Marilyn Holifield on
CHANGING the WORLD
The Miami lawyer’s accomplishments range from spurring
prison reform in Georgia to tenaciously defending employers
BY HARRIS MEYER
PHOTOGRAPHY BY SCOTT WISEMAN
When Marilyn Holifield takes people to art exhibits,
she advises them to look at each work without
reading the plaque. Otherwise, she says, they’re
“reacting to sociology” rather than to the piece itself.
She prefers that people look at her legal career in the same
way—without thinking first about the minefield of race relations
she’s navigated since she started working in 1972, straight out of
Harvard Law School. But skipping over her “plaque” is hard to do,
because Holifield’s life and career say a lot about what has—and
hasn’t—changed in America.
“Until recently, a lot of my friends didn’t know this history,” she
says during an interview in her corner office at Holland & Knight in
Miami. It features a spectacular view of Biscayne Bay and a striking
portrait/collage of African-American social reformer, abolitionist
and writer Frederick Douglass. “I like to move forward.”
Holifield started her career in civil rights law, litigating
prison reform and employment cases in the Deep South for the
NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Since then, she’s made her mark
handling corporate defense work in the fields of employment
law, noncompete clauses, intellectual property rights, corporate
governance and commercial litigation.
She says she melds her past legal efforts fighting
discrimination and her more recent work defending corporations
by pushing for better diversity policies. “Being on this side of
the line gives me credibility and a unique opportunity to assist
clients in complying with the law,” she says.
There have been many firsts along the way: first black lawyer
hired by Holland & Knight, first black partner at the firm, and
first black female partner at any major firm in Florida. Her many
national honors include awards from the National Bar Association
and the Anti-Defamation League. And she’s widely admired for
mentoring minority youth.
Asked if she now considers herself a senior stateswoman at
Holland, she seems taken by surprise, and laughs. “I guess I am
senior,” says Holifield. “Where did all the years go?”
Colleagues say legal opponents once underestimated Holifield,
who speaks in a subdued, no-nonsense manner. No more.
“She’s a spectacular lawyer,” says Joe Matthews, an attorney
with Colson Hicks Eidson in Coral Gables who heads the
International Academy of Trial Lawyers. He handled a case
against her 10 years ago involving allegations that her insurance-
company client had breached an agreement with an agent.
“The amount the jury awarded was significantly less than
the damage claim we thought we proved,” Matthews says. “I
attributed that to her keeping the jury from being as angry as I felt
it should have been. She’s very even-tempered.”
Prominent plaintiff’s lawyer Willie Gary, with Gary, Williams,
Parenti, Watson & Gary, had a similar experience in 2013. When
he brought a highly publicized sexual harassment case against
a top Miami-Dade County official, he ended up settling with
Holifield’s side for significantly less than he’d hoped.
“Ninety-nine percent of the lawyers I know probably would have
backed down to get the case resolved,” says the Stuart-based
attorney. “She stood toe-to-toe. She’s one heckuva lawyer, and I’ve
been in battles with the best of them.”