Prominent attorney Michele Roberts has spent most of her career working on high-stakes criminal and corporate cases. Now executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, she uses her defensive skills to protect the rights of 400-plus pro ballers. Roberts, 59, talked to Real Simple about courting change, being decisive, and realizing that other people's biases are their problems, not yours.

By Jane Porter
Updated February 10, 2016
Jennifer S. Altman/Getty Images

Tell us about your childhood.
I grew up in New York, in the South Bronx. My father left a couple of years after I was born, and my four siblings and I were raised by my mom. We were raised on public assistance, and my mom would work multiple jobs. When I was 13, she discovered a program for so-called disadvantaged youth, and I ended up going to a boarding school for three years, then went off to Wellesley.

What drew you to law school?
When I was in second or third grade, we started going to the court building not far from our apartment to watch trials. I understood very little of what I was seeing, but I did decide I wanted to be a public defender.

You did that for a long time. How was it?
When you lose a case, it means somebody is going to do a good chunk of time incarcerated. You have to compartmentalize in a way that's very challenging. I won most of my cases, but you don't remember the ones you win. You remember the ones you lose. When I saw families completely devastated by convictions, even with confidence that I had done the best I could, it was still hard to watch. At some point, I decided to do something different.

You went into private practice, then corporate law, then to the NBA. What does your position entail?
Among other things, it involves improving working conditions and making sure that the players view the union as a place they can go for help.

How did you transition into the job?
I was elected by a committee of 36 players, but I've got 400-plus players in my union. I'm not a fan of travel, but I did a lot of it, met the players, spoke with them. I wanted to introduce myself to my new bosses.

Are you a sports fan?
I've been a fan of basketball all my life.

Tell us your thoughts on leadership.
I quibble with the idea of leadership as a solo act. I have a collaborative management style. But I tend to be fairly decisive. When I've made a decision, I don't allow much second-guessing, by me or by other people. We have too much to do.

What's your advice regarding failure?
You have to know that it's part of being alive. You're not going to win every case. You're not going to close every deal. But the way you can get up and brush yourself off is to know that nothing about your preparation or your performance was the reason for it.

You've worked in male-dominated fields your entire career.
As a young lawyer, I was always very sensitive in thinking that I had to strategize around the fact that I was a woman or that I was African-American. But at some point I decided it was not my problem. If it was a problem, it was someone else's problem, and they would have to get over it. You'd be surprised how liberating it is when you realize it's not your problem.

What does balance mean to you?
Work balance is an individual issue, and we can't try to figure out some formula that's going to work for every woman. For me, not having children was a deliberate decision. If I was going to have children, I was going to give them all the attention in the world, which was going to mean I couldn't give my work as much time. I love my work. I didn't know my kids, because I didn't have any yet, so I chose the work.

Any wisdom for those just starting out?
Young people suffer with the notion that "whatever I decide I'm going to do with my life today is going to be how I live my life forever." I used to think that, too. I'm glad that I was wrong about that.

Do you have time to exercise?
I work out nearly every day. I roll out of bed, check my e-mail, check the stories I need to check, and then roll on down to the fitness center in my building.

Do you cook?
I don't cook. The beauty of living in New York is that I get great food delivered or I eat out.

Parting advice?
Don't second-guess what your instincts tell you. We overestimate how much power other people have over our lives and our destiny, and we underestimate how much power we have.