As co-president of legal powerhouse Greenberg Traurig, Hilarie Bass is one of the most powerful women lawyers in the country. As a litigator, Bass led the effort to overturn Florida’s ban on gay adoption and has been a key player in suing Chinese manufacturers of defective drywall. She has won numerous awards and appears on state and national lists of super lawyers and top litigators, and is a past chair of the American Bar Association’s litigation section. Clients have included Microsoft, Hilton Hotels and Goldman Sachs.
Long before she was named to her current post, Bass became a familiar face in Miami’s civic circles, supporting community efforts from the Orange Bowl Committee to her alma mater of University of Miami, where she graduated summa cum laude from the law school. She has stomped grapes to promote a United Way fundraiser (she’s a previous United Way chair) and recently committed $1 million to UM, where she is vice chairman of the board of trustees. That’s quite a return for the university, where Bass was a scholarship student who turned to soda bottle deposits to pay for supplies.
Bass’s entire career has been spent at Greenberg Traurig, in large part thanks to the mentorship of one of its name partners, the late Mel Greenberg. Much of her time now is spent coaching young lawyers.
Despite her dedication to the legal profession, the Miami native never imagined going to law school. The daughter of a folk singer/actor, Bass studied at New York’s Actor’s Studio and was headed to the stage — until the soap opera she appeared on was canned.
Q. Before you became a lawyer, you were interested in drama. Tell us about that.
A. I started acting at age 12, performing in the show JB at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, as well as other shows at Studio M and later at Miami’s Coral Park High School, where I won the Silver Knight Award for Drama. After graduating from college in three years with a degree in political science, I went to New York to study under Lee Strasberg and landed various Off Broadway roles. My biggest achievement was a recurring role on the soap opera, Somerset. Had the show not gone off the air, I might never have gone to law school.
Q. Why did you become a lawyer?
A. I went to law school, never actually thinking that I would practice law. I found my passion in a course at the University of Miami called Elements of Law. At the end of semester, I had to defend a case while being peppered with questions from the professor. I was with him every step of the way and when I finished it, I realized what an exhilarating experience it was. At that point, I could not wait to get into the courtroom.
Q. Why did you come back to Miami?
A. I had intended to go to law school at New York University or George Washington University. But when the University of Miami offered me a scholarship, I decided to re-evaluate my plans since I was paying for law school myself. It ended up being the best move I ever made, no question about it.
Q. What about Miami has made it such a good fit for you?
A. Miami is such a new city that the opportunities for someone like me were unlimited. An individual’s ability to advance is only limited by one’s dedication and willingness to work hard. Miami is such a young, dynamic city that achieving anything is possible.
Q. At the time you came out of school, most female lawyers dressed in pinstripe suits and quickly hit a glass ceiling. How has the legal professional changed for women? Do they still face a tougher road to the top than men?
A. Today there is a critical mass of women in the profession, not just at law firms but in the general counsel positions at major corporations and institutions. That has made a big difference. For highly accomplished women the opportunities are endless, but there are still challenges. We will know we have truly arrived when it’s not just the superstar women who can be successful.
Q. You’re one of the few women in the country in a top position in a big law firm. Why do you think that’s still true? What are the biggest obstacles you had to overcome?
A. We all have some kind of implicit bias in that we feel less comfortable around people who don’t look and act like we do. Female leaders continually face this challenge since the fewer women there are in a workplace, the more you see this type of behavior. At the same time, as men get more accustomed to dealing with women in top-level positions, they are likely to eventually break from their preconceptions about our expected behavior. In today’s diverse society, it’s critical that we become more accustomed to interacting with people who don’t look like us. When you have top women leaders at big law firms, you attract more top quality women at all levels because they see that it’s a hospitable environment.
Q. How many lawyers does GT have now, and how many offices?
A. Greenberg Traurig has approximately 1,750 lawyers in 36 offices in the U.S., Latin America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. We still remain focused on our Florida home where we have seven offices spanning the state from Miami to Tallahassee, more than any other state in the country.
Q. What does it mean to be co-president of the firm? What areas fall to you to manage, and what areas fall to the other co-president, Denver-based Brian L. Duffy? How many people do you oversee?
A. We are a team, working closely with our CEO and other firm leaders, with and without titles. I primarily focus on helping our practice leaders develop and implement strategic plans and effectively implementing alternative fee arrangements across the firm.
Q. Billing practices and models have been a hot topic in legal circles these days. Can you explain why and how GT is addressing clients’ concerns regarding value for dollar?
A. With competition increasing in the legal market and spending declining, our focus is on providing clients with value by being more efficient in the delivery of legal services. We’re one of few firms that proactively proposes alternative fee arrangements to our clients. For some clients that means reducing the cost, while others care more about a predictable number to include in their budget.
Q. Nationwide, big firms like GT are making fewer hires from law schools — in part because of the change in billing practices. That might be good for clients now, but it makes this a tough time to be a law grad. What is GT doing to help train the next generation of lawyers and help them get the experience they need to get started on a legal career?
A. Greenberg Traurig is addressing this in many ways, including a residency program that launched firmwide last year after a South Florida pilot. The program is designed so that one-third of a resident’s time is spent in training. It appeals to clients because they are paying a lower rate for the attorney’s services. At the same time, for these young lawyers it provides an opportunity to learn from top attorneys and grow their skills. We hope that many of them will go on to full-time jobs with Greenberg Traurig, which has already happened in South Florida.
Q. What do you do personally to help mentor young lawyers?
A. Over the years, I have mentored dozens of young lawyers. When I find someone who brings a passion to what they do, I want to do everything possible to help make them successful, including finding opportunities to get them involved in our community and the Bar.
Q. As co-president, I would imagine part of your job is bringing in new clients. How do you do that without being an overt sales person?
A. Before you can be truly effective at rainmaking, you have to really believe that you have something of value to provide your client. If you believe that you are the best person to solve the client’s problems, it doesn’t feel like selling, but rather, an opportunity to resolve your client’s issue. Solving clients’ problems is what I love most about my job.
Q. You’re been very involved with United Way and University of Miami. How do you find the time to do that, and how do you advise young lawyers who are just getting started to carve out the time?
A. Community involvement is so much a part of who I am that I couldn’t imagine not doing it. I believe that an important part of being a successful person and a community leader is doing something other than simply sitting at your desk. Our firm has always been extremely involved in the community and very supportive of others who choose to do so. I encourage others in the firm to get involved in supporting the things they are passionate about.
Q. What are a few of the cases you’ve been involved in personally that you feel have made an impact?
A. I am most proud of my work on the pro bono case representing Frank Martin Gill’s two foster children. I lead the team that successfully challenged the Florida law prohibiting gay adoption, the only one of its kind in the U.S. Within days of our appellate victory, prospective adoptive parents were no longer being asked about their sexual orientation. There is no greater feeling than knowing you have changed the course of so many lives and eliminated a grave injustice in society. Even today, complete strangers thank me for making it possible for them to adopt.
Another significant case is my work on the Chinese-manufactured drywall litigation, one of the largest construction defect cases in U.S. history. The rulings in this multistate litigation set precedent for holding a Chinese manufacturer of defective drywall subject to U.S. court jurisdiction. It is gratifying to know that I helped thousands of families and major homebuilders to collect tens of millions of dollars that will ensure everyone will live in a safe home.
Q. What do you think is Miami’s biggest challenge today?
A. It’s a diverse, cosmopolitan city and the challenge is harnessing all those resources to help those in our community who are struggling. We need to insure that the prosperity of our economy is shared and no portion of the community gets left behind.
Q. What’s the best advice you ever got?
A. Mel Greenberg taught me early on the importance of taking an active role in directing my career. Each individual has to define success on their own terms and then implement a plan to achieve that success. You should re-evaluate those goals constantly along the way.
Q. What’s the advice you wish you had gotten?
A. To understand an individual’s capacity for success is not defined simply by pure intellectual intelligence. Other skills like emotional intelligence, the ability to read people and the patience to listen to others are all equally, if not more important.
Q. What’s the most important challenge you face in managing a team?
A. Creating a common vision of what you’re trying to accomplish and getting people to adopt it as their own. Unless everyone has a shared vision, they’re going to end up working at cross purposes.
Q. What was your greatest failure, and what did you learn from it?
A. The decision to give up my dream of acting. It’s the only thing I did in my life where hard work and talent had no correlation with success. I learned that I wanted to spend my life doing something where I had more control over the results.
Q. What was your dream career when you were younger?
A. I always wanted to be a U.S. senator.
Q. Tell us one thing about yourself that most of your colleagues don’t know.
A. I have a collection of more than 200 orchids.