Hilarie Bass plays many roles in life. As global operating shareholder at Greenberg Traurig, Bass is a formidable corporate defense lawyer, a star litigator and a social activist known for her pro bono work and community leadership. “When I was in law school back in the early 1980s, the idea of being able to change society through the court system was really exciting to me,” she says. “I have tried to balance my career in commercial litigation with that enthusiasm and idealism I still feel about our national justice system.”
Bass grew up in South Florida, earning a “Silver Knight” in drama from The Miami Herald as a high school student at Miami Coral Park. She decided to become a lawyer, majored in political science and graduated from George Washington University at the age of 20—the first member of her family to earn a degree.
But instead of going on to law school, Bass moved to New York and became a professional actress, studying with Lee Strasburg, appearing in a TV soap opera, an off-Broadway play and numerous other productions. “I fully enjoyed those three years, which fulfilled one of my dreams,” she says. “But I realized it was time to move on and I have never looked back. There is not much that my years of acting does to assist me in the representation of corporate clients, although anything that gives you a comfort level standing in front of people certainly helps you as a trial lawyer.”
Returning to Miami, Bass earned her law degree at the University of Miami, graduating first in her class and still hoping to use her legal skills as an agent of social change. She came to Greenberg Traurig as a summer associate, and fell in love with the firm. Nearly three decades later, Bass has risen to be one of the senior lawyers of the firm, overseeing the practice groups throughout the firm’s many offices. She recently completed an eight-year term as the national chair of the firm’s 550-member litigation department, and has served on the Executive Committee for a number of years.
Through the decades, Bass has successfully represented clients in jury and non-jury trials involving hundreds of millions of dollars. She served as defense liaison counsel in a national class action against managed care companies, and represented Microsoft in a class action brought under Florida Unfair Trade Practices Act. She also defended Hilton Hotels Corporation in a five-week arbitration involving breach of fiduciary duty claims in which a plaintiff sought in excess of $100 million. The case was resolved with a judgment in favor of the defense.
She also defended real estate developer Related in a 2006 Las Vegas trial after the Miami company decided not to proceed with two planned condominium towers. “There were 17 lawsuits filed by people who had put down deposits early in the process,” Bass says. “They were seeking a judgment for lost profits since the price per square foot of Las Vegas real estate had continued to spiral upward among the other projects continuing to be built there. We argued that the buyers and their experts were wrong, that the real estate market was on the precipice of a crash and that the plaintiffs should be thrilled that the developer had cancelled the project. Ultimately, these people lost every claim in their lawsuit, but ended up lucky to have gotten their deposits back.”
Currently, Bass is serving as lead counsel for the homebuilder group in the Chinese drywall multi-district (MDL) and state litigation.“These builders have dug into their pockets, moved owners out and completely repaired these homes, even though they were not responsible for the problem,” she says. “We are helping them recover against the culpable parties who are responsible for this defective product — the manufacturers and distributors — and we have been successful in serving both the German and Chinese drywall manufacturers. We are hopeful for an eventual full recovery.”
A longtime friend, attorney Michael A. Hanzman, Ackerman, Link & Sartory, P.A. in Coral Gables, says, “I consider Hilarie to be an outstanding advocate and a person who consistently demonstrates uncompromising integrity. She works tirelessly to provide her clients with the highest caliber representation and never turns down an opportunity to serve our community no matter the sacrifice. She’s first class in every respect.”
One of Bass’ recent achievements was a pro bono case involving a gay man who sought to adopt his two foster children. In 2007, the ACLU, filed suit on behalf of Martin Gill, seeking to overturn Florida’s 33-year-old statue barring adoption by gay men and lesbians.
Miami-Dade County Juvenile Judge Cindy Lederman reached out to Bass to ask her to undertake the pro bono representation on behalf of the two children. After a week-long trial, the judge found there was no rational basis for the statute and declared it unconstitutional, a decision upheld by the Third District Court of Appeal in September 2010.
For her work, Bass received the C. Clyde Atkins Civil Liberties Award from the ACLU of Florida Greater Miami Chapter, “This case took me back to my roots, using the law as a vehicle of social change, ”Bass says. “Not only was this an opportunity to help my two young clients, but to challenge an unconstitutional law and provide opportunities for thousands of foster children throughout the state to be adopted by loving and capable parents.”
This year, Bass is spending a significant amount of her time serving as the chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) Section of Litigation. While Bass has been involved in the ABA for years, she says that heading this 68,000-member organization is a once in a lifetime opportunity. As chair of the section, which will be meeting with the ABA’s Criminal Justice Section on Miami Beach in April 2011, Bass is organizing a joint project with the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) to train lawyers in new approaches to providing legal services more efficiently, through project management, budgeting, and alternative fees. Another ABA project involves training lawyers in Haiti in basic advocacy skills. “We are also working to educate judges about new scientific research relating to unconscious and implicit biases,” she says. “The fact that we all react differently to people of color has many implications for the U.S. legal system.”
In South Florida, Bass has been a leader in many professional, civic and academic organizations. “I feel strongly about community service and about making Miami a better place to live,” she says. Bass is a past president of The Florida Bar Foundation and past chair of United Way of Miami-Dade County, which honored her with the Dorothy Shula Award for Volunteerism in 2000. She is also now a member of the executive committee of the University of Miami Board of Trustees.
Bass has a 21-year-old daughter Rebecca who is a junior in college and dreams of someday owning her own restaurant. When not on a plane, Bass enjoys de-stressing by lifting weights and going to spin class. She also spends as much time as she can hiking, biking and skiing in Colorado.“I really enjoy Colorado. While I love being near the water in South Florida, the mountains make for a wonderful change of pace.”
With a full calendar of litigation cases and ABA projects, Bass’ career is moving along smoothly in high gear. She remains true to her personal ideals and principles. As she says, “There is no doubt that when I look back on my career, I will be proudest of those things that I did that helped improve the lives of others.”