While Bryan Browns is a passionate and dedicated attorney, he can more aptly be described as a public servant.
Helping lead the nonprofit organization Legal Aid Society of Suffolk County, Browns sees his role as multi-fold. Unlike other lawyers, his job is not only to represent his clients in the court of law, but also to understand them, and in doing so, advance civil rights, preserve Americans’ right to an attorney and serve those in most-need. Browns is, quite literally, “the people’s lawyer.”
Browns’ journey to Long Island began in Canada. Born in Toronto and raised in Montreal, Browns spent his entire upbringing as a “neighbor to our north.” He attended college in Canada, securing his bachelor’s degree in English from the prestigious McGill University — one of Canada’s most well-known institutions of higher learning.
After graduation, Browns would experience a transformational period in his life, which was facilitated by travel. Living out of a backpack, Browns visited far-away places like Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Israel. Browns says that this was a profoundly impactful experience in his life, eye-opening in such a manner that it inspired his career in law.
Whether it was teaching English in South Korea or witnessing the depths of poverty in Sudan, Browns felt compelled to enter the field of law and become a voice for the voiceless in a unique way.
“When I traveled the world, I saw how the little guy was treated,” Browns says. “It sort of brought me back to my upbringing in Canada. When I was abroad, I saw those who have, and those who don’t have. It made me realize the sad fact that, oftentimes, those who don’t have just can’t get ahead. I think that these experiences are what inspired me to pursue my degree in law.”
Upon his return, Browns left Canada to pursue his law school ambitions. He attended the University of Detroit, Mercy School of Law. Throughout his three-year pursuit of his Juris Doctorate, he remained inspired by the same sense of mission that he had acquired through his earlier life experiences.
Upon graduation, he came to New York, passed the bar and tried his hand as a public defender. Browns joined Legal Aid of Suffolk County in 2004, and has remained with the organization ever since.
“When someone goes to law school, they’re essentially an open book,” he says. “So, in my case, I asked myself: Did I want to be a human rights lawyer? Or should I find another way to affect change? At the end of the day, all of the lessons about the Constitution and the rights of Americans made me realize the true impact of this document — as one of the greatest-ever contracts for human beings and human freedom.
“These days, the Constitution gets twisted and turned, but the area where it is in most need, and applied the most, is in criminal defense,” he continues. “I became somewhat addicted to defending human rights, which is what keeps me working at Legal Aid each and every day. Those who can not afford an attorney are those who are the most vulnerable to having their rights violated by the government.”
Browns quickly made a name for himself at Legal Aid, by positively impacting the lives of his clients and courtroom success. He spent 13 years as a trial attorney with the organization and was appointed as trial director in 2017. Not long thereafter, he was tapped to lead the department as chief legal operations officer, a title he retains today.
He says that being a Legal Aid attorney is more than just knowing the law, but listening to and learning about clients. Each and every person the organization serves has their own story, their own challenges and their own voice.
“First and foremost, my time at Legal Aid has allowed me to get to know my clients,” he says. “Over 18 years, I’ve gotten to know my clients, their lives and their struggles. While some may be on the wrong side of the law, it is important to learn how they got there. By listening to my clients and learning about the communities they come from, I was able to understand that the most important part of this job — and defending the Constitution — is who your client is and what their specific needs are. This is what I try to deliver.
“Over my career at Legal Aid, I’ve realized it’s not about my title, the victories or the losses,” he adds. “The best experience has been getting started on a road of getting to know the various communities of Suffolk County, where public defenders are most needed. It’s an ongoing process, of course, but learning that will never stop for me.”
Over the years, Browns’ role at Legal Aid has grown in size and scope. What has not changed, though, is his mission and the mission of the organization. His greatest priority remains to ensure that all have access to quality legal counsel. He takes this to heart.
While many call attorneys “advocates,” Browns’ actions embody the more literal definition of the word, by taking a public-facing role and speaking up about the importance of public defenders.
“When you are acting as a counselor or an advocate, your job is to listen first. Your job is not to think that just because you have a law degree, you are in the know or know what people want,” he says. “Too many lawyers think that they know what is best for their clients before they really get to know them. When a client comes to you, and they have committed a crime, it’s critical to deconstruct what happened, and what brought this human to this point.
“This is something that will never be in a book, a seminar or taught to you in law school classes,” he says. “Every day, people in our field need to take their preconceived notions or political persuasion and approach people with a blank page to find out how you can advocate for them. You have to be open-minded and know that you are not going to know the answers. You are going to have to work to find the answers on every case. There’s never a one-size-fits-all approach.”
Browns and his wife now call Westhampton home. Beginning their time on the East End in 2012, they fell in love with the area for the quality of life in the off-season, or more specifically, the fall, winter and spring.
“My office is in Riverhead, so it is really only about 20 minutes away,” he says. “I bought my home in 2014 and immediately fell in love with the winter. Living here I realized that I could have the most perfect life, with the great and friendly people in Westhampton whom we are lucky to call our neighbors.
“Westhampton is such a civilized town. I love going to Eckart’s and getting breakfast and coffee, especially in the winter — when there’s no one around,” he continues. “When I come home from work and get to Westhampton, I just feel like I am away from the world — away from New York, away from Long Island.”
Todd Shapiro is an award-winning publicist and associate publisher of Dan’s Papers.