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Successful lawyering in a diverse society

first_img“I could tell you that from the first moment I walked through the door I felt a warmness that I had never felt in my 12 years of practice,” Bethel said, adding that being a minority lawyer in a majority firm can be a lonely experience in that she never saw “another person who looked like me, who talked like me, who knew who Virgil Hawkins was, who knew what June-teenth Day is, who knew when Black History Month was.” At the AG’s office, Bethel said, “there was such a wonderful mix” of people including black and Hispanic lawyers, investigators, and support staff. Now when Greenberg Traurig recruits black lawyers, they have them meet with other black lawyers in the South Florida area, not just those from the firm, Alvarez said.“I think we have an interest greater than just Greenberg Traurig,” Alvarez said. “If we can get more African Americans into the community, it would help everybody.”Raul Arencibia, the immediate past chair of the Bar’s Equal Opportunities Law Section, said diversifying firms also is important because corporate America has already embraced diversity, and more and more corporations look at the diversity of law firms before awarding them business.“Companies such as Bell South, Ford, GM, the Teachers Insurance and Annuities Association — and I could go down the list — have begun giving legal work to law firms that have a commitment and plan for diversity,” Arencibia said.Arencibia also said demographers predict the groups that make up America’s minorities now will be the majority by 2050.“Those of you who have, basically, and I don’t want to say this with any negative connotation, have the reigns of power today may find that power disappearing by the year 2050,” Arencibia said. “We have to start looking at society and looking at ourselves as basically the browning of America.”Arencibia said as a nation we must begin to emphasize our similarities and downplay our differences.He said when he began practicing in Miami in the early ’80s, there were no mentoring opportunities for Hispanic lawyers.“I began working at a firm that was voted by American Lawyer as one of the top 20 small firms in the country and there was no program, no plan, no mentoring,” Arencibia said. “It was basically trying to recruit minority lawyers, but nothing was done to try to retain them.”That, he said, contributed to high turnover rates which cost the firms assets.“People are going to want to go to work and will feel that they can be successful in an environment where they see the others that have similarities like them,” Arencibia said. “If you don’t have those people on board or you have a few, you have to find a way to emphasize that positively and set out a plan for recruitment.”Bethel said when she began practicing in the mid-1980s she landed the “plush job in the all-white firm,” the job everyone was trying to get, the job that was supposed to be so great.“Funny, but once I got there it really was not so great at all,” Bethel said. “It was, in fact, a lonely environment.”Bethel said she was the third woman and only black lawyer at the firm, and she “floundered” despite doing all the firm asked her to do, like joining the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers, the local bars and the Executive Women of the Palm Beaches.“It seemed that everywhere I went, the firm was more interested in saying, `Here is our black lawyer,’ than they were in developing me or mentoring me,” Bethel said.Bethel said in 1989 she joined what was at the time another all-white firm, but this time with a “Jewish factor.”“I did not go where they went. I did not go to B’nai B’rith. I did not go to the clubs they were networking in, but I followed the old adage that my mother told me: `To my own self be true.’ And I began devoting my efforts toward groups and associations that I felt would develop me,” Bethel said, adding that she eventually became president of the Florida chapter of the National Bar Association and was on the board of all the black lawyers associations in Palm Beach, Dade, and Broward counties.“And what happened was I began to develop my network, and the firm began to see my worth as a lawyer,” Bethel said. “I began to bring in the kind of business that diversity will bring to your firm. I began to bring in black clients with money, and believe me this was a concept that many in the firm did not understand.”Bethel said becoming a diverse firm does not mean just hiring one minority or not telling racist jokes.“What it really means is respecting and valuing other people’s differences,” she said. “The bottom line is having a diverse practice makes you a better lawyer, and whether that is defined as better lawyering skills, more money in your pocket, or a more successful law firm, diversity will do that for you.”Alvarez said diversifying doesn’t mean lowering standards or setting quotas, it is understanding issues that are important to minorities in the workplace.“I have never looked for a perfect playing field because I know it does not exist and will never exist as far as I’m concerned,” Alvarez said, adding that field, however, is made a bit more level every time a minority lawyer makes a strong legal argument or presents a good idea to his or her firm. “I started to realize it is an issue of supply and demand and that we really needed to do more to get minority students through the system,” Alvarez said, adding that’s why he got behind the push to create new law schools at historically black Florida A&M University and South Florida’s Florida International University.“Florida is not a preferred place for African Americans,” Alvarez said. “I can tell you we have recruited, and they say, `I would be happy to go to your Atlanta office or your Washington, D.C., office, or New York or LA, but not Miami or South Florida.’”Part of that problem, according to Allison Bethel, director of civil rights for the Attorney General’s Office, is because minorities don’t feel very comfortable in firms where there are no other minorities.While a recent National Association for Law Placement study found 16.34 percent of partners at major Miami firms are women, and the city had the highest percentage of “partners of color” out of 28 cities surveyed across the nation (19.31 percent), most of Miami’s partners of color are Hispanic. A study by the Miami Chapter of the Black Lawyers Association found only nine black partners out of 1,466 lawyers it surveyed at 35 of Miami’s leading firms.Bethel, who has worked for a number of big South Florida firms, said she really never felt comfortable until she joined the AG’s office. Cesar Alvarez “Not only is it the right thing to do, from a business view point, but by getting people who appreciate change and diversity you are getting the best thinkers, and that is what you need to be successful in today’s environment,” said Cesar Alvarez, president and CEO of Greenberg Traurig. But finding minority lawyers to hire is not an easy task, especially in South Florida, Alvarez said. Alvarez was disappointed to find only about three percent of Greenberg Traurig’s lawyers were black until he learned that blacks make up only about two percent of The Florida Bar. August 1, 2001 Managing Editor Regular Newscenter_img Successful lawyering in a diverse societyMark D. Killian Managing Editor Recruiting minority lawyers is only the beginning of any diversification effort. Law firms also must mentor their minority lawyers in order to retain them and ingrain into them the firm’s culture.That was one of a number of messages passed on to those attending the Masters Seminar on Professionalism at the Bar’s recent Annual Meeting in Orlando. Panel participants also noted America is quickly becoming a more diverse society and law firms must reflect that diversity if they are going to continue to thrive. Allison Bethel Successful lawyering in a diverse societylast_img