DuPont Firm Reaps The Rewards Of Diversity

Monday, January 31, 2011 - 00:00

Editor: Tell us about your background, your firm's practice and the diversity of its lawyers and staff.

Diaz-Arrastia: I was born in Havana, Cuba in 1959, the year when Castro seized power. My family left Cuba and came to the U.S. by way of Spain in 1969. So I grew up speaking Spanish, and that's still the language that I speak with my parents. That has turned out to have had great influence on the development of our firm's practice.

I've been practicing law for 27 years, and for the first 17 of them, I did not use Spanish at all in my practice. For the past 10 years, I spend half of my day using Spanish because some of our clients are from Latin America. It's a unique aspect of our firm and our practice.

In our firm, we have four bilingual attorneys, including myself. We are a small firm -16 lawyers total - so that's a fairly high percentage. And, enough members of our staff are bilingual to provide us with the support we need. We recently hired a Korean-American lawyer, who will help us expand our work for Asian clients.

Although we are a DuPont PLF, our client base includes many other companies. Many of our clients are companies based in either Latin America or having significant activities in Latin America. Ours is a story of a firm where there is a direct relationship between our diversity and the growth of our business.

Editor: Describe how your firm's role representing DuPont triggered your international practice.

Diaz-Arrastia: We represent DuPont in a wide variety of litigation matters. By volume, the predominant work the firm does for DuPont is toxic tort defense, where Andrew Schirrmeister is the lead attorney.

When our firm first became a PLF, DuPont's PLF program had more of a geographical focus. At that time, DuPont Mexico had some lawsuits pending in Brownsville, Texas; and our firm was assigned by DuPont to handle that litigation. Our international litigation practice started from that seed from which grew the firm's relationships with Mexico, other Latin-American countries and with clients throughout Latin America.

Editor: Describe the situation in South Texas with its bilingual population. Is fluency in Spanish an asset for lawyers who practice there?

Diaz-Arrastia: South Texas is a very interesting part of the country. There is a lot of Spanish spoken in South Texas, but in my view, it is primarily a bilingual culture. You will not find many people there who do not speak English at all. The few you find are probably very recent arrivals, who are probably not from the border region but rather from farther inside Mexico.

One of the things about South Texas that has always amazed me is that the communities on both sides of the border are so physically close to each other. If you stand in downtown Brownsville, in the old part of town, you can look across the Rio Grande and see downtown Matamoros. They are so close that you can easily walk across the bridge from one to the other - people make that walk all the time in both directions.

There are a great many similarities between the two. Yet, Brownsville is very clearly an American town. When you are there, you would never think of it as anything else. Similarly, Matamoros is very clearly a Mexican town. It is remarkable to me that notwithstanding the constant contact between the two cultures, they have still maintained their separate identities. That is not to say that having lawyers who are fluent in Spanish is not a huge advantage, because it is. The ability to understand that bilingual culture is very important if you are going to handle lawsuits in that part of the country.

Editor: Has DuPont's diversity program helped your firm attract clients from Latin America?

Diaz-Arrastia: Representing DuPont has been very helpful to the firm in expanding its practice. Being able to tell a client that you represent DuPont and that your firm is one of its PLFs immediately gives you credibility. It's a seal of approval. DuPont is well-known not only as a leader in science and in its field industrially but also as a leader in the practice of law. This is true not only with respect to its fine legal department but also with respect to its PLFs. DuPont is noted for how it goes about selecting and managing its relationships with its outside counsel. Being able to say you represent DuPont opens doors for you.

Being part of the DuPont Legal Network puts us in a position to compete effectively with large firms by providing us with resources that we would otherwise lack. The access that it provides to its network of law firms puts us in touch with lawyers across the country. You know you're not just dialing a number in a directory, but you're talking to someone you've met or who knows somebody that you know.

As we find ourselves seeking clients from around the world, our active participation in DuPont's diversity programs, including its Minority Job Fairs, enables us to hire talented lawyers from diverse backgrounds whose culture and language skills permit them to interface smoothly with foreign clients. Because of our involvement with DuPont's diversity efforts, diverse lawyers know that we will provide an inviting environment in which to work.

Editor: DuPont shares with other companies information about the DuPont Legal Network and its PLFs. Has this been helpful?

Diaz-Arrastia: It is very important. DuPont educates other companies about its legal model, both by meeting with them in Wilmington and by making available in print and online its book describing the DuPont Legal Model.

By educating other companies about both the way it selects firms and the resources it provides to them, DuPont puts its seal of approval on its PLFs. Our potential clients learn about the skills that DuPont's PLFs bring to the table, about their dedication to diversity, their billing practices, how they manage relationship with clients and the resources that DuPont makes available to them. Being a science company, DuPont, believes that when they have a good idea, they should share it with others. So yes, their outreach to our potential clients has been very beneficial.

Editor: There is considerable concern about the courts in many Latin American countries. Have you found solutions for this issue?

Diaz-Arrastia: It is not a simple question. Latin America is a very diverse region; in fact, about the only thing that all of Latin America (except Brazil) has in common is the Spanish language and Spanish culture. Otherwise it is highly diverse, and when you're looking at litigation that arises out of Latin America, the decision about how to manage that litigation, beginning with the decision about the forum, is something that has to be considered country-by-country and case-by-case. That is something that we do all the time.

Over the years, we have taken time to develop relationships with lawyers throughout Latin America. We try to keep abreast of what is going on in these countries because each one is unique. For instance, there is a tremendous difference just between Costa Rica and Nicaragua even though they are right next to each other. There is also a huge difference politically, culturally and judicially in what takes place in the courts. You don't want to treat those two countries the same way; they are radically different.

When you have a matter that arises out of Latin America, you may have a choice of whether to try or arbitrate the matter there or in the U.S. Before you get to the idea of how do you get to the place where you want to be, you need to think about the place where you want to be. It's not an automatic decision - you need to think about it case-by-case and country-by-country. And that is part of the service we provide to clients.

We have been involved for some clients in forum non conveniens motions, trying to bring cases into Costa Rica, for instance. If you are a defendant, Costa Rica is a pretty good place to be. On the other hand, there are some places where we would not want to be. We will not file forum non conveniens motions, for example, to go to Nicaragua.

We have a commercial case that arose out of an oil and gas exploration contract involving Nicaragua, between a Canadian company and a Guatemalan company. The case was filed here in Harris County, which was a reach in terms of venue and jurisdiction, but the other side was happy to do it. They never expressly agreed, but they also never challenged the decision.

Editor: Do you find that being part of the DuPont Legal Network has made it possible for a smaller firm like yours to be national and international in scope?

Diaz-Arrastia: That is absolutely true. Our matters are not just in Houston or even just in Texas. If you asked me that question three years ago, I would have told you that we have not tried a case in Harris County, which includes Houston where our office is located, in several years. We have tried cases in Chicago and in Los Angeles County, and have done arbitrations in San Francisco. We're still doing that throughout the nation, but it just so happens that the last three cases we've tried were in Houston, which is a little unusual for us.

Clearly, we have a national practice, and being part of the DuPont network has made that possible. As I said, it's not only that the firm's visibility is much higher by virtue of being a PLF, but because we are a PLF, if we have a case in New York, we know lawyers there that we can turn to, to be local counsel and to help us. So that has been very helpful. And, we are international in the sense of attracting foreign clients who welcome the diversity that we have fostered in our firm.

Let me expand on that by saying that one of the interesting things about representing DuPont is that many of our new clients have a DuPont connection. The DuPont legal department has alumni in a lot of different places. When we've talked to the general or associate general counsel or other senior counsel within the legal department of a new client, we sometimes find that at one time they worked for DuPont. I have found that everybody who ever worked for DuPont has a high opinion of the company.

Please email the interviewee at gdarrastia@sdablaw.com with questions about this interview.