Malissia Clinton: A First-Generation Lawyer’s Rise to GC at Aerospace Corp

IN NOVEMBER 2016, MALISSIA CLINTON, JD ’93, TOOK THE STAGE IN A HIGH SCHOOL AUDITORIUM IN MANHATTAN BEACH, CALIFORNIA, the community where she and her family have lived for more than a decade, to speak at a locally organized TEDx event. She could have focused on her impressive career in law and her rise to the top legal position at the nation’s premier center for space policy and strategy. Instead, her talk, which has been viewed some 4,500 times online, was a deeply personal account of the continuing challenges of racism in America.

The previous year, someone doused a car tire with gasoline, set it ablaze, and sent it crashing through the front door of her family’s home. Clinton was in Washington, D.C., on business at the time. Her husband, their three children, and their dog escaped unharmed, but their home incurred significant damage.

The Clintons were the only African-Americans living in the affluent neighborhood and could think of no other reason that they would have been targeted. But the community rallied around the family, with hundreds of people attending a candlelight vigil held a few nights later.

“The way I responded to the firebombing was very simple,” says Clinton. “I said our only response is to say ‘yes.’ Yes, when neighbors asked if they could organize a vigil. Yes, when the women in her book club begged her to stay in the community. And yes, when a year later a friend put her name forward for a TEDx talk.

“Sometimes you find out who you are and what you want to be by doing what you don’t want to do. You can’t just be a straight arrow hitting your mark every single time.”

––Malissia Clinton, JD ’93

“That talk was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” Clinton admits. Though not, she says, for the reason one might think. “It’s not because I was revealing private thoughts—that, frankly, I don’t have too much of a problem with.” The difficulty, she says, was formulating what she wanted to say—about the life she’d set out to lead and the challenges laid along her path. “I started with wanting to say something about my grandparents, who have both passed on. In the 60s, they too suffered a similar hate crime and I felt compelled to juxtapose their experience with ours 50 years later to provoke the question: Have things really gotten better?”

Clinton’s maternal grandparents, Roy and Malissia Cooksey, were formative figures who helped to raise her. Civil rights activists who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcom X, it was they who inspired her, at a very young age, to want to be a lawyer. “I’m told that from the age of three I started talking about it. Probably my first memory of wanting to pursue law as a profession was in middle school,” she says.

Clinton graduated from high school at the top of her class and attended Arizona State University on a full scholarship. There she majored in political science and interned as an analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency in Washington, D.C., for three consecutive summers.

In law school she was an editor of the Stanford Law Review, and as a third-year student she wrote an article in which she made the case that the U.S. immigration policy toward black Haitian refugees was discriminatory. She dedicated it to her parents and her grandparents “who instilled in me the courage and the conviction to challenge racial barriers.” Fellow Stanford Law alum Marissa Román Griffith, JD ’93, remembers Clinton (then Lennox) as “a calming presence” amid the maelstrom that was law school. “I always had great conversations with Malissia, and I always came away feeling good,” says Román Griffith, now a top entertainment attorney in Los Angeles who represents investors in major film and television financing deals.

Malissia Clinton: A First-Generation Lawyer’s Rise to GC at Aerospace Corp
Malissia Clinton at The Aerospace Corporation headquarters in El Segundo, California (photo by: Gregg Segal)

But Clinton remembers that time a bit differently. “The Rodney King police brutality incident happened while I was at school,” she says. “I remember how outraged the students felt. And for me, personally, the feeling was one of sadness, which, to this day, is my most palpable feeling whenever I see social injustice.”

Like many first-generation lawyers, Clinton says she didn’t really know what the profession was like until she got into law school. Once settled in at SLS, there commenced “a tug-of-war in my mind,” she says, between a primarily pro bono legal aid career or one that offered a comfortable living. “I was raised without a lot of money, so it was just really important that I have that stability and that self-sufficiency,” says Clinton.

After graduating, Clinton went to work at Tuttle & Taylor in Los Angeles as a litigator, but it wasn’t a good fit. “The thing I disliked most was how confrontational it was,” she says, but “sometimes you find out who you are and what you want to be by doing what you don’t want to do. You can’t just be a straight arrow hitting your mark every single time.” So, she joined the legal department at Northrop Grumman, working in the space technology sector.

“I was just cocky enough to think lawyers add value irrespective of industry, and I’ve had a crush on engineers ever since hanging out with them at Stanford,” she says. “I find them to be decent and smart with a laser-like focus on the mission.”

In 2009, she became in-house general counsel at The Aerospace Corporation. Headquartered in El Segundo, California, the nonprofit organization operates a federally funded research and development facility for the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center and the National Reconnaissance Office. There, technical specialists come up with novel solutions to pressing issues affecting national security and the civilian and commercial aerospace sectors. These include designing next-generation GPS satellites, protecting critical systems from emerging cyber threats, sensing and tracking space debris, and developing a means to safely disable commercial drones operating in restricted areas or being used for nefarious purposes.

“Nearly everything has a legal component. I’m there under privilege, advising on what’s within the realm of possibility and what can lead to trouble, always helping to reach the best decision.”

––Malissia Clinton, JD ’93

Clinton notes that the top-secret clearance she got as an undergraduate interning at the CIA has paid more dividends than she ever could have anticipated. As senior vice president, general counsel, and secretary, Clinton wears many hats. She manages the law department—with 15 direct reports made up of lawyers, paralegals, and admins. And she engages with the senior executives as they pursue corporate initiatives. “Nearly everything has a legal component,” says Clinton. “I’m there under privilege, advising on what’s within the realm of possibility and what can lead to trouble, always helping to reach the best decision.”

The other part of her job involves working with the board of trustees to help determine whom to bring on the board as well as to set the agenda items to be discussed at the board’s quarterly meetings.

Barbara Barrett, former U.S. ambassador to Finland, has worked with Clinton for nearly a decade as a member of the board and, currently, as its chair. In the course of her career, Barrett has been a member of more than 100 corporate and not-for-profit boards—among them the RAND Corporation, Sally Ride Science, the Lasker Foundation, the Smithsonian, the National Air and Space Museum, and the Mayo Clinic. “I’ve worked with some great general counsels,” she says, “but Malissia is the best I’ve ever worked with.”

For her part, Clinton says she likes the everyday creativity that’s required to work with people from different professional backgrounds toward a common goal. “When you think and act like a lawyer, and that’s all you know how to do, you tend to see all the things that can go wrong and to be overly conservative. But I try to keep an open mind and think about what’s possible,” she says.

Drawing strength from her faith and from her family, that outlook seems to permeate Clinton’s personal life as well, as the ultimately hopeful message of her TEDx talk attests. (Follow this link to Clinton’s TEDx talk.) SL

Greta Lorge is a freelance journalist based in the Bay Area.