As a partner in Bilzin Sumberg Baena Price & Axelrod LLP's Miami office and head of the firm’s land development and government relations practice group, Albert E. Dotson Jr. handles federal and local government procurement contracts and compliance. He also represents real estate developers in securing land use, zoning and other government approvals and permits for large-scale real estate developments.
Dotson was chosen as a member of the Florida Federal Judicial Nominating Commission in 2009 and was reappointed in 2013 to a third, two-year term. He is Chairman Emeritus of 100 Black Men of America and was recently appointed by President Barack Obama to the President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African-Americans, to advise the president and the secretary of education on ways to advance federal programs that improve educational opportunities for African-Americans, increase participation of the African-American community in federal agency programs and engage stakeholders in a national dialogue on the mission.
Chambers USA and The Best Lawyers in America have consistently recognized Dotson for his work in land use and zoning law. In 2014, The Best Lawyers in America named him “Miami Lawyer of the Year” in government relations law.
As a participant in Law360's Minority Powerbrokers Q&A series, Dotson shared his perspective on five questions:
Q: How did you break the glass ceiling in the legal industry?
A: Though not naïve about its existence in many business environments, in many ways I did not feel like there was a glass ceiling that would prevent my career growth or success. I am fully aware that several factors contributed to that "feeling.” I had great mentors in the legal industry, some who were African-American and some who were not. I was blessed with a father who was a tremendous role model who shattered many and obliterated other glass ceilings along the way. I had extremely supportive coworkers. All of this contributed to an ability to be aware of obstacles that might be placed to thwart career advancement and a philosophy that glass ceilings exist to be shattered because, to the extent that there is one, it has been constructed to deprive a business of the clear competitive advantage gained from a diversity of talent and thought leadership.
To encourage a pipeline of diversity, it is important for firm leadership to have continuous open and honest discussions assessing the firm's progress in creating a culture of inclusion. This culture must include unbiased recruitment, retention and promotion of diverse talented attorneys within the firm. Diversity is not just an altruistic value — it is a business value that leads to better decision-making and better outcomes. For example, Bilzin Sumberg is a meritocracy that recognizes both individual achievement and the need to increase minority ranks and ascension within the firm.
Q: What are the challenges of being a lawyer of color at a senior level?
A: One challenge is the obligation to remain cognizant that once in a senior position you cannot sit silently at the table, but rather must initiate or join those voices advocating for diverse and talented attorneys and staff. This provides alternate perspectives to help deliver greater value to both clients and the firm at large. Further, the question ignores that the challenges of being "a lawyer of color" at a senior level include the challenges that others at a senior level confront, such as the appropriate expectation that you will provide your clients with valuable counsel and deliver it efficiently.
Q: Describe a time you encountered discrimination in your career and tell us how you handled it.
A: First, as previously acknowledged, I have been fortunate that from Fine Jacobson, where I started my legal career, to Bilzin Sumberg, where I practice today, I have found myself within extremely supportive cultures. Consequently, within the law firms with which I have been associated, I can’t recall a time that I encountered discrimination. However, as I have practiced law I have certainly faced my fair share of ignorance and being pre-judged based on the color of my skin. When I first began practicing as a young associate, I was in our conference room with a client. I had been alongside the senior partner the whole time, but when the senior partner left, the client asked if I ever thought about going to law school. Turns out, he had assumed I worked in the mailroom. I responded, "Yes I have thought about going to law school and after graduating from an Ivy League college, I attended law school and graduated with honors two years ago."
Q: What advice would you give to a lawyer of color?
A: One of the biggest challenges is learning the culture and business of law, and I think minorities are more likely to have grown up without this background or understanding. Overcoming this obstacle requires mentor support, either inside or outside of the firm, who can appreciate any cultural or socioeconomic differences and help provide a deeper insight into the business of law or the law firm culture. But keep in mind that mentorship is a two-way street. Young associates have just as much of an obligation to seek out a mentor as experienced attorneys have a responsibility to lend their guidance and support. In addition to mentorship, I always tell young associates to build relationships with friends, fellow alumni and colleagues, as they will be your network for business development and referrals.
Q: What advice would you give to a law firm looking to increase diversity in its partner ranks?
A: In discussing the need to recruit, retain and promote diverse talented attorneys, law firms must first recognize that there are a plethora of extremely talented attorneys from diverse backgrounds already in the profession and who graduate every year from law schools around the nation. Increasing diversity within the partnership ranks requires both a widening of the pipeline into the associate ranks (e.g., only recruiting associates from those law schools that themselves lack diversity most certainly can thwart efforts to increase diversity within the associate ranks) and better training and mentorship to grow talent from within. Simply put, expanding the pipeline and lateral recruitment are vehicles to enhance diversity but increasing diversity within the partner ranks requires those vehicles to be accompanied by a firm culture that embraces diversity as evidenced by the staff it hires, the causes it supports, the law schools at which it recruits, the laterals it targets, the clients it represents, and the diversity demonstrated in its leadership.
This article is reprinted with permission from Law360.