A “Practical Visionary’ for the South Florida Community
Marilyn Holifield has aimed for high goals all her life. As a child, she practiced the piano in hopes of becoming a concert pianist. As a partner at Holland & Knight in Miami, she was named one of America’s top employment lawyers. As a black female, she has opened new doors and broken the “glass ceiling” for her colleagues. And as a community leader, her biggest dream still lies ahead.
“I am a child of the ‘60s,” says Holifield. “I believe there should be no barriers placed on anyone’s quest to participate fully in our society. I truly believe that everyone should be able to achieve her or his potential in life.”
Since launching her legal career in the 1970s, Holifield has been widely recognized for her accomplishments, including a top national ranking in Black Enterprise Magazine. In 2011, the Anti-Defamation League awarded Holifield its Jurisprudence Award for her outstanding contributions to the legal profession and the community. A year later, she received the Gertrude Rush Award from the National Bar Association for her human and civil rights work and for being a model of excellence in the legal profession. In 2015, HistoryMiami honored Holifield with its “Legal Legends Award.”
Meanwhile, Holifield is an active supporter of South Florida’s arts and educational institutions, serving on the boards of the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), University of Miami and other civic organizations. For the last few years, she has served as co-chair of PAMM’s Ambassadors for African American Art to expand a million-dollar fund established by the Knight Foundation and philanthropist Jorge Pérez to support acquisitions and programming.
“Marilyn is a clear thinker who has a deep understanding of the law and the value of culture,” says Howard Herring, president and CEO, New World Symphony. “I admire her because she is a practical visionary. We are very lucky to have her in our community.”
Today, Holifield is also working with a group to establish a new Miami Museum of Contemporary Art of the African Diaspora. A series of community meetings revealed “passionate support” for a premier contemporary African Diaspora art museum in Northwest Miami-Dade County, Holifield says. But the challenge is generating the financial support to launch the new museum.
“We want to take advantage of the diversity of Miami’s black community, and our city’s growing position as an art destination,” she adds. “We would include an artist-in-residence program to enhance art production and exchanges among local, national and international artists, and also foster innovative art interactions with local schools. It’s a very exciting vision.”
Deciding on a Law Career
Holifield’s love of the arts began early. Growing up in Tallahassee, she enjoyed cultural activities at Florida A&M University and started playing the piano at age 5. “I attribute much of my motivation in life to my parents, Bishop and Millicent Holifield, who were remarkable pioneers,” she says. “My father graduated from Tuskegee University and my mother from Florida A&M University. My father was the first African-American soil conservationist in the State of Florida for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. My mother, a Boston native, founded the Licensed Practical Nursing Program at Tallahassee’s then racially segregated Lincoln High School. They both understood the importance of an excellent education.”
In 1965, Holifield was one of the first blacks to graduate from Tallahassee’s Leon High School. Subsequently, she graduated from Swarthmore College, a highly regarded liberal arts school. “Throughout my life, I have appreciated the benefits of a liberal arts education,” she says. “At Swarthmore, I also gained a firsthand understanding that the path toward equality is not easy.”
Swarthmore made a strong impression on Holifield, who has maintained strong ties to her alma mater long after earning her bachelor’s degree in economics in 1969. She served on the board of managers in 1994-97 and rejoined the board in 2012. “It was a joyous occasion for me to be present in October when Valerie Smith became Swarthmore’s first African-American president,” she says.
Holifield’s older brother, Bishop, encouraged her to attend Harvard Law School, where he had received his juris doctor after earning an undergraduate degree at FAMU. Holifield earned her own law degree from Harvard in 1972. She served on the board of the university-wide Harvard Alumni Association for nearly a decade and in 2014 received the Association’s Alumni Award for her contributions.
After passing the bar, Holifield spent five years as an assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in New York City. “I was glad to help make some positive changes in our society,” says Holifield, who was responsible for litigating class action employment lawsuits in Florida, , Alabama, and Missouri and a major prison reform suit in Georgia.
Holifield then served as the general counsel for the New York State Division for Youth for a year, before returning to Florida as a law clerk for a federal appellate judge in St. Petersburg.
Entering Private Practice
In 1981, Holifield joined Holland & Knight in Tampa. “I remember serving as lead counsel on one of my first cases,” she says. “I was successful in arguing a motion for summary judgment in trial court in a multi-defendant antitrust case , and handling the appellate brief and oral argument.” In 1984, Holifield moved from the Tampa to the Miami office at the invitation of firm founder Chesterfield Smith.
In the past 30-plus years, Holifield has handled a wide range of high-profile cases in antitrust, securities, business disputes and media-related litigation. For instance, she represented the New York Daily News in a defamation case filed by the Pulitzer family against multiple defendants. “I was also able to help the media gain access to some important documents in the case of a young woman in North Florida who was accused of killing the children in her care,” Holifield says.
In 1986, she became first black female partner of a major Florida law firm, and in 2000 she received Holland & Knight’s highest honor, the Chesterfield Smith Award.
Holifield served two terms as chairperson of the American Bar Association Conference of Minority Partners in Majority/Corporate Law Firms and as a member of the ABA Commission on Opportunities for Minorities in the Profession “Throughout my career, I have found great joy in participating in the development of younger lawyers,” she says.
During the late 1990s, Holifield’s practice shifted to concentrate on employment law. Today, much of her practice involves enforcing or defending non-compete covenants in employment agreements and other employment, business and civil litigation matters.
Holifield notes that Florida has a statute that defines when an employer can or cannot get an injunction to enforce restrictive covenants. “I have found that some former employees are surprised to learn they signed a contract that limits their ability to participate in a competing business,” she adds. “On the other side, employers may feel compelled to enforce the covenants for business reasons to protect intellectual property assets, but also because of a sense of betrayal.”
Looking to the future, Holifield plans to continue building her practice, generating support for the arts including, a new art museum, serving as a mentor, and promoting civic engagement.. “Our democracy relies on the participation of the people,” she says. “We must all be able to speak up for ourselves.”
South Florida Legal Guide 2016 Edition