From Florida's Supreme Court To Leading A Top Florida Law Firm

Thursday, February 1, 2007 - 00:00

Editor: Your distinguished record as the first African-American to be appointed to the Florida Supreme Court in 1975, elected to the court in 1976, and appointed to the Federal Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit by President Carter in 1979, is almost without parallel. How do you account for your meteoric rise in the legal profession at a time when many minority lawyers were unable to achieve these pinnacles of success?

Hatchett: My generation of African-American lawyers in the South was involved in the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, and was helping shape public policy. We were experienced in the practice of law and well known to southern politicians, thus African-American lawyers of my generation were the first to be appointed to the bench.

Editor: We congratulate Akerman Senterfitt on winning the Thomas L. Sager award for Diversity from the Minority Corporate Counsel Association. Please tell our readers about the firm's history of commitment to diversity.

Hatchett: Akerman Senterfitt is proud of its commitment to ensuring equal opportunity generally and within the firm. One of Florida's oldest law firms, Akerman Senterfitt has successfully promoted diversity through the vigorous recruitment, retention, and promotion of women and minority lawyers and non-lawyers. To advance the firm's ongoing diversity initiatives, I was appointed to chair the firm's Committee on Diversity in 1999.

Many of our shareholders are women and minorities, which demonstrates to associates that achieving shareholder status is a real possibility. Women and minority lawyers also hold top management positions in the firm, including service on the Board of Directors. The firm's mission is to develop professional opportunities and to foster an environment in which minorities and women may perform proudly and give the firm's clients the benefits of a law firm balanced fully in terms of race, ethnicity, and gender.

Editor: As Chair of the firm's Diversity Committee, what role has the Committee played in achieving such success in not only hiring but also retaining minority lawyers?

Hatchett: Our Diversity Committee selects initiatives and goals for each year and creates methods of implementing those initiatives. The success that the firm has achieved in hiring and retaining minority lawyers is due to the committee's efforts to have each partner fully committed to diversity efforts. With partners fully committed and working with Committee members, success in hiring and retaining minority and female lawyers is a natural result.

Editor: A recent study by Professor Richard H. Sander at the University of California postulates that many minority lawyers have a much higher attrition rate from major law firms than their white counterparts. This is not the case at Akerman. Why is your firm's case so very different?

Hatchett: Our attrition rates for minority lawyers are not as high as other law firms because our programs regarding retention are working well. Associates seek opportunities for advancement, and when the work environment reflects opportunities for advancement, they stay with the firm. From the beginning of the relationship between the firm and the minority lawyer, mentoring, skills development and promotion are stressed.

Additionally, we are proud that while the overall (not just minorities) average attrition rate at law firms nationally is 19%, Akerman's overall attrition rate is well below that, at 12%.

Editor: What role has your influence as a role model played in shaping the policies of the firm?

Hatchett: My experiences as a sole practitioner, state and federal judge and my present position as a senior partner in a large law firm have helped shape the policies of the firm, especially in recruitment. Having a history of dealing with race relations from all of its aspects helps me talk meaningfully with young lawyers about development of their careers, whether in a large law firm or a small firm, in the South.

Editor: How is mutual respect and an understanding of multiple cultures incorporated into the practices at the firm?

Hatchett: Another result of our diversity efforts has been the establishment of several programs, including a Sensitivity Training Program for everyone in the firm, including staff. While it is important to communicate that respectfulness and sensitivity are expected within the firm, diversity is not a foreign concept to most of us. Our workforce, including every staffing level throughout each office, reflects the diverse communities where we do business, as well as the diverse cultures of our clients.

Editor: What are the firm's mentoring practices?

Hatchett: Akerman's Mentoring Program is designed not just for minorities, but for all of the firm's lawyers. The large offices have written mentoring programs with well defined goals, and mentors are assigned for all associates. In the small offices, each associate is assigned a mentor in a one-on-one relationship. The emphasis in this program is placed on having all of the firm's lawyers, including minorities, constantly growing and learning to work as team members in all aspects of the firm's practice areas.

Editor: How does diversity enhance the value of the firm in the eyes of its clients? Have clients benefited from the presence of bilingual attorneys?

Hatchett: Diversity is increasingly important to our clients, to corporations and to the legal industry. The Akerman Senterfitt client list includes nearly 100 corporations that belong to the "Call to Action - Diversity in the Legal Profession." These major corporations have made a commitment to actively look for law firms that distinguish themselves in diversity issues, and to end or limit relationships with firms whose track records reflect a lack of meaningful interest in diversity.

As a Diversity Award-winning firm, we offer our clients the benefit of our diverse lawyers, who bring a wide range of experiences, cultures, education, and rich backgrounds to the task. The innovative thinking that results from a broad range of perspectives is of high value to our clients.

In addition to English, there are thirteen languages spoken among Akerman's attorneys. With a robust international practice and offices in cities where many languages are spoken, this is a great asset to our clients. We currently have approximately 200 Spanish speakers throughout our offices, which serves our international and local clients in Florida particularly well. With the amount of business conducted between Florida and Latin America, this is especially important.

Editor: What do you consider to be the most pressing diversity issues in the legal field?

Hatchett: Recruitment, promotion and retention of minority and female lawyers are the most pressing diversity issues in the legal field. To achieve the goals that we all desire, law firms must find ways to compensate partners who give of their time in recruitment and mentoring of minority and female lawyers. Another important issue is that of ensuring that minority and female lawyers get meaningful assignments after being recruited.

Our firm collaborates with the Florida Bar, the National Bar Association and the American Bar Association in seeking to increase the number of minority lawyers in all law firms. I am a member of the National Bar Association, the Florida Bar Association and the Board of Directors of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and regularly engage in Bar activities and speaking engagements involving the recruitment, training and retention of minority lawyers.

Another partner of the firm is the past president of the Hispanic Bar Association of Florida, and now serves as its general counsel; another is the current president of the Cuban-American Bar Association. In addition, both the firm as a whole as well as our individual attorneys regularly support and participate in efforts to encourage minorities in the legal field, with organizations like the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, local Minority Mentoring events, and other major diversity networking conferences.

Editor: Since we live in an increasingly "global" society, what challenges do you see ahead for the lawyers of tomorrow?

Hatchett: I would like to see the day when law firms no longer need diversity committees and special programs to enhance the status of female and minority lawyers. Lawyers of tomorrow will face the traditional challenges of educating citizens about the legal system, developing ways of keeping the cost of litigation within the means of middle-class Americans, and having the litigation process shortened so that speedy resolutions can be provided to litigants.

An abbreviated list of achievements during the Honorable Judge Joseph Hatchett's legal career:

1975: Appointed to the Florida Supreme Court - the first African-American appointed to the highest court of a state since Reconstruction.

1976: Won a statewide election to remain on the Florida Supreme Court - the first African-American elected to the highest court of a state and the first African-American elected to any public office in a statewide election in the South.

1979: Appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit - the first African-American to serve on a federal appellate Court in the South.

1999: Became the head of Akerman Senterfitt's appellate division and head of the firm's Diversity Committee.

2005: Appointed by the Federal Court of Georgia to head the redistricting plan for all state elections.

2005: Inducted into the National Bar Association's Hall of Fame, in recognition of more than 40 years of dedication to the cause of justice and equality before the Courts of the United States of America, and on behalf of the African-American community.

February, 2007: Receives the Spirit of Excellence Award by the American Bar Association Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession, presented annually to exceptional lawyers who have made significant contributions to the promotion of racial and ethnic diversity within the legal profession.