Diversity - Law Firms Enhancing Diversity In A Small, Sophisticated Practice

Thursday, April 1, 2004 - 01:00

Editor:How does your background enhance the legal services you provide?

Diaz-Arrastia:I was born in Cuba. I lived there until I was ten years old, when my family came to the U.S. My first language is Spanish. I speak, read and write Spanish. One of the nice things about the international aspect of my practice is that I can talk in Spanish with my Spanish-speaking clients. Even though many of them speak excellent English, it is always useful to enjoy a common vernacular. It is also helpful when looking at documents, codes and other legal materials that are in Spanish to be able to read them in their original form, without always having to rely on an interpreter. Obviously, we use a translator for Spanish documents to be presented in court. My ability to be able to read them in Spanish is helpful for capturing nuances. In addition, I can tell whether we have had a good or bad translation, which helps our clients as well.

Editor:Please tell our readers something about your firm.

Diaz-Arrastia: We have ten lawyers.We have been more or less this size for a few years, give or take a lawyer or two. Although we are a small firm, we engage in very sophisticated litigation for very good clients, both domestically and internationally. We have an interesting practice, which we enjoy a lot.

A big part of our business has been representing DuPont on a wide variety of matters. Our other clients include major companies like Baker Hughes and Pepsi Bottling Group. We also represent a number of Mexican and Latin American individuals and investors who have lawsuits in the U.S. Our current case for Pepsi Bottling Group is actually representing its Mexican subsidiary, Pepsi Bottling Group Mexico. I also do work for DuPont Mexico, as well as for Unilever de Mexico.

Editor: What are the advantages of a small firm?

Diaz-Arrastia: I think you heard about us because we are part of the DuPont PLF network. We may very well be the smallest firm in the network. I think that has brought a number of advantages for the services we provide. For one thing, we are a litigation firm exclusively. Everybody who works for us is very experienced in what they do. We really do not have lawyers who are just out of law school. The average experience of the lawyers in our firm is 13 years. Our lawyers know what they are doing and do it well. We can tell our clients that inexperienced lawyers who are learning on their files will not staff their matters.

Personally, I enjoy being in a small firm. My founding partner Andrew Schirrmeister and I both came from a very large firm background, Baker & Botts. It has been really nice to practice in a smaller group, knowing everyone very, very well and doing only litigation.

Editor:What type of work do you do as a DuPont primary law firm (PLF)?

Diaz-Arrastia: Among the variety of cases we handle for DuPont, we are its national counsel for products liability work related to benzene exposure. This work gave us the opportunity to be the lead counsel in a trial in Arkansas, where we got a zero verdict, which was an excellent result. We are now preparing another case for trial in Georgia.

We also represent DuPont Mexico. The last several years, I've been the lead lawyer for most of that work. Several years ago, we represented DuPont Mexico in a toxic tort claim filed in Brownsville, Texas by a number of residents of Matamoros, Mexico, which is just across the border.The residents brought the case against a hydrofluoric acid plant in Matamoros, which at the time was partly owned by DuPont. Since that time, DuPont has sold its interest in that company.

More recently, we have represented DuPont Mexico in bankruptcy proceedings in Delaware involving Hayes Lemmerz, a company in the automobile industry based in Detroit.A Mexican subsidiary of Hayes Lemmerz owed DuPont Mexico about $1.5 million, and that company was placed in bankruptcy in Delaware, along with its U.S. parent and other related companies. We were able to negotiate a very good disposition of DuPont Mexico's debt that was approved by the bankruptcy court.

Right now, we are representing DuPont Mexico in a couple of commercial cases. One is in Miami, where we're working with local counsel, and the other we are preparing to file, probably in Delaware.

Editor: What are some of the benefits of being a DuPont PLF?
Diaz-Arrastia: We enjoy very significant benefits. DuPont is an unusual client. A good client is one that gives you work and pays your bills. DuPont does a lot more than that. DuPont encourages its PLFs to work with each other, even in matters that are not related to DuPont work. As a result, we have benefited from PLF referrals.

We had the opportunity a couple of years ago to represent the American Psychiatric Association as local counsel in a putative class action filed in Brownsville related to Ritalin, which we succeeded in getting dismissed. The principal counsel for APA was the DuPont PLF in Washington, DC, which was how the work was referred to us.

The PLF network makes a lot of resources available to us. For example, we were recently able to use the resources in preparing a products liability case related to asbestos exposure for another client.

DuPont sponsors a number of conferences every year that are extremely helpful. The annual PLF conference features a variety of topics. There has been discussion of theDuPont legal model and how it has developed over time. DuPont also sponsors a Women Lawyer's Conference and a Minority Counsel Conference, where lawyers from PLF law firms talk about issues of interest to women and minority lawyers and how to increase diversity in the profession.

DuPont is also helping to organize a conference on corporate governance with the Delaware Valley Association of Corporate Counsel, which will be held in April in Philadelphia. Our firm will participate on a panel related to attorney-client privilege issues. Interestingly, the issue we will discuss arose in connection with an indemnity case in which we were representing DuPont in claims related to its purchase of a company involved in the petrochemical industry.

Editor:Do you believe, as DuPont does, that enhancing diversity in the legal profession is important?

Diaz-Arrastia:Yes. Diversity is something we believe in strongly. We are active in the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, which recently had its dinner in our region in Houston.

We are always looking at how we can bring about diversity within our own firm. One of our lawyers is of a Mexican-American background who came to us from the SEC. He works with us on highly sophisticated securities and business litigation. We also have several women lawyers and are actively looking for a woman partner.

Editor:Why do you believe diversity is important?

Diaz-Arrastia: There are a number of reasons. In one sense, diversity benefits society as a whole. To that extent, diversity benefits the legal profession because we are part of that society. A just society is better for everybody, not only the few.

In addition, a party to litigation needs to present a diverse face. For example in South Texas, the population is entirely bilingual. Most people who are natives to the area speak to each other in Spanish, even though most are fluent in English. Without fluency in Spanish, you would find yourself missing out on what was happening in jury selection, as witnesses are being interviewed and as court staff talked with each other. Coming to the courtroom from out of town when you represent a big company that is also from out of the area, and all the local lawyers have Spanish surnames, you need to be able to show them that you have that, too.

The need for a diverse face is not unique to South Texas, but to other areas as well. For example, in Houston you see Hispanics, Asians and African Americans - a whole variety of different types of people. You need to be able to relate to the diversity of the area. If you can't, you are going to be at a disadvantage.

Editor:Do you share DuPont's concern that the legal profession must be vigilant in making sure that there is an adequate pool of minority lawyers in the pipeline?

Diaz-Arrastia: Yes. The pool of lawyers includes only people who have gone to law school and who have passed the bar exam. That is a very small percentage of the country's whole population. Unfortunately, when seeking minorities, the percentage is even smaller. It is important to keep an open mind to lawyers who would be very good for an assignment but did not go to one of the top national law schools.

Much of the dearth in the pool of minority attorneys results from the lack of educational opportunities in those communities. To overcome this challenge, we need to encourage young people to go into the legal profession by providing them role models. If you never knew someone who was a lawyer, it may never occur to you to become a lawyer.

Editor:Where can in-house lawyers find help in increasing diversity in the law firms they hire?

Diaz-Arrastia: I recommend that in-house lawyers do more than just make the quick choice of hiring the biggest firm around. The best firm might not be the biggest. A firm like ours, for instance, which has a minority partner and other minority lawyers could be able to do work at a very sophisticated level with excellent results.

How does anybody find a lawyer? Usually you go around to your peers and ask them about whom they use. Certainly large companies can look at their peers, like DuPont, who have are committed to diversity in the profession, and ask them about their experiences.