Diversity In The Workplace: A Key Factor In A Small Firm's Success

Thursday, February 1, 2007 - 01:00
Joseph C. Matta

Editor: Mr. Matta, would you tell our readers something about your background and professional experience?

Matta: I was born and raised in Houston. My father and maternal and paternal grandparents came to this country from Mexico.

I attended the University of Houston and graduated in 1979 with a B.S. degree. Thereafter I was admitted to the Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, DC and graduated in 1982.

Following law school, I began a 17-year career as an attorney with the Enforcement Division of the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission in both of the SEC's Texas offices. In 1999, I entered private practice and shortly thereafter joined Schirrmeister Diaz-Arrastia Brem, where I specialize in securities and general commercial litigation.

Editor: Would you share with us the things that attracted you to Schirrmeister Diaz-Arrastia Brem?

Matta: There were several predominant factors that brought me to the firm. First, I wanted to work at a law firm with a high-profile quality practice that, in addition, was committed to diversity and included lawyers from diverse backgrounds. Second, as a result of my highly specialized SEC experience, I desired to be at a firm where I could fill a void in that area of the firm's practice. The firm fully satisfied my goals.

I was immediately impressed by the high caliber of the attorneys at the firm, as well as the extensive and varied client base. The latter includes Fortune 500 companies in the chemical, financial services, energy and manufacturing sectors. I was also attracted to the firm because of its commitment to diversity, something that the managing partner, Andrew Schirrmeister, expressed as one of its principal values. George Diaz-Arrastia, who is a bilingual Cuban American and the firm's first Hispanic partner, is one of the brightest attorneys with whom I have ever had the pleasure of working.

Editor: Would you give us an overview of Schirrmeister Diaz-Arrastia Brem, its origins and the practice areas in which it is involved?

Matta: With 15 attorneys, the firm enjoys an outstanding reputation as a litigation boutique firm representing Fortune 500 companies. The firm was founded by Andrew Schirrmeister, George Diaz-Arrastia and Michael Brem, all of whom practiced at Baker Botts in Houston prior to setting out on their own. In addition to representing Fortune 500 enterprises, the firm represents start-up concerns, entrepreneurial companies and individuals in a variety of commercial litigation, including breach of contract, toxic tort litigation, securities actions, and a wide range of other matters. The firm also acts as a national counsel for DuPont in defending against plaintiff actions claiming personal injury from exposure to benzene and benzene products. The firm has an active securities arbitration practice as well, headed by partner Carolyn Roch that includes the representation on the defense side of two national securities brokerage firms based in New York. We have also developed an extensive international practice representing Mexican and other Latin American clients in business matters and litigation in the U.S.

Editor: And your own practice? Specifically, how has it evolved over the course of your career?

Matta: At the SEC I developed a highly specialized career investigating and prosecuting both individuals and organizations charged with violating federal securities laws. When I transitioned into private practice I was able to use this experience to represent clients in business- and securities-related litigation. I have also broadened my area of expertise over a wide area of commercial litigation.

Over the course of my career I have witnessed a number of significant changes in the profession. The most significant, and positive, change has been the realization of the importance of diversity to the success of an enterprise, whether it is a law firm, a corporation or a governmental agency. I have come to believe that a lawyer's success derives from a convergence of a number of attributes, including a commitment to careful preparation, good judgment, close and constant communication with the client, exposure to trial experience, high ethical standards and a commitment to diversity.

Editor: What does it mean for the firm to be a DuPont primary law firm?

Matta: The firm is extremely proud to be a member of the DuPont network of primary law firms. As a DuPont PLF, our firm is a strategic partner of DuPont in the sense of sharing a common vision of the practice of law, a vision based on trust that runs in both directions. When we stand up in court on behalf of DuPont we know that we are representing an enterprise committed to the highest ethical standards in conducting its business, a fact that serves to enhance our representation. At the same time, DuPont knows that our representation will only reflect well on them and on the principles they seek to uphold.

As national counsel in the coordination of DuPont's benzene litigation, we are presently handling cases in New York, Texas, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Illinois, California and Arkansas. We are fully committed to working with the DuPont legal department and with the other firms in the PLF network to advance the collaborative concepts underlying this unique relationship, including early case assessment, alternative fee arrangements, strategic budgeting and, of course, a commitment to diversity. We take great pride in having served as one of DuPont's PLFs for the past nine years.

Editor: What does DuPont expect of a firm being considered as a DuPont PLF?

Matta: Becoming a member of the DuPont network involves a number of factors, including the delivery of competent legal services, achievement of excellent results, a willingness to take risks and to promote creative solutions, a familiarity with cutting edge technology and the engagement, retention and promotion of women and minorities in the practice of law. This is a collaborative relationship, and it involves a sharing of information, resources and work product among DuPont and all of its PLF members to achieve efficiencies, minimize expenses and attain positive results.

Editor: And the benefits of belonging to the network?

Matta: Members of the DuPont PLF network have had the opportunity to work with attorneys from other PLF firms on a variety of issues. Through these opportunities we have been able to build relationships with firms all across the country, something that has been of great value to us in our firm-wide practice. Through the network, we are able to be more efficient, more productive and more "connected" in the delivery of legal services to all of our clients.

Each year the PLF members attend meetings sponsored by DuPont's legal staff to discuss current legal issues, as well as review the issues that impact minority and women lawyers. These events give all of us a chance to discuss important matters on a face-to-face basis with DuPont's Stacey Mobley (general counsel), Tom Sager (chief litigation counsel) and Ramona Romero (corporate counsel and manager of Law Firm Partnering), as well as other members of the DuPont legal department.

There is considerable prestige in being a member of the DuPont network. The fact that we have this relationship with one of the world's great enterprises is not lost on our other clients, actual and potential.

Editor: Are there any particular diversity challenges that the firm faces today?

Matta: The firm is proud of its record, and our challenge is simply to continue to do what we have been doing. Over 50 percent of our attorneys are minorities or women. That has enabled us to reach out and attract highly talented minority and women attorneys. As a smaller firm, I think we have done remarkably well in developing the ability to put together a truly diverse team. This continues to be a great plus with our clients.

Editor: Would you share with us your thoughts about the impact that a diverse environment and a culture of inclusiveness has on a firm's morale?

Matta: It has been my experience that a firm that fosters diversity in the workplace and a firm-wide culture of inclusiveness is a firm that will enjoy high morale among its ranks. Our firm is a multicultural family, and I think we are better able to attain resolution of the complex, multi-dimensional issues that we handle than would be the case if we were, as a firm, one dimensional.

I agree with DuPont's Tom Sager, who has said that valuing people on their merits, appreciating their differences, and realizing the power of diverse thinking is a part of what diversity is all about. Because diversity goals are completely compatible with the goals shared by an organization's entire workforce, I have always viewed diversity initiatives and a diverse work environment as having a beneficial effect on a firm's morale. I commend DuPont for its early recognition of this fact and for having been for so long at the forefront of this effort.

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