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Trailblazing Change: Leadership Legacy, Resilience, Diversity, and the Art of Personal Branding with Ben Wilson

Trailblazing Change: Leadership Legacy, Resilience, Diversity, and the Art of Personal Branding with Ben Wilson
Trailblazing Change: Leadership Legacy, Resilience, Diversity, and the Art of Personal Branding with Ben Wilson

A.P. Tureaud. Donald Hollowell. Constance Baker Motley.

Those are just some of the Black men and women who have helped forge important change through the legal system in the U.S. Many people, however, aren’t aware of these pioneers and the impactful reach of their work to this day. That’s why my guest Ben Wilson often makes a point to “say their name” so that history doesn’t forget them. 

Ben is a trailblazer in environmental law who gives gratitude to the pioneers who paved the way and those who supported him on his career journey. Ben is fantastic. I was truly honored to have the opportunity to discuss his thoughts about the importance of being resilient, embracing lessons learned from failure, and how helping others as a career hallmark can take your branding beyond professional success.

In part one of our conversation on the Branding Room Only podcast, you’ll learn about how to build resilience and the impact it can have on your career and for the next generation. Ben will discuss how to be a trailblazer whose brand resonates and inspires others to follow.

1:55 – Ben’s definition of personal branding, three words he’d use to describe himself, and his favorite Jackie Robinson and Dr. King quotes and hype songs

10:15 – How growing up in Jackson, MS in the 1950s and 60s shaped Ben’s life and contributed to his admiration of lawyers (some of whom history has forgotten)

16:36 – What it was like growing up on a college campus and the fortunate circumstance that allowed him to go to prep school

20:29 – Why Ben chose to focus on environmental law, how he failed at first, and the lesson that failure provided him

27:47 – The importance of resiliency and knowing what to do to separate yourself so you’re ready when opportunity arrives

31:56 – A few of Ben’s cases that demonstrate the reach of environmental issues and how law can impact people’s lives

39:10 – Qualities that are essential to being a good leader in your organization

About Ben Wilson

Recognized by The Environmental Law Institute with its Environmental Achievement Award in October 2022, and The American Lawyer with its Lifetime Achievement Award in December 2021, Ben hails from Jackson, Mississippi. After graduating from Harvard Law School, Ben worked at the law firm of King & Spalding, focusing on litigation and tax matters. He joined the Civil Division of the United States Department of Justice in 1979. At the Justice Department, he gained substantial trial expertise in commercial litigation matters, appearing on behalf of the government in the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, the United States Court of Claims, and district courts throughout the U.S. While at the Justice Department, Ben received Special Achievement Awards in recognition of his performance in 1981 and 1982.

Before joining B&D, Ben was an associate at Rose, Schmidt, Chapman, Duff, and Hasley in 1983. In 1985, he became a partner in the firm, focusing on civil litigation. Ben joined B&D in 1986 and retired from the firm in December 2021 after serving multiple terms as Firmwide Managing Partner and as the firm’s first Chairman.

At B&D, Ben was lead counsel in numerous complex environmental litigation and regulatory matters for major consumer product corporations, retailers, oil and gas companies, municipalities, and developers. He served as the Court-Appointed Monitor for the Duke Energy coal ash spill remediation project and as Deputy Monitor for Emissions & Environmental in the Volkswagen AG emissions proceedings. He previously served as lead counsel at the largest chromium site in the United States. Ben also counseled clients on environmental justice representations and is a recognized leader on diversity and inclusion issues in the legal profession.

Ben represented a number of municipal government agencies on Clean Water Act enforcement, litigation, and project development matters, including the City of New Orleans, the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans, District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (DC Water), the Metropolitan Water District of Greater Chicago, the San Antonio Water System, and the Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority.

Sponsor for this episode

This episode is brought to you by PGE Consulting Group LLC.

PGE Consulting Group LLC is dedicated to providing a practical hybrid of professional development training and diversity solutions. From speaking to consulting to programming and more, all services and resources are carefully tailored for each partner. Paula Edgar’s distinct expertise helps engage attendees and create lasting change for her clients.

To learn more about Paula and her services, go to or contact her at [email protected], and follow Paula Edgar and the PGE Consulting Group LLC on LinkedIn.

Paula Edgar: Welcome to The Branding Room Only Podcast where we share career stories, strategies, and lessons learned on how industry leaders and influencers have built their personal brands. Now, let’s get started with the show.

In today’s episode, I had the privilege of sitting down for part one of my conversation with Ben Wilson, a towering figure in the legal profession, a trailblazer in environmental law, and a change agent for advancing diversity initiatives. Prepare to be inspired by Ben’s unwavering resilience, his profound impact on diversity and inclusion, and his reflections on how personal branding goes beyond professional success to how we make others feel.

I couldn’t help but feel so much joy during our conversation, especially when Ben shared how gratitude and helping others have been the cornerstone of his career. It’s really a great reminder that success is not just about reaching the top. It’s about how many people you bring along with you.

You’ll walk away from this episode with practical strategies on building resilience, the importance of mentorship, and how to create a personal brand that truly resonates. Be sure to check out the show notes for additional resources and a summary of our chat.

Hi everyone, it’s Paula Edgar, your host of Branding Room Only, where I’m so excited to talk to my guest today, Ben Wilson. He is a dynamo, but let me just get into the specifics.

He is a former chairman at Beveridge & Diamond. He is a trailblazing environmental litigator. He is a leader in so many different initiatives, and he is a staunch advocate for diversity and inclusion, amongst so many other things. Ben, welcome to The Branding Room.

Ben Wilson: Well, thank you, Paula. It’s a pleasure to the woman who made branding her brand.

Paula Edgar: I love it. I’m so excited. Okay, speaking of that, what does personal brand mean to you? How would you define it?

Ben Wilson: Well, I think a personal brand is not just what we think it is, if you will, it’s about how people see us. If you think about that great woman, Maya Angelou, she says, “People will forget what you say but they will never forget how you make them feel.”

I’d like to think our brand is how we make people feel. What happens is we’re not always aware of how we make them feel. Certainly, that’s part of branding. That’s not the whole thing but that’s how I see it.

Paula Edgar: I love that. I think it’s so true. There’s an emotional intelligence part of branding that is hard to put your finger on. But I think people know when it’s not theirs.

Ben Wilson: I think Maya Angelou understood people. I’ll follow her any day.

Paula Edgar: Agreed. Ben, how would you describe yourself in three words or short phrases?

Ben Wilson: Well, let me tell you how I would like to describe myself. I’m not sure how accurate these words are, but it would be relentless, resilient. I think resilience is the most important human quality. The other thing that I would like to be is impactful. Those are the three words that mean most to me now.

Paula Edgar: I love that. I love that. Okay, you’ve already quoted someone in the first three minutes that we’ve been talking, but do you have a favorite quote?

Ben Wilson: I do, and when we were together last year, you may recall I mentioned this, but my hero was Jackie Robinson. It’s March, which means baseball’s coming, and I know you’re a Brooklyn native. So the fact of the matter is Jackie said that life is unimportant except in the impact it has on the lives of others. Jackie Robinson had an impact, an enormous impact on America as we know it. So yes, that is the quote that inspires me, one of them anyway.

Paula Edgar: That resonated so deeply with me because I just thought about the impact that you have on people. I remember meeting you years ago and thinking to myself, “Who is this person?” Because I knew the experience, but I didn’t know the bio. Just even before I knew all the things you had done, you were such a kind person and made people feel welcomed and as if they belonged.

I think that is a skill that a lot of people think that they have [inaudible]. So I appreciate every single time I see you and the interactions, they feel so genuine. I think that’s really the word, though.

Ben Wilson: Well, thank you. I am very grateful to hear you say that. My mother would be glad to know that that might be the perception because she certainly raised us and wanted us to be that way with other people. That’s how we were raised in Sunday school growing up in the deep South. That’s really important to me.

By the way, I have one other quote and it’s from Dr. King. He said, “You don’t have to see the whole staircase to take the first step.” Of course, we all admire Martin Luther King Jr. for so many reasons, but that he was willing to act when the outcome was anything but clear, to me, he not only made that great statement, he walked the walk.

Paula Edgar: It’s true. This weekend I had the opportunity to watch the documentary, the docu-film on Shirley Chisholm on Netflix and I kept having that same thought too, that there’s something within some of leaders, some people, I think people generally, when you have values that align with your impact that you want to have and that you do things that you have no idea what the next step is going to be, but you know you got to keep going. Yeah.

Ben Wilson: Well, you know what I liked about that? I just saw it, believe it or not, last night, my wife and I watched the Shirley Chisholm documentary, but I was struck by the fact that she continued to do the right thing even when she was betrayed. There is something almost divine about that.

I guess we’re in the Advent season too, aren’t we? So there’s something divine, Christ-like really. Shirley Chisholm had that. Martin Luther King Jr. had that. How they could forgive those who had wronged them. You may recall there’s a scene when she visits Wallace in the hospital and her advisors tell her, “Don’t don’t do that.” That’s precisely what she chooses to do that was part of her faith, I think, and part of her makeup.

Paula Edgar: No, yes, absolutely. As someone who, I’m from Brooklyn as well, and my family’s from Barbados, just like Shirley Chisholm’s family as well, but to myself, I could feel those values that underlined that bedrock of how so many of us were raised in the things that she did and how she responded to the ways that which she was treated whether fair or not.

Okay, let me go on before we talk about every other movie that we’ve seen. Do you have a hype song? This is either a song that you use when you want to let people know that hey, Ben’s coming, or one where you’re having a tough day and you want to get yourself back up or they could be the same song or different, anything come to mind?

Ben Wilson: I have a lot of hype songs depending on the circumstance. You probably remember 30 years ago, there was a movie, Jason’s Lyric, and there was a group of Black men who sang the song, U Will Know was the name of that song. It was a coming-of-age movie and a coming-of-age song. Rachel was a little girl and she and I shared music, Rachel, my daughter. So I love that song and I know you’re a Beyonce fan.

Paula Edgar: I am.

Ben Wilson: I like My House. Let’s see, what else do I like? I like a lot of the HBCU college bands and some of their fight songs. I like the Grambling, I like Jackson State, of course, where I grew up. Again, I love the music, I love that power, that drive.

Paula Edgar: A little birdie told me that you like the blues, you like new jack swing, you like Sarah Vaughan. A little birdie told me that.

Ben Wilson: Yeah, so a little birdie’s right. I think Sarah Vaughan is the greatest singer there ever was. Do you know that at the Apollo Theater in 1943, she finished third in the Amateur Contest?

Paula Edgar: No.

Ben Wilson: But so did Luther Vandross finished third. It just goes to show people don’t know what they were listening to. One of the greatest male singers and one of the greatest female singers. Period.

Paula Edgar: I did not know that. Wow. The Apollo is a special place in my own personal history because I went to boarding school for high school, and I was one of 20 students of color at the school. The teacher who I had who was teaching us American history, he really wanted each of us to delve into our ancestry. So he really was supportive and he was a white man, he supported me, he said, “Why don’t you do something about something that is enriching to your culture?”

I was like, “I’ve never been to the Apollo Theater.” I went and I did my history paper on the Apollo Theater. When I went to visit, the person who did the tour, years later, I was on the junior board for the Apollo, he remembered me. He’s like, “You’re that girl who came from the boarding school.” I said, “How do you remember me?” It’s all this year that he was like, “I can count on one hand how many people came from boarding school.” [inaudible].

Ben Wilson: I bet. When did you go to school? Where was your school?

Paula Edgar: I went to Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts.

Ben Wilson: I know Deerfield, green and white.

Paula Edgar: Yes, exactly, that’s correct. Yes, love that as the connecting piece. Okay, so we’ve already started getting a little bit into this, but I want you to tell me, where did you grow up and how did it shape your brand?

Ben Wilson: Well, I grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, which is the Deep South in the 1950s and ’60s. I’m told that I was six weeks old and I was in a picnic basket at my mother’s feet when they drove south.

My parents didn’t have a green book, but my father had played sports in college so he knew where to stop in Nashville. He was in graduate school at Indiana University and so they stopped there and then they stopped in Memphis. Then they knew they weren’t going to be able to stop till they got to Jackson which was three and a half hours away.

But that’s really what formed my upbringing, Paula. When I was four years old, Emmett Till was killed for whistling at a white woman. That same summer, there was a guy named George Wesley in Humphrey who was murdered for registering to vote.

In Macomb, South of us, there was another fellow who was killed in broad daylight for that very act. When I was eight years old, there was a fellow who was pulled from the Pearl River County jail and lynched for a crime he did not commit.

When I was 11, not yet 12 in Birmingham, they sicked the dogs and the water hoses on those kids in the park in Birmingham. That summer, Medgar Evers was murdered in my hometown of Jackson. His killers would not be brought to justice for 31 years. That fall, before girls aged 11 to, I think, 14 were killed in the bombing of the church in Birmingham.

Then the following summer, the summer of my 13th year, James Chaney from Meridian and Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman from New York were found buried in an earthen dam. That was the deep south that I grew up in, but I was really inspired by lawyers, some of whom I came to know later.

There was Wiley Branton who represented the kids who integrated the schools in Little Rock at Central High School. There was A. P. Tureaud. He was the only Black lawyer in Louisiana for 13 years. He represented the little girl who integrated the schools in New Orleans.

You remember that famous Norman Rockwell painting? A little Black girl in a pristine white dress, books, and ruler in hand, and a racial epithet scrawled on the wall and a tomato on the ground.

To the east, we had Fred Gray at 24. He represented a 25-year-old new minister in town, Martin Luther King, Jr. To the east, in Atlanta, there was Donald Hollowell. He represented Charlayne Hunter-Gault, a journalist in Hamilton Holmes at the University of Georgia. They are escorted on the first day by this tall, dark handsome fellow, Vernon Jordan.

In Nashville, we had Z. Alexander Looby. He represented the students from Fisk who sat in at the lunch counters, who were part of the freedom writers. Among his clients was Mr. Good Trouble himself, John Lewis. Unless you think I’ve forgotten the women, there was a woman by the name of Constance Baker Motley.

I never met a woman with three names before. She represented James Meredith, who was integrating the University of Mississippi, and his then-wife was my student teacher in the seventh grade, sixth grade. I thought, Paula, she must be a physical giant, at least eight feet tall because she was doing what a man would not do.

But I was disappointed to find she was not eight feet tall. She was short. She was stout. She was brilliant. I learned an invaluable lesson, you don’t have to be a man, and you don’t have to be physically imposing to transform the world, and Constance Baker Motley, like those other lawyers I mentioned, they changed the world and they made it possible for me and you and others to have the opportunities we have today. They’re the ones who inspired me.

Paula Edgar: I mean, that timeline. Wow.

Ben Wilson: Well, you can see I’m trying to make a point in not forgetting those people. Wiley Branton was actually a friend I got to know later in life and he would always test me on my Black history. But he had a way of remembering these lawyers that history forgot, who changed the world.

There’s a guy named Arthur Shores, who even before Fred Gray in the ’40s and early ’50s was representing Black defendants in courts. There’s a guy named Scipio Spinks, who represented Black World War I veterans, who in a Tulsa-like race riot, defended themselves and were sentenced to hanging.

He was able to have several of those sentences commuted to life. Well, these were remarkable lawyers, not named Johnnie Cochran, who was remarkable, but almost a century earlier, doing remarkable things.

Paula Edgar: Well, I mean, what I love about that is something that I enjoy about when I go to the National Bar Association. Any of the events is that the NBA, for those of you who are listening who don’t know, not talking about basketball, talking about the National Bar Association, which is the largest coalition of Black Bar Associations internationally, there is a constant callback to leaders and to the folks who are the foundational folks.

Sometimes for me, I’m like, “Oh, okay, are we going to do this again?” I’m like, “No, it’s important to say their names and remember the people upon whose shoulders that we stand.” So, yeah, that was a good reminder that it’s important for us to remember who–

Ben Wilson: Oh, you’re so right, because there’s a reason BLM says, “Say their names.” We want to do the same thing with respect to the women and men who have opened the doors for us.

Paula Edgar: All right, so you told me a little bit about how you grew up and through all of the things that happened in that space. But tell me about your career. How did you take Ben from Mississippi to become Ben who we see right now?

Ben Wilson: You and I have something else in common. When I was 14, I went away to a prep school in Western Mass, a school called Wilbraham, which is home of Friendly Ice Cream.

Paula Edgar: I didn’t know about that. I love it.

Ben Wilson: There were occasions when we played and beat Deerfield, that was always the biggest win. What happened was there was a woman who taught English at Jackson State where my parents were professors.

She went to Stratford, Connecticut for the Shakespeare plays. There’s a festival there every year, Stratford-on-Avon. She sat next to the Dean of Admissions at my school. This was 1964, ’65. He said they want to integrate the school. Little did he know there had been Black students at the school from the 1840s, but they had segregated in the ’40s, resegregated, if you will.

She said, “I know just the little boy,” and I took a battery of tests and, apparently, did well. My father looked over the proctor’s shoulder and said, “How’s he doing?” Proctor said, “Well, so far he’s got them all right.” The problem was the tuition was $2,700.

With a PhD, my father made $8,400. My mother had a master’s degree, she made $4,200. I had three younger brothers. I wasn’t going anywhere, Paula, but then divine intervention. There’s a young person who could not get a visa so they could study. I got a partial scholarship and I had jobs. That started me going away to that school and my brothers, later sisters all followed and we all ended up going to school in New England.

That was a start. I grew up on a college campus. I was at Jackson State, I was in a program called the College Readiness Program. I was going to ninth grade. These other young people were going to college that next year. But one of the professors had graduated from Fisk at 16. He was a Chaucer expert, and he brought in these professors from all across the country, and I was exposed to them.

What I remembered about this gentleman was he was so encouraging to me. He saw, somehow, some value in me and he didn’t tamp it down. He didn’t belittle it. He encouraged it. He grew it. I’m grateful to him and so many others.

I learned about music on that campus but our band director at the college had played with Cab Calloway. He knew something about music. Again, there was just an exposure that a lot of people were not expecting, but I’m very grateful, very grateful for.

My mother wanted a minister, and Paula, I didn’t think I was an exemplar. I always thought the minister or the minister’s kids had to be perfect, and I was the opposite of perfect. But I was argumentative. I like to write. I like history. I like telling stories. A lot of litigating has to do with telling a powerful story, a compelling story that gets the judge’s or the juror’s attention. Over the course of time, I learned how to do it.

Paula Edgar: Yeah. Yes. Was there a reason why you specifically chose environmental law?

Ben Wilson: Yes, and that’s because that was the place that gave me a chance. Listen, when I graduated from law school, I started a firm called King & Spalding. Griffin Bell, who was the Attorney General of the United States, would become the Attorney General. Jimmy Carter was there. There was a guy named Charles Kirbo, who was President Carter’s advisor.

There was a guy named Jack Watson, who was Secretary to the Cabinet. It was a heady time. I remember seeing Vernon Jordan come to our offices the day after the election and a number of other notables visiting.

But I failed at that first one. I remember the first brief I wrote, there was more red ink, redder than those glasses you’re wearing. They probably corrected the spelling of my name, Paula, as far as I know.

Paula Edgar: Oh, wow.

Ben Wilson: So I was sent to tax, which for me was a little bit like going to Siberia. It was not what I wanted to do. But I did something that I often do. If I don’t know anything about a subject, I try to write about it. So I published six articles on tax issues, including one that talked about the tax-exempt status of private schools in the deep south at the time, rather than integrate, they were forming these private schools and I argue that those schools should not receive a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status if their purpose was to obviate the 14th amendment.

It’s a cover story on the Georgia State Bar General and Taxes, the Tax Magazine, and my writing improved. I learned how to use The Bluebook, learned how to cite [inaudible] with great precision.

But the truth of the matter is, have you ever seen those people that look great in their uniform but they can’t do anything? I looked great in my uniform, but I couldn’t do anything.

My wife and I, through the grace of a good friend, decided to wade into the DC bar so we didn’t have to take the exam. I joined the Department of Justice. I might have joined another firm in private practice, but I just couldn’t afford to go another three years and not know how to do anything in my opinion.

At the Department of Justice, I knew they would put me in the deep water, and I would either swim or drown. I cannot say that what I did was swim, Paula, but I did not drown, proof of that being that I’m here. So I learned how to write persuasively, and I wanted to dribble with my head up like Stephen Curry. I wanted to play the music without the music like [Graham Lewis]. I wanted that facility.

In those three and a half years, I learned how to do that with respect to the practice of law so that when I came out, I had a vision. I could pay attention to the other things that were happening around me because I developed these skills and I’m grateful for that.

Paula Edgar: Whenever I hear someone share about a failure, it’s such an important piece, I think for all of us to be able to learn from in that sometimes when you’re in the failing, it feels like there’s no coming out of it. Being able to look back on what that failure gave you the opportunity to do, learn, grow from, et cetera, is such a blessing that I always want people to pause to hear, yes, I had this terrible thing happen, but this is how I came from it and this is what I learned from it.

What was a lesson that you specifically can think of from that first failure at the law firm, what did that give to you?

Ben Wilson: Well, it gave me drive. It gave me a zeal that I’m not certain I really had. You see, a lot of people want to succeed at something, but they really aren’t willing to make the sacrifice. When I meet young people today, Paula, I make them spell the word hungry, and they spell it H-U-N-G-R-Y. Then I ask them to pronounce H-O-N-G-R-E-E-E-E-E.

If they’re from South of the Mason Dixon, they say, “Hongry.” Even if they’re from the North, even if they’re from Brooklyn and they mispronounce it, I then asked them, “What’s the difference “between Hongry and Hungry?” they will say, “It’s a degree.” I said, “You got that right.”

“Hungry” means you have soup and salad and you’re fine. “Hongry” means that table’s laid and light, Bobby and Whitney, and there’s still not enough food. So I had to have that thirst that would not be satisfying. I had to have that drive that would not be stopped. I had to have this resilience. It’s a muscle that you develop. The ability to bounce back from a setback.

Then it tests your faith. What do you really believe? Again, this is the time of Easter, but do we really believe in the resurrection? Do we really believe that if someone touches the hem of your garment, you’ll be able? Do you really believe a blind man can see, a lame man can walk?

If you believe those things, then you can believe some kid who should have worked a lot harder could succeed. I was intent on proving myself and I was grateful because so many times, people of color don’t get a second chance. When we fail, we are written off.

Respectfully, Paula, there are people that I knew who wrote me off. I don’t know how it goes with your other guests, most people will tell you their whole lives were straight up incline. I wasn’t like that. But I try to use that as fuel to get myself fired up.

I believe that when we encounter failure, when we encounter setbacks, the greater the loss, the greater the victory, the greater the challenge, the greater the victory. That’s what I believe.

There’s a scripture in 2 Corinthians 4th chapter, 8th and 9th verses, and they talk about crushed but not broken. So I was crushed, but I wasn’t broken. Fortunately, God gave me another opportunity.

Paula Edgar: Well, and thank goodness. I’m sure there are going to be a lot of people who know you who listen to the podcast, but for anybody who doesn’t, and I hope that a lot of people get to hear so much more about you, you are the uncle to Russell Wilson, I can tell.

Ben Wilson: Yes, I am.

Paula Edgar: I understand that there’s a quote of his that you often will quote as well that I think aligns perfectly with what we’re talking about and that resilience piece and knowing what to do to separate yourself. Do you want to share that quote?

Ben Wilson: Well, there are a lot of them, but one is “The separation is in the preparation.” But really, my father and mother who raised my brothers and I and sisters, this was the attitude that he brought to us.

I know my brother and his wife taught these same principles to Russell. We really do believe that, and the whole point was to be ready. Listen, when I grew up in a segregated society, remember I made the reference to Dr. King, you don’t have to see the whole staircase to take the first step? Our parents had no idea that these universities would be open to us.

Perhaps school, boarding school, that wasn’t a possibility. It wasn’t even on the horizon. Yet they made every sacrifice. I love my parents, but they weren’t alone. There were other parents making similar sacrifices, whether they were from Barbados, Mississippi, Chicago, or New York, it really doesn’t matter.

They all had the same dream, a variation on the same dream. They wanted to make it themselves, but if they couldn’t, one of their children and their grandchildren to make it. So they prepared us. Sam Cooke wrote that song A Change Is Gonna Come. When he wrote it, he was frustrated because Bob Dylan had written Blowin’ In The Wind, and he said, “I should have written that song.” Meaningful song.

So he writes A Change Is Gonna Come. I believe our people, my people, your people, they knew a change was going to come. They didn’t know when. But they wanted us to be ready when the change came. That’s why they were sticklers for the King’s English.

That’s why they wanted us to write and spell correctly. That’s why they were concerned about our grooming and how we presented ourselves, putting our best foot forward, because they knew when the change came, we want to get through that door, burst through that door, and of course, hopefully, hold it open for others. That’s what that’s about in my opinion.

Paula Edgar: It’s so true. My mother would say when I was growing up, “You can be the wind or you can be the leaf.” Essentially saying things are going to happen to you and hopefully, it’ll get you where you want to be but once you make the decision, like what you’re saying about being resilient and having that good drive and that grit, it changes your whole trajectory.

I took that as my core value, like, “Okay, I’m going to decide,” and my business tagline then became “Engage Your Hustle,” which for me, this means not like work yourself to death, it’s not that, but it’s to understand that whatever that baseline standard is that you have, what else are you going to do? Is there something else that you’re going to strive towards?

Because personal branding, the reason why I love doing this podcast and why branding is so important to me, is that baseline, is that being ready, is that speaking the King’s English. It’s the showing up in a way where people are ready to experience you, whether they call that branding or not. It’s that. It’s understanding that how you show up, people are going to make judgments because of that. Things that we can’t change and things that we can, and how do you navigate that in the world based on what you got and then what you want to get to get to your vision, whatever that is.

I love the overlapping of all of that. That was great. That was great. I have another question for you. Can you tell me about a pivotal moment in your career having to do with environmental law, particularly a case that you find was one that was instrumental or indicative of something that you’re really proud of in your career?

Ben Wilson: Well, there are several. Let me start with the most recent. The most recent involved Dieselgate, the Volkswagen scandal. Volkswagen was cheating on its emission standards. It was the largest case of its kind. They ended up settling, making payments of $4.3 billion to the United States government. They’ve been involved in litigation in countries all around the world as a result of that.

My friend, Larry Thompson, I was at King & Spalding. He came about eight months later. He was like a big brother to me. He’d had a life before law school. Larry was named the monitor. Once he understood this was an environmental fraud, not securities, not banking, environmental fraud, he called on me because my firm was the oldest and largest environmental law firm in the United States.

We’ve been started by Will Ruckelshaus, the first head of EPA. Henry Diamond, who was the New York States, he was the head of their Department of Environment and Conservation, there was a DEC in New York before there was an EPA in Washington.

So our firm was made for that case. We had as many as 25 people working around the clock on that case, from my firm alone, over 100 working on that for four years. I was in Sao Paulo. I didn’t realize it’s twice the size in New York, twice the population. Mexico City, three times the population. Brussels, Frankfurt, Munich, Moscow.

Paula Edgar: All of that population?

Ben Wilson: China, all over the world in that case because their facilities were all over the world. What we had to do was to change the culture of the company. But one of our obligations was not only to make certain they didn’t commit that particular wrongdoing again but was to prevent and detect environmental issues into the future.

We had to anticipate what might they do in the future? One of the things we looked at was electric vehicles. Seems common today, but seven years ago, they were really manufacturing them in earnest.

The idea is, “Well, what happens to the batteries at the end of their life? Do you dispose of them in some poor neighborhood in some poor country? What are the materials that you need for batteries?”

They’re cobalt, they’re lithium. They come disproportionately from the Republic of the Congo, one of the most repressive regimes in the world. The point was to make certain they were thinking about these issues. In the course of changing themselves, they were not making the world worse elsewhere.

For me, that was an amazing case. Germany is the third largest economy in the world. Automobile manufacturing industry is the number one industry in that economy. Volkswagen is the number one company in that economy.

Another case I had involved, Duke Energy. When you burn coal, what’s left is coal ash. It got into a river, Paula, that separates Virginia from North Carolina called the Eden River, like the Garden of Eden. They had to clean up ash at five sites. I was a monitor for that for five years.

It so happened that this spill occurred on Super Bowl Sunday, the one that Russell and the Seahawks won in New Jersey. No one was paying attention. Everyone was watching the Super Bowl. But I had the privilege of working with other talented people from my firm. Again, I think we helped change the culture of another great company in Duke.

Another case, a relationship that’s meant everything to me, I represent the Sewerage & Water Board of New Orleans in the city on its environmental issues. When Katrina came, we were without drinking water. We could not manage our [inaudible] water.

Believe it or not, we can live without food, we can live without television, we can live without our phone, but we cannot live without clean drinking water. Katrina taught us that.

Again, some extremely dedicated people in New Orleans, my client in particular. Marcia St. Martin, I’ll never forget how hard she and her team worked, but we brought drinking water back in six weeks, not six months. You think about the last time you visited New Orleans, that wonderful dinner you had, the drinks that you had, they can’t prepare that without water.

So, for me, that was a stirring example of how the law can impact people’s lives. Those are three environmental cases. I had another case where I represented a deaf woman and her poor children. The father and mother were students at Gallaudet University.

Gallaudet is the national school for the deaf. The father got into a disagreement with the professor. The professor called campus police officers and he was attacked first by two, four, six, and then eight officers who took him to the ground and choked him to death. I was able to resolve that case in a manner that I think allowed his widow and his children to have the life they were hoping to have had their father live now. You lose someone that you loved, money could never replace them. So please don’t misinterpret what I’m saying.

But I felt gratification in helping ensure that this man’s dream for his wife and for his children was maintained. I love the law. I was a two-time co-chair of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. Other great lawyers. We handled housing cases.

That group represented the Black Secret Service agents who were not served at Denny’s. Remember, they were protecting President Clinton, but there are a myriad of cases, prison cases, prison rights, housing cases, education cases, and the work of the Lawyers Committee was very important. I was very proud to be a part of that.

Paula Edgar: Wow. Speaking of impact, I mean, certainly, right? Just in the short snippets that you gave, the impact is clear, and I know that that is not the full breadth of what you have done and how you’ve been impactful. In fact, one of the other things I want to talk to you about in terms of your career is your leadership.

You’ve served in a lot of leadership roles, and you continue to serve in a lot of leadership roles, including being the chairperson of Beveridge & Diamond and serving on several boards. What do you think are leadership qualities that are essential to be a good leader?

Ben Wilson: Well, first, I think it starts with being a good listener and making certain that you understand what the challenges are. I became the managing partner of my law firm at the end of 2008.

Remember that was a tough economic time and very difficult. I had never managed anything before and I had to learn. Fortunately, at my firm, we had some outstanding women who were our CFO, our Chief Administrative Officer. They weren’t lawyers, but I was wise enough to listen to them about things that they knew far more about than I.

My predecessors were also helpful to me. But we had to figure out what to do. I’ll never forget the first thing we wanted to do was to reduce our costs. But you can’t cut your way to prosperity. So we also had to spend money on going out and meeting and developing clients.

A leader inspires others and helps his or her organization to differentiate itself. We wanted to deliver an uncommon level of service. My grandmother would say, “We don’t need to go out to dinner. Is their chicken better than mine?” “No grandma, it’s not better than yours. Better not be.” Her point was why go somewhere else if you can get it home?

But what we needed to do was our competitor wasn’t just another very good law firm, it was very able in-house lawyer who can do it for herself or himself. So it was important that we command prominence in the environmental field, by the various groups that evaluate you, Chambers and Forbes, and U.S. News & World Report. But we also needed actually be that, not simply have a badge attached to our jacket.

We need to understand the business of our clients. We also needed to make certain we were delivering value. I think we always were, but I’d like to think we placed a great emphasis on it.

I think that’s really important. But I think understanding what is it that makes your business or your organization special. Then getting people to understand that it’s never about what the leader alone does. It’s what we as a group do. Once we understood that, it matters. I think you have to be transparent.

This is where we are. This is where we need to go. Some people are afraid of the truth. Like the fellow said in another movie that you and I like, “You can’t handle the truth.” But I believe people can handle the truth. So I do believe in being transparent, particularly in a crisis.

Then once you’ve made a call, once you’ve made a determination, then stick with that. You can’t move back and forth like a leaf in the wind but you have to stay in your ground. I think these are all important things. Then I think humility is another underrated quality.

That’s the ability to say to others, “I don’t know the answer. What do you think?” Or, “I’m uncertain, what do you think?” I’ve always tried to do that. Then I think the last and not least is to be clear, “What is our goal? What is it that we are really trying to do?” Once we can agree upon that goal, then there really is no limit to what we can do.

I used to sign all my memos when I chaired our firm and I retired at the end of 2021, “Together we can do great things.” I believe that. It’s never about one person. It’s really about what the team does.

Paula Edgar: Yeah, you can’t lead with no followers, but everybody’s a leader whatever their part is, everybody can lead. So I love that.

Ooh, wasn’t that great? As we conclude part one of my delightful conversation with Ben Wilson in The Branding Room, I’m reminded that the power of resilience, the art of personal branding, and the deep impact one can have on so many lives.

Ben’s journey offers a blueprint for making meaningful change and underscores the importance of mentorship and giving back. I really hope today’s episode leaves you inspired and eager to hear more insights from Ben. Stay tuned for part two of our conversation where we will delve deeper into Ben’s professional contributions, his leadership philosophy, and actual advice that he has for inspiring leaders.

Thank you for joining us today. Don’t forget to subscribe to The Branding Room Only Podcast on all platforms and tell a friend. Also, make sure you go to the show notes to get all of the resources, quotes, and anything else Ben referred to in our conversation. See you next week for part two.