the world so we didn’t know what was going on outside of our own experience. Once again I got very involved. I started out majoring in piano. But because it was at the crux of the women’s movement, the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, I came to the decision that I did not feel it would be politically useful to continue with a degree in the performing arts, as much as I loved them. I tried to major in music and psychology but the college officials would not let me, as the concept of a double major was unknown then. I was very active in politics. I ran for student government. You name it, I did it. I ran the women’s dorm. I became an activist student who lost some of my scholarship money because I took some politically unpopular positions, particularly in opposing the Vietnam War.

In my junior year a professor of Criminology, which was the first time I had ever heard that word, came up from Florida State University. I was majoring in psychology and trying to take courses in music, still trying to create this music therapy major, and many of my classmates and I shifted over to Criminology because it seemed so much more useful. There were people in prison. There were boys in reform school. It made more sense to me. It was a way I could be productive.

SR: And after college?

Rhonda: When I graduated I went back to North Carolina with my new degree in Criminology and ended up working at Head Start as a volunteer while I was waiting to get a job with the state as a Social Worker. I took the test. And before the results came back, the local Head Start program hired me to be a teacher’s aide. And that was the beginning of nearly a ten-year career. I went to Greensboro, North Carolina and spent a lot of time there, going to school at night and obtaining a Master’s Degree in Adult Education and Leadership Development. At Head Start, we were learning the federal and state laws and then working in a number of southeastern states to help grass roots leaders understand how they could obtain and manage federal funds to help improve their communities. We worked on all kinds of educational and community development projects. It was an amazing experience. We had what’s called a Laboratory school -- 60 pres-school children -- White, Black, and Native American in Greensboro, NC in a Presbyterian church. People came from all over the world to observe our Lab School because we experimenting with a very innovative concept- bringing curriculum ideas from the home into the schools, mainstreaming children with special disabilities, providing health services and involving parents in their children’s early learning experiences. All of that was happening at that time in the 70’s. My clients and mentors encouraged me to go to law school, as I was known for my advocacy interests and skills. It was just a great time. It was a time when government was really trying to help people as opposed to the other way around.

AR: More involved?

Rhonda: Yes. More involved. More money. More community, education and support. There were criteria for being eligible to become educated and then become involved in the process of changing the world, which is of course what we all thought we were going to do after we graduated from college. During that time, I met a great many lawyers. My executive director ran for City Council and was the first black woman to do so. She lost by a large margin, but I learned that there were lawyers involved in every step of that process. Every single decision that impacted whether or not she could be on the ballot: how people could vote, whether they could vote, where they could vote, etc. That’s when I started to think seriously - maybe I should just go to law school. And that’s really how I went.

SR: So how did you decide which law school to go to?

Rhonda: I knew very little about lawyers and law schools, so I interviewed two lawyers in my community and decided to apply to the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill based on their recommendations. I was accepted and received a scholarship, so off I went. At UNC, there had only been one black person on the Law Review that we knew about. So, I worked very hard, joined several study groups and made very good grades. I also became active with the Black student and women’s organizations. Things were moving forward but clearly there was something bigger, something more that might be possible for me. During the summer after my first year, I worked as a research assistant for a law school professor who was writing a book about Social Security. I also took two summer courses -- Professional Responsibility and Evidence. Both of my professors encouraged me to transfer to their respective law schools. I was not aware that transferring to another law school was possible, but considered it carefully and eventually applied to several schools. I was accepted at Yale Law School and transferred there in the fall of 1981. I really enjoyed my experiences at both of the law schools I attended and found my classes, professors and fellow students very intellectually stimulating. I am now the Chair of the Yale Law School Alumni Association, and mentor quite a few students. After I graduated from Yale in 1983 I clerked for the Honorable Anna Diggs Taylor, also a Yale Law School graduate and former Chief Judge of the Eastern District of Michigan, for two years. My federal court clerkship was a wonderful experience.

AR: Did you have an idea of what you wanted to do when you left that Clerking position?

Rhonda: I wanted to be Marian Wright Edelman - the founder and head of the Children’s Defense Fund (“CDF”). I clerked for her after my second year of law school. I went to work for her because she was a Yale Law School graduate, a Civil Rights lawyer; and her own woman. She was one of the first people who exposed the really abject poverty in Mississippi and advocated for equal treatment of and education for all children. So, I went to work for her. And I loved it. I learned so much! I also learned about clerkships from my fellow classmates and law professors, who encouraged me to apply. I did, and interviewed with several judges across the country. I was privileged to be hired by Judge Taylor. It was clearly the right thing for me at that time, and helped me expand my vision, my view, and my experience. I am certain that both my work at the CDF and my federal court clerkship with Judge Taylor helped to make me the person I am today.

I came to New York in 1985 to become a corporate litigator and joined a small law firm. Although I loved litigation at the beginning of my experience, I later came to understand that it was not for me and worked with the partners at my firm to find the best placement for someone with my diverse skill sets – administration, education, management and lawyering. I learned about Celia Paul’s organization from a partner at my firm and was encouraged to seek her out for assistance. Because of my eclectic interests and diverse work experience, I strongly considered leaving the practice of law and working in the foundation world. Celia and her team really helped me to find my way.


SR: What was your experience like working with Celia Paul Associates?

Rhonda: I was thrilled to find that Celia was not a lawyer, because I had been surrounded by them for several years and needed a fresh perspective. I had heard her speak at the New York City Bar Association, and felt that she could shine some light onto this murky area of my career planning and moving forward as a lawyer. Celia and her team ran a battery of tests. We also identified transferable skills, which I did with a counselor who had previously been a partner at a large firm. That session was galvanizing for me because when you’re forced to evaluate your own skills and you have to write them all down…well, I came up with what felt like a hundred. I felt so emboldened and empowered because I was looking at them and thinking “oh wow, look at all these things I know how to do”. What Celia did and continues to do is to help you think more creatively about the value of your work and life experiences and how you can transpose them into new and fulfilling careers. I worked with Celia and her team for several months and found all of their services to be quite helpful. Eventually I landed a position with the Federal Trade Commission as a staff attorney. I enjoyed this work and traveled across the country prosecuting individuals and companies engaging in deceptive or unfair business practices or antitrust law violations. Within a year I was promoted to be the Assistant Regional Director of that office. I supervised 30 attorneys, investigators and law students for nine years, providing services to people in four states and two territories. I was recruited from that job to this one. I’ve been at Time Inc. for seven years.

AR: How did you decide the Federal Trade Commission was a good fit for you at that time?

Rhonda: To be honest, I wasn’t sure. The offer from the FTC seemed like a good fit because it was part law, part education, part administration, part management. And it turns out that it was a wonderful move for me at that time.

SR: So how did the transition from the FTC to Time Inc. come about?

Rhonda: When I went to the FTC to work, there were two people in management in the regional office- the Regional Director and his assistant. They hired an attorney from the FTC headquarters in Washington to be the Assistant Regional Director and he eventually became my manager. We enjoyed working together, and stayed in touch after he left the government to enter the private sector. He and I worked on a number of City Bar Association committees together. Eventually he contacted me and asked if I would join him in establishing an in-house consumer marketing legal services team at Time Inc.

AR: What was the transition like when you came into an In-House position?

Rhonda: It was wonderful because the person who brought me in was the same person who had been my boss at the FTC 12 years before. He knew my work and my reputation, and we made a good legal team for our clients.

AR: And what was different about an In-house position and what you had done before?

Rhonda: I had had very few resources previously. I was used to repairing the computer myself, putting up the screen - you name it, I was used to doing it. I have really enjoyed having adequate resources to attack a problem. I think this job has been just the right fit for me at this time in my life.

SR: So talk a little about what it is you do at Time Inc.

Rhonda: There are three of us who do what I do here. We’re all former federal regulators and prosecutors. We are legal compliance officers. Our job is to screen anything that is generated by our consumer marketing personnel -- over 300 employees. Their mission is to sell all of the products this company creates. This company doesn’t just produce magazines. We publish more than 50 magazines in the US and Canada. We have two very successful book publishing businesses. We have more than 90 websites. We work very hard to make sure our clients’ work meets all of the Federal, state and local requirements. My job often is to say “no.” I don’t just say “no”. I try to always say “no, you can’t do that, but yes, you can do this.”

SR: So you need to be creative with solutions that will fly with the government?

Rhonda: Yes. Definitely. I’m a business partner with my clients. I’m a drafter. I’m a negotiator and an advocate. I’m also a diplomat. People are often not happy with what I have to say. I have to talk with attorneys from other companies because we’re negotiating partnerships, as this whole industry (publishing) is in the process of reinventing itself, so we’re doing things we’ve never done before. We’re trying retail partnerships. We’re selling magazines in stores, door to door, online, offline, via telemarketing, television, and radio. I have to think about all of that, and more.

SR: Do you supervise outside counsel?

Rhonda: Yes. We work with a number of outside law firms and have legislative counsel as well, because we need to know what’s happening in the legislatures. The laws are dynamic and we have to keep up with all of the changes that occur. I also need to know what’s happening in the Canadian provinces, so we work with outside counsel there, too.

AR: Do you feel like a lot of the skills that you possessed in other job functions have been transferred over to this in-house position?

Rhonda: I feel like everything I’ve ever done in my life has prepared me for this job, including the music.

SR: To what do you think you owe your success?

Rhonda: The first would have to be my family. They really are my rock. I had not two, but three grandmothers- my blood-line grandmothers, both of whom lived to see me graduate from law school. That’s a real blessing. The third grandmother is important because in the little town where we grew up, we didn’t have any other family members. There were just my parents, my little brother and me. A little lady down the street who was a school superintendent adopted our family. This woman became a third grandmother to me, and she taught me to read when I was three years old. The kind of intellectual nourishment she provided for me and my brother is what I try to give to other people, and why I believe mentoring is so important. I have a really strong family. We have family reunions every other year where we actually conduct workshops for each other on health, career development planning, and financial management. We encourage each other to move forward and try new things all the time.

SR: Is there something you would like to add for those people who are currently going through a career transition?

Rhonda: I would really say that there is no one way to do anything anymore. I really gave myself a lot of grief because you go to Yale and places like that and you kind of feel like if you don’t clerk for the Supreme Court or become President of the United States, you’re a failure. Well, of course that’s a crock. Just look at my life. There’s no one way to become successful. You shouldn’t chastise yourself for whatever struggles you undergo while you are figuring it out. Also, I think time is no longer our enemy. Lawyers used to feel that we either need to stay two years at a firm before you go or you’re going to be seen as a rolling stone. I think a lot of that thinking is gone. One of the bad things about that is that it’s gone because there’s a lot less loyalty on both sides (the employer and the employee). But what’s good about it is that you have more options. Now it means you have to know yourself really, really well which is why a service like Celia’s is so important.



back to Q&A Interviews