Laboring for Her Clients
Kelly-Ann Cartwright helps South Florida employers keep up with the ever-changing constellation of state and federal labor regulations. A good example is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which protects a worker with a disability, but also someone who is only regarded as having an impairment. “The ADA is now one of the most convoluted acts out there and this provision is one of the hardest things for employers to grasp,” says Cartwright, a partner at Holland & Knight’s Miami office. “Let’s say a person comes back from a heart attack to a job that requires significant heavy lifting. If you say, “I won’t give you that job” because you perceive the person as disabled, you’re violating the law.”
Then there’s the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which requires employers to give their workers time off under certain conditions. Today, when you hire someone, that person brings along family issues as well,” Cartwright says. “The plaintiff’s bar has become very active in the area of alleged discrimination because of family responsibilities. Since there will continue to be increasing demands placed on employees to care for their loved ones – aging parents, dependent children and disabled family members – it’s very likely that more claims will be brought on these issues in the future.”
Cartwright has been advising management clients and litigating cases at Holland & Knight for more than 20 years. Her practice includes general civil and commercial litigation, with an emphasis on employment discrimination, civil rights, business torts and labor law. “I would say about 30 percent of what I do now is counseling clients,” she says. “We try to keep them up to speed on the laws and, educate them about what steps to take to avoid problems. It’s very important to follow the correct procedures before terminating an employee.”
In the courtroom, Cartwright has litigated cases involving trade secrets, defamation, fraud, civil theft, breach of fiduciary duty, breach of contract, unfair competition and other matters.
“A lot of what makes Kelly-Ann so great in the courtroom is knowing all of the hard work that had to take place before she ever steps in front of the judge or jury,” says her protégé Erika Royal, a partner in Holland & Knight’s Fort Lauderdale office. “She is a staunch advocate for her clients, and really makes it all look effortless, talking to the judge, jury and witnesses. But from working with her on cases until the wee hours of the morning, I know that a lot of time and work is behind that ‘effortless’ presentation.”
Cartwright was born in Georgetown, Guyana, where her father was a professional cricket player. The family moved to New York and then came to Miami when Cartwright was 13. After graduating from high school, she earned her bachelor’s degree in finance and her law degrees at the University of Florida.
“My parents thought I was a great debater as a child,” she recalls, “but I didn’t make my mind up to become a lawyer until I was a junior in college. At that time, I took a business law class, which captured my interest, and I decided on law as a career.”
While studying in Gainesville, Cartwright became a summer associate at Holland & Knight, and joined the firm as an associate in 1991 after joining the bar. Early in her career, Cartwright worked for Marilyn Holifield, the firm’s first black partner, and Judith Korchin, the first female president of the Dade County Bar Association. “I learned so much from my mentors,” Cartwright says, “and I became active in bar activities early in my career.”
Cartwright started out doing general litigation, but soon focused on labor law, which now constitutes more than 90 percent of her practice. “There’s always an interesting fact pattern, and I enjoy the interaction with people,” she says. “In this area, you also have an opportunity to go to trial more often than in the commercial side – and I really enjoy being in the courtroom.”
As a defense lawyer, Cartwright says she tries to appeal to a jury’s sense of fairness to be sure the employer gets “a fair shake.” She also knows the relevant labor law rules and statutes – a key point for the judge hearing a case.
Cartwright says there are patterns in employment disputes, as the numbers of certain types of cases rise or fall based on the national economy and other factors. “There was a slowdown in labor suits for a while because people were glad to have a job and didn’t push the envelope,” she says. “Now, the number of claims is on the rise again. I’m doing a lot of FMLA class action work, and there are many more ADA claims as well as retaliation cases.”
In recognition of her legal work, Inside Counsel magazine recently presented Cartwright with its 2011 Transformative Leadership Award, and the South Florida Business Journal recognized here in 2011 as a Miami “Ultimate CEO.” She also received Leadership Miami’s Outstanding Community Service Project Award.
Outside the courtroom Cartwright enjoys spending time with her family, including husband Dexter and sons Justin and Nickolas. Her parents are retired and live nearby, and her brother works in a Miami public relations firm. “We travel together most summers and have been all over the Caribbean, and to Spain and Portugal,” she says.
Cartwright is also an avid reader who recently finished “The Help,” Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel about black women who built an unlikely friendship around a secret writing project in the 1960s South. “I also saw the movie, and it was fairly accurate,” she says. “Discrimination these days is not as overt. But I feel fortunate in working at Holland & Knight, which has been very supportive throughout my career.”
In the past, Cartwright served as the chair for the Miami Office Women’s Initiative, a mentoring program, and currently is the executive partner for the firm’s Miami office. She also serves on the Federal Ad Hoc Grievance Committee for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida and on the board of the YWCA of Greater Miami-Dade. Cartwright has also volunteered as a “Big Sister” in the Big Brothers/Big Sisters youth mentoring program.
“Kelly-Ann has acted as an informal mentor for scores of associates during her time with the firm,” adds Roberts. “She teaches by example, whether it is how to be a better writer or how to prepare for oral argument. For those of us who have been lucky enough to have her as an official mentor, her advice, loyalty, and willingness to share what she has learned have been invaluable. I learned more from Kelly-Ann about how to practice law and how to integrate the practice of law into the rest of my life, than I could from any book, lecture or career coach.”
As a mentor, mother, wife and counsel, Cartwright has played many roles during the course of her career. But one of the constant factors in her life has been Holland & Knight. I expect to be right here at my firm ten years from now,” she says. “We have great clients and I just want to keep on doing labor and employment work like I’m doing now.”