Women on the Leading Edge of Law
Growing up in Brookfield, with her extended family which included her mother, grandparents and a cousin, Hon. Judge Brittany Grayson admits that while she never lacked the basics, she didn’t have a lot of material things. She did, however, have a role model— particularly in her grandmother—who influenced her to work hard to secure the things she wanted.
“Growing up, I saw my grandmother as a strong, independent Black woman, so she was my closest role model as far as how I wanted to see myself as an adult. I didn’t know what my grandmother did for a living, but I knew she carried a briefcase. So as a child, I would imitate her—putting on heels and walking around the house with her briefcase. I remember thinking that one day I would become a doctor or a lawyer,” she said.
Brittany attended Catholic Memorial High School in Waukesha, where she excelled in track and field. As a hurdler, she went to the state championships for two years, and was undefeated in the high hurdle event during her last year of high school. She was chosen as the 2003 Wisconsin Track Coaches’ Association Female Athlete of the Year.
No doubt the discipline and tenacity required as a student athlete also played a role in her success as a student. Brittany attended Marquette University with the notion that she would pursue a career in business law.
“We were required to read a really thick business law book. I recall some of my classmates complaining about how thick the book was, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. After a conversation with my professor, I found myself drawn to the path of law as a realistic career option. I did get my undergraduate degree in business and thought I would work in that field. It was during this business law elective class that I decided to go to law school and potentially become a business lawyer,” she said.
Brittany is thankful for the help she received in studying and applying for law school.
“While I knew I wanted to study business law, I didn’t know the process for getting into law school. I’m grateful that I received a lot of help from a good friend, Sammi-Jo Nevin, who was a year older. She had gone through the process so she helped me with the logistics of applying to law school, introduced me to the LSAT and helped me study. We would go to the library and while she was doing her homework, she would time me as I practiced taking the LSAT. Those were the extraordinary kinds of things she did to help prepare me for law school and I’m so grateful,” said Brittany.
Throughout her time at Marquette University Law School, Brittany acknowledges that there were many other attorneys and judges who helped and influenced her; one that really stands out is retired Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske.
“Justice Geske taught mediation and restorative justice clinics at the law school and provided my first exposure to a world of law where the focus is bigger than prosecuting someone. She taught us how we can look at accountability differently and address the needs of both the offender and the victim. Talking with her and going through her clinics were remarkable and eye-opening experiences.
“As law students, we traveled to Green Bay Correctional Institute and worked with inmates for 2-1/2 days. Justice Geske taught me about the importance of remembering to humanize people. This experience didn’t change my view of the judicial system, but it put some puzzle pieces together for me. I attribute this experience and Justice Geske’s teachings to helping me become the kind of person I try to be in my role as a judge. She used her legal background to make a difference in that way,” she said.
Brittany also said that, while she has never met her, Michelle Obama is also a mentor.
“I admire her confidence, grace, demeanor, intelligence and beauty. You would never see her look anything but confident in public,” she said.
Key among the reasons why Brittany enjoyed being a prosecutor and why she likes being a judge is representation.
“It’s so important for children to see people in all walks of life who look like them, doing all kinds of jobs—whether serving as the President of the United States, as a judge or whatever. I enjoy talking to kids and going to schools to meet with them. I met some youth recently at the NAACP Freedom Fund dinner who were full of questions. They were so excited to see a young black judge. They were in awe of the fact that there is a Black person who looks like them doing this job. I enjoy being a resource to them. It’s one thing to say you attended law school, but it’s quite another to sit down with students and discuss the logistics of how you go about getting into law school. I see myself being both a source of representation and a role model,” she said.
Brittany believes that it’s important for the community and the people who come into the courtrooms to see people of color in power.
“People need to see someone who has the power to make decisions on their behalf in the courtroom. Even if it’s just the perception that they will receive a fairer shot by seeing me, that’s important. Individuals and families that come to support their relatives need to see that. I can be both a source of information and an inspiration to the kids,” she said.
Brittany also makes a conscious effort to practice empathy with everyone she encounters.
“I make it my task to practice empathy. Our judicial system is designed to dehumanize people; for example, cases are referred to as the State versus the person’s name or maybe just the case number. I challenge myself daily to use people’s names in my courtroom. Oftentimes, showing that level of respect can change the experience to a more positive one.
“Knowing that no matter what I do or what decision I render, someone is going to be unhappy, carries a lot of weight, so I try to find the most reasonable solution to problems. I did this even as a prosecutor. Some lawyers enjoy the back and forth banter, but I always preferred to just get to the most reasonable solution.”