Washington Lawyer

Meet the President: A Conversation With Brigida Benitez

From Washington Lawyer, June 2014

By Kathryn Alfisi

Incoming D.C. Bar President Brigida BenitezInterview by Kathryn Alfisi

Brigida Benitez will be sworn in as the D.C. Bar’s 43rd president at the June 17 Celebration of Leadership: The D.C. Bar Awards Dinner and Annual Meeting.

Currently, Benitez is a partner at Steptoe & Johnson LLP, where she focuses her practice on global dispute resolution, internal investigations, and compliance matters. She previously worked at the Inter-American Development Bank, investigating potential fraud and corruption in bank-financed activities spanning 26 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. She started her legal career at WilmerHale LLP.

Benitez served as a member of the D.C. Bar Board of Governors and on the Bar’s Budget Committee, Strategic Planning Committee, Nominations Committee, and the Steering Committee of the Bar’s Courts, Lawyers and the Administration of Justice Section. As a member of the Bar’s Pro Bono Committee, Benitez worked with Judge Vanessa Ruiz of the D.C. Court of Appeals in establishing the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program’s Spanish Language Advice and Referral Clinic (now the Immigration Legal Advice Clinic).

Benitez also served as president of the Hispanic Bar Association of the District of Columbia and as a member of the board of directors of the Women’s Bar Association of the District of Columbia.

Benitez received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida and graduated from Boston College Law School.
 
Tell us a little bit about your upbringing.
I grew up in a working-class community near Miami. My parents, Raimundo and Ohilda, raised my younger brother and me in a loving home with a very strong work ethic, a product of their Cuban roots. They emigrated from Cuba to this country, each in search of a better life and greater opportunity. They met and married in New York, where I was born, and then shortly after that, they moved to Miami.

Neither of my parents had the opportunity to go to college. My dad had worked since he was 12 years old to support his family. My younger brother is also a lawyer, a prosecutor, and he has dedicated his career to public service.

Growing up, did you ever think about becoming a lawyer?
No, I didn’t grow up thinking I was going to become a lawyer. I didn’t know any lawyers, never met any lawyers, and didn’t have many professional role models. I recognized from an early age that school was important and that education was the key to a better future for me and my family, so I was always thinking ahead. I remember at one point I thought I wanted to be a psychologist; I’m not sure why, because I didn’t know any psychologists, either. Maybe it was a sense of wanting to help people.

I became interested in journalism in junior high school after taking a journalism class as part of a summer gifted program. I really enjoyed writing, so I went to college thinking I was going to be a journalist. It was in college that I picked criminal justice as a minor; in taking those classes, I became interested in law school. I remember I took a white collar crime class, and I had a professor who wrote a comment on one of my papers asking if I had ever considered going to graduate school.

Why did you choose Boston College for law school?
I applied to several schools, mostly in the Northeast, and Boston College seemed like a great school. I was very fortunate to receive a scholarship. It was a fantastic experience. BC Law School is an excellent school with a wonderful sense of community, and that’s something I very much valued while I was there. It’s one of the reasons I have remained involved with the law school over the years.

What were your early experiences in Washington, D.C.?
When I came to Washington, D.C., I joined what was then Wilmer, Cutler, and Pickering LLP (now WilmerHale). I was there for 16 years, and my practice was a combination of complex litigation and investigations. The firm was where I grew up as a lawyer. I started as an associate and was promoted to partner in January 2001, becoming the firm’s first Latina partner. I left the firm in 2010 when I was recruited by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) to head up what was then a relatively new office called the Office of Institutional Integrity. This was a senior management position, and the office was responsible for implementing compliance programs and investigating potential fraud and corruption in any projects financed by IDB in 26 countries in Latin American and the Caribbean. After a couple of years, I decided to return to private practice and I joined Steptoe & Johnson LLP, where I am a partner today. I wanted to take the experience from the IDB and apply it to the private sector to serve clients. Steptoe has an excellent global anti-corruption practice and a very collegial culture, and the firm wanted to continue to expand its practice in Latin America, so it was a great fit for me.

Who were your mentors and what role did they play?
I have been blessed in my career to have had terrific mentors, people who have cared about me, provided me with valuable opportunities, given me frank advice, guided me along the way, and helped me to become a better and happier lawyer. One of them was [the late] John Payton, with whom I worked on a number of cases, including the University of Michigan cases [involving diversity in higher education] that went to the U.S. Supreme Court. John led by example and he exemplified that combination of private practice and public service that I have since tried to model. He was very smart and I learned a great deal from him about being a lawyer. I still can’t believe he’s gone. I miss him. When I was asked to consider seeking the nomination for president-elect of the Bar, I remember thinking that he would have been one of the first people I would have called for advice. Then I realized I knew what he would have said, so I did it.

I look back and I realize that I have been very fortunate to have had good mentors and friends at my side. There were a number of others at Wilmer, including John Rounsaville Jr., who was one of my strongest supporters at the firm. I also worked with [former Bar president] John Pickering on pro bono matters when I was a very young associate. By then, he was already a retired partner, but he remained very active. He was a great mentor and was somebody who liked to work with young associates. He was tremendously committed to public service, and I was very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with him, to have him as a mentor, and, ultimately, to have him as a friend.

Mentors have been crucial to my development, and they continue to be. At Steptoe, I also have found mentors who are inspiring, accomplished role models. I really have been blessed with people who have taken an interest in me and who have given me opportunities without which I wouldn’t be where I am today. A good example is my involvement with the D.C. Bar. John Payton, who served as Bar president from 2001–02, first got me involved in the Bar when he was president-elect about 15 years ago.

What was it like being part of a landmark case like the University of Michigan affirmative action case?
Being part of the University of Michigan team has been one of the highlights of my career for many reasons. For one, as a litigator, to see a case go from the filing of a complaint to resolution at the U.S. Supreme Court is incredibly rare, so that was a tremendous opportunity and learning experience. Also, I was privileged to be involved in a case dealing with an issue, diversity in higher education, about which I am very passionate. It was a fascinating experience because no one had won a case like it, so we had to be creative and strategic in building the case. From day one, we were thinking that this could be the case that could go to the Supreme Court and could set a precedent, and so all along we were imagining the Supreme Court as our audience. We put together an expert case that proved the value of diversity in higher education. To build that case and to have the Supreme Court agree with us was an amazing and rewarding experience.

Tell us more about your involvement in the D.C. Bar.
I started on the President’s Pro Bono Initiative Task Force while John Nields Jr. was president and John Payton was serving as president-elect. We were examining what law firms were doing in terms of pro bono service. After that, I served on the Pro Bono Committee for four years, and from there I just stayed involved. I served on the Strategic Planning Committee and the Nominations Committee, and I have remained involved in the Bar one way or another until I was elected to the Board of Governors about three years ago.

What do you take away from Bar service?
I think it’s a two-way street: If you give back and serve, you can be very fulfilled. For me, Bar service has been very valuable because I have met great people and done interesting things; I have really been able to contribute to my community and the legal profession. As a lawyer, I feel an obligation to give back to the profession, to the community, and to the world around me. You can do that through Bar service.

While serving on the Pro Bono Committee, I worked with Judge Vanessa Ruiz of the Court of Appeals—who has also been a great mentor to me—in creating an advice and referral clinic that provides legal services in Spanish. That was 10 years ago, and the clinic is still going strong as the Immigration Legal Advice Clinic. That has made a real impact on the community. That’s just one example of the things I have accomplished through Bar service.

You also teach law at American University and Georgetown.
I enjoy teaching and the interaction with law students. Part of it is serving as a mentor to law students who are just starting their careers. This semester, I am teaching a course on international business litigation at Georgetown.

How do you find time to participate in all these activities?
It’s a juggling act, but these are all things that I enjoy. Since becoming president-elect, when people approach me to talk about the Bar presidency, they say, “Congratulations, I think, or is it condolences?” I respond: “It’s congratulations,” because I really am excited about this. I care very much about the Bar, and I think that if you believe in an organization, then you have to be willing to roll up your sleeves and step up when asked to take on a leadership role. I do things that I am passionate about, and I think it’s important to find things that you’re interested in, where you can make a contribution and that also fulfill you.

What skills and experiences will help you as Bar president?
I believe my experience, my background, my work with the Bar, my commitment to public service—all of this provides a solid foundation for serving as president. Ultimately, I believe I can make a valuable contribution. Over the years, I have become well-acquainted with the Bar and how it runs. I also have gotten to know the Bar’s staff, a tremendous group that keeps the Bar running as smoothly as it does. I have been involved with the Bar at the committee level, in the sections, and on the Board—in short, I have gotten to know the Bar from all angles. So I feel that I have a good understanding of the Bar’s priorities and its challenges.

In addition, I have been very involved with other bars and community organizations. Being able to take that experience and really focus on things that are important to the Bar and its members is very useful.

This role is also meaningful to me on a personal level. As I mentioned earlier, I had the honor of having John Pickering and John Payton—both past presidents of the Bar—as partners, friends, and mentors. It’s truly an honor to have the opportunity to carry that torch forward, to continue that tradition of excellence, to help support the growth of the Bar, and to help enhance the service it provides to its members.

What are your priorities as Bar president?
First, I want to promote the Bar’s continued leadership and support for access to justice and pro bono services. The Bar has been a leader in these areas, and the need is as great as ever. I think it should be a priority to support access to justice and pro bono services to fulfill that very important aspect of our profession. I believe that public service is the heart of our profession. I began my service to the Bar in the area of pro bono, and that remains important to me. We are really lucky to have what is regarded as the best pro bono program in the country. I want to make sure that I support the program and that I help any way that I can to improve it.

One thing that’s in the works is implementing a strategic planning process for the Pro Bono Program. The last time the Bar did this was in the early 1990s, so it’s a good opportunity to really assess where the program is, what it could be doing better, and what things should it focus on in the coming years.

Second, I want to address the impact of an increasingly global profession. This is an opportunity for our bar, and it’s an opportunity we should seize on immediately. We should position the Bar in the context of our global legal profession. We need to address the steps that the Bar can take to be ahead of the curve and how it can better serve its members throughout the District of Columbia, the country, and the world. We have more than 100,000 members globally, we have a number of members who are engaged in cross-border practices, and we’re going to see more foreign lawyers who are going to seek admission to our bar. All of these things have implications as far as what we should be doing as a bar. We must ask, how we can better serve our members, and what kinds of procedures, practices, and rules should we be thinking about as we move forward? I plan to convene a task force to study these issues and make recommendations to the Bar.

Finally, I want to focus on strategic planning for the Bar. I served on the Bar’s first Strategic Planning Committee five years ago, and I think the development of a strategic plan has been key in maintaining the Bar’s focus on its mission and priorities. Five years later, I think it’s an opportune time to form a committee to reexamine the Bar’s strategic plan and its implementation. One of my priorities in doing so is to ensure that we are serving our members and increasing professional development opportunities for members at all levels and from all segments of the profession.

Underscoring these three key areas is a shared sense of the value diversity has played in our success and will continue to play in the future of our Bar. We are fortunate to have a tremendously diverse Bar in the broadest sense. I share the Bar’s commitment to diversity and to capitalizing on that diversity for our continued success.

What kinds of activities do you enjoy outside of work?
My family is very important to me. I visit Florida fairly regularly to see my parents, my brother, and my wonderful nephew, Joseph, who I love spending time with. I am also a runner, so that’s how I spend a lot of my free time, which I think helps me to maintain a healthy balance. I’m competitive and I like to challenge myself, so I enter races. I’ve run six marathons so far and a number of other races.

Anything else you’d like to add?
I feel privileged to be a member of this bar. This is the best place to practice law. We’re a community. That’s why I’m here, because I want to continue to foster that sense of community and to follow a long tradition of excellence. I hope more and more of our members will join me and become engaged in our bar.

Reach D.C. Bar staff writer Kathryn Alfisi at kalifisi@dcbar.org.