Holly Skolnick, prominent Greenberg Traurig attorney, dies

During a quarter-century at the prestigious Miami-based law firm Greenberg Traurig, attorney Holly R. Skolnick defended high-profile white-collar defendants accused of money laundering, racketeering and securities fraud, but her heart was with the abused and exploited who couldn’t afford a lawyer.

“Her passion was for providing justice to those who otherwise would not served,’’ said Hilarie Bass, the firm’s co-president. “Immigrants, victims of domestic violence...Whenever there was somebody who was the victim of some form of injustice, she’d try hard to make sure they got the assistance they needed.’’

So consuming was that passion that Skolnick led the firm’s pro bono efforts and created the Greenberg Traurig Fellowship Foundation: a partnership with the nonprofit Equal Justice Works that pairs law students and lawyers with underserved communities and causes.

“She personally interviewed applicants every year and became directly involved in their work,’’ said Bass.

The venture, which Skolnick launched in 1999, has since sponsored nearly 100 fellows and will soon add her name to its title, to honor her memory.

Holly Robin Skolnick, born May 7, 1954, in the Bronx, died Sunday at Mount Sinai Medical Center. Richard Strafer, the federal appellate lawyer to whom she’d been married since 1980, said she succumbed to melanoma.

She was 59, an avid cyclist and hiker who lived in downtown Miami, collected photography, and loved to travel.

Skolnick held degrees from the University of Wisconsin/Madison, 1976, and Harvard University Law School, 1980.

She joined Greenberg Traurig in 1988 after serving as a federal public defender in Washington, D.C., and clerking for federal judge Eugene Spellman, and became a shareholder in 1993.

She was past chairwoman of the firm’s Securities Litigation Practice Group in the Miami office, and has been listed in The Best Lawyers in America, Criminal Defense: White Collar; Litigation,” since 2005.

In her last years, she “worked with clients on internal investigation matters,’’ Bass said.

Famed criminal defense lawyer Roy Black, with whom she worked on the successful defense of William Kennedy Smith in a sensational 1991 rape case, nicknamed her “The Pen,’’ for her skillful writing.

“She put together brilliant pleadings that were much more articulate and persuasive than I could have done,’’ said Black.

Last year she told colleagues during Pro Bono Week: “In our current economic climate, lawyers cannot neglect their duty to their communities. The private sector must partner with social service organizations, engage its attorneys and staff, and work together to make a difference for those who cannot afford legal services.”

Among Skolnick’s best-known pro bono clients: Sonia “Sunny’’ Jacobs, convicted in the 1976 fatal shooting of Florida Highway Patrol trooper Philip A. Black and a Canadian police colleague in Pompano Beach.

Jacobs was sentenced to death alongside common-law husband Jesse Tafero, who died in Florida’s notorious “Old Sparky’’ electric chair in May 1990.

(In a gruesome complication, an artificial sponge on his head caught fire, which led the state to replace the chair with lethal injection).

But Skolnick and her colleagues fought to have Jacobs’ conviction overturned, and 1992 the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta ordered a new trial. Jacobs went free after pleading to a reduced charge.

A 1996 made-for-TV movie about the case, “In the Blink of an Eye,” portrayed Skolnick as crusading lawyer “Holly Richards,’’ using her first name and that of her husband, who worked on the appeal.

The case also inspired an Off-Broadway play, “The Exonerated,” which was produced across the country and ran on Court TV in 2005.

Skolnick firmly believed in her clients’ innocence and told The New York Times that her decision to take a guilty plea to second-degree murder wasn’t easy.

“She still has second thoughts about it because she wanted to be exonerated,” Skolnick said. “How can you argue with freedom?”

Skolnick “devoted in excess of 350 hours’’ to the case, the Florida Bar News reported in 2000. “Largely as a result of the firm’s involvement in this case, Greenberg Traurig received the Chief Justice’s Law Firm Commendation.’’

Skolnick handled many cases for what used to be called the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, now Americans for Immigrant Justice, where she sat on the board of directors.

Among them: the case of an enslaved 25-year-old woman whose wealthy South Florida captors brought her from India to care for their children. Skolnick won her $75,000 in back pay.

She also represented 12 Mexican girls brought to Florida as sex slaves, working with the federal government in 1999 to secure permanent legal residency.

Cheryl Little, Americans for Immigrant Justice’s executive director, called Skolnick “a true champion for immigrants’ rights’’ in a statement.

“Holly was generous with her time, an active and involved president of the board, loved and respected by all those who knew her,” Little wrote. “It was under her leadership that we expanded to a nationally recognized advocacy center for immigrants, victims of domestic abuse, and women and children sold into slavery.”

Skolnick’s commitment to the downtrodden evolved from her work organizing low-income public housing tenants in Madison, said her husband, who met her during the project, which he headed.

“We were very idealistic young people who wanted to make society better,’’ he said.

Had Greenberg Traurig not given her the chance to do that as part of her job, “she would never have stayed at a big firm,’’ he added.

Skolnick was part of the Greenberg Traurig team representing TD Bank in a civil suit filed by an investor group which in early 2012 won a $67 million jury verdict over claims that TD Bank abetted Ponzi schemer Scott Rothstein.

Last August, a Miami federal judge sanctioned the firm for failing to turn over evidence to the investors’ lawyers. Skolnick wasn’t personally implicated, and the case did nothing to blemish her reputation.

Said Roy Black: Skolnick’s dedication to civil rights and social justice were “the guiding lights of her life. This is a great loss to the legal profession and the community.’’

In addition to her husband, Skolnick is survived by daughter Jordan Strafer, of New York City, and her parents, Esther and Dan Skolnick, of Palm Beach County.

A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Sunday at the University of Miami’s Gusman Hall, followed by a reception at the Law School. Burial will be private.

Memorial donations in lieu of flowers can be made to Americans for Immigrant Justice.

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