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Leaning back in a leather chair and gazing out at a spectacular view of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., from his expansive new digs at Greenberg Traurig, Henry Latimer says he could tell a few stories about overcoming adversity. The silver-bearded, professorial-looking Latimer, now 63, describes how he beat the odds, step by step, through persistence and sheer will. Growing up fatherless on welfare. Toiling in backbreaking jobs. Returning to finish college after dropping out for lack of money. Scouring vainly for work in the Jim Crow-era South. Going to law school at night while working full time and raising a family. Starting his own law firm when law firms wouldn’t hire him. “No one’s ever had the ability to stop me from what I wanted to do,” he says. That’s no idle boast. Latimer, a noted civil litigator and employment law practitioner, has been chosen by his peers as one of South Florida’s top attorneys in “The Best Lawyers in America” survey. He’s seen some of the same law firms that spurned him in the ’70s trip over themselves to recruit him this spring. He recently left his post as managing partner of the Fort Lauderdale office of Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott, the Pittsburgh-based firm he joined in 1994, to become a partner at Miami-based Greenberg Traurig. Part of his coping strategy is revealed in what he doesn’t talk about in relating his life story. The Jacksonville, Fla., native, who’s black, prefers not to dwell on how hard he had to fight to overcome racism. To ask Latimer how race affects his professional life and that of his African-American friends and colleagues, like Stuart, Fla., attorney Willie Gary, is to invite a bristly, guarded reply that business should be color-blind. And Latimer lives those words, as even a quick glance at his client list shows. He has represented billionaire H. Wayne Huizenga in various business dealings. He once defended the city of Miami against a race discrimination lawsuit brought by a black former police chief, Perry Anderson. Latimer says he’s interested in protecting the legal rights of his clients “irrespective of race.” SHARECROPPER PARENTS With his current trappings of wealth and power, Latimer has come a long way from the economic circumstances of his youth. He was born to sharecropper parents near Jacksonville. His father died before his birth, leaving his mother to raise him and a sister on welfare until she later trained as a beautician. He attended segregated black schools in Jacksonville, where he was a good student and a determined athlete, particularly in basketball. His sports coaches became his substitute fathers. Among the lessons they instilled was the importance of going to college. That was reinforced one summer during high school when he worked at the city dump in Jacksonville, feeding airplane parts into a melting furnace. The heat from the furnace, combined with the summer sun, nearly broiled him alive. “That was a job that would make anyone want to go to college,” he says with a laugh. He enrolled at Florida A&M University and pulled straight A’s, which qualified him for a full tuition waiver. But the school abolished the waiver policy, and he had to drop out for lack of money. So he enlisted in the Marine Corps, serving three years as an infantryman aboard ships in the Mediterranean and North Africa. During the long days at sea, he acquired a passion for reading. That’s when he first thought about becoming a lawyer. After leaving the Marines in 1960, he resumed his studies at Florida A&M, where he met his future wife, Mildred, whom he married in 1962. They now have two grown daughters. Graduating in 1963, he was unable to find work in the Tallahassee area. So he and his wife came south to Fort Lauderdale. Through his mother-in-law, whose friend worked as a maid for a Broward School Board member, Latimer got a job coaching and teaching history and economics at Dillard High School. He later took a job with the U.S. Department of Labor as a compliance officer and started taking law school classes at night at the University of Miami. Latimer finished near the top of his class; his professors, recognizing his potential, called around and tried to convince law firms to offer him a job. “There were no takers,” he says with a shrug. “So I was forced to open my own firm.” He teamed up with former judge Harvey Ford and attorney Andrew Mavrides to form Ford Mavrides & Latimer, where he practiced general civil litigation. The unlikely legal team of a Jew, a Greek and a black made headlines, he recalls with a chuckle. BALONEY DETECTOR His career took an important turn in 1979. Impatient with the tiny number of black judges, and infuriated at the standard criticism of black candidates as “unqualified,” he unsuccessfully championed a black judicial nominee. Latimer, who says he’s never been politically active, got so frustrated that he threw his own hat into the ring, even though he lacked a powerful political sponsor. “I challenge anyone to say I’m not qualified,” he told the judicial nominating commission. No one did. He was recommended by the JNC to then-Florida Gov. Bob Graham, who appointed him to the Broward Circuit bench. There he joined two other black jurists, T.J. Reddick and Alcee Hastings, giving Broward more black judges at the time than any other circuit in the state. Veteran Broward Circuit Judge Robert Lance Andrews says Judge Latimer had a friendly demeanor but an unerring ability to sniff out baloney. “Some judges can’t distill the bovine manure down to its most basic elements, but [Latimer] had a lot of common sense,” Andrews says. But, after four years on the bench and two weeks of contemplation in the mountains of Nevada, Latimer says, he decided that private practice would be more challenging. Word that he was leaving the bench circulated quickly, and the same firms that refused to consider him before suddenly besieged him with offers. Latimer chose Miami-based Fine Jacobson Schwartz Nash & Block, where he went on to practice for 11 years. Latimer’s judicial experience helped him become a mediator. He quickly found a niche focusing on commercial litigation and labor and employment law. His colleagues found him courtly and caring. “He was a good mentor to his associates and always very loyal to his team,” recalls William Nuernberg, a former Eckert partner. Another former Eckert partner, Harvey Gurland, says he was most impressed with Latimer’s “bedside manner,” his ability to comfort his clients. “You get warm feelings about him that he does care about your problems,” Gurland says. Latimer’s caring extends to after hours as well. He has joined dozens of community, charitable and professional associations, including the governing board of the Florida Bar. He says he was proudest of helping a young widow whose husband was killed while committing a felony. After her husband’s death, she was ostracized by neighbors and didn’t have enough money to take care of her children. Latimer arranged for food and clothing for the family, and helped her keep ownership of her home. “That was a very, very satisfying moment for me,” he says. Latimer doesn’t mention whether the family was black or white. Characteristically, he presents his community service, like his business dealings, as colorblind. ACTION, NOT WORDS Latimer says he’s worked hard to demonstrate that African-American lawyers are as good as anyone else in the profession. “No one will impose upon me standards that are higher than my own,” he says. Younger black lawyers have taken note. Don L. Horn, partner at Gallwey Gillman Curtis Vento & Horn in Miami, who serves with Latimer on the Florida Bar Board of Governors, regards Latimer as a role model in having reached the top tier of the legal profession against considerable odds. When law firms make hiring decisions, Horn says, “for the African-American candidate, you have got to be a superstar to be considered.” Latimer, he says, has reached that level and encouraged other black lawyers to follow his path. That was clear this spring, when rumors began circulating that Eckert might withdraw from South Florida. Latimer became the object of intense wooing by major firms. He was polite but evasive until March, when he accepted a partnership at Greenberg. “We have shown an interest in him for years, but until now, he didn’t want to talk,” said Cesar Alvarez, Greenberg’s chief executive, who clearly was delighted to get him. Other firms were dismayed. “I read about [Latimer's move] in the newspaper,” says Irving Miller, a partner at Akerman Senterfitt in Miami, “and I said, ‘That damn Henry, he never even gave me a chance to throw some shekels at him.’ ” Despite his success, Latimer keeps his guard up. He declines to discuss rumors that his exit was prompted by Eckert’s neglect of its South Florida operations. He says simply that he joined Greenberg after concluding the firm could offer him greater professional resources, including the assistance of attorneys expert in a variety of fields. But the defenses come down just enough to show he relishes being in demand — a far cry from the days when no major law firm wanted a young black lawyer like him. “I’ve never been a person who is vengeful,” he says, choosing his words carefully. “But I’ve also felt that the best vengeance is success.”

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