Kelly-Ann Gibbs Cartwright. Photo: J. Albert Diaz

Kelly-Ann Gibbs Cartwright enjoys arguing, she said.

“I enjoy going to court. I enjoy writing as an advocate in a persuasive manner,” Cartwright said. “And I enjoy arguing.”

That, she said, is in part why she is so well-suited to do her job as a litigator.

Cartwright is the executive partner for Holland & Knight in Miami and recently was elected as chair of the firm’s Directors Committee, the 27-member policy-making board of the firm.

Cartwright primarily litigates employment law cases on behalf of employers.

Often, she said, that means showing the human side of companies as a way to convince juries that companies in reality are people.

“It’s going to be your job as a trial attorney to personalize the corporation and the people who make it up and try to convince the jury that the decision the corporation made, especially if it involves the termination of someone’s employment, was not only legally right but also fair,” Cartwright said. “I enjoy personalizing the corporation. I enjoy showing the juries that the people who made these decisions are people, too.”

Her experience as an employment law litigator is diverse. It includes arguing on behalf of a range of companies, from hospitality to transportation and aviation, she said. And it includes cases over allegations of discrimination based on national origin and religion, she said.

Path Wasn’t Always Clear

Cartwright didn’t originally set out to be an attorney.

“There was no grand plan from a child wanting to be a lawyer,” she said.

Instead, a series of events led her to the job — a class she took, speaking with one of her college professors, attending a career fair, she said.

Cartwright was in her junior year pursuing her undergraduate degree in business administration in finance at the University of Florida when she attended the career fair.

“They were talking about the various options to individuals with a finance degree. Investment banker was one of them,” she said. “But I didn’t think there were many opportunities for investment bankers in South Florida.”

Cartwright was born in Georgetown, Guyana. Her family moved to England when she was 5 weeks old and when she was 5 years old, they moved back to Guyana for seven years. Eventually the family moved to the U.S., first to New York and then to South Florida, where she attended middle school and then graduated from Miami Sunset Senior High School.

She planned to move back to South Florida after graduating from the University of Florida, she said.

As an undergraduate student, she enjoyed her business law class and eventually opted to pursue her law degree there, she said.

At first, she wanted to be a transaction corporate lawyer, she said. But after working in the summer for Holland & Knight, and then joining the firm after law school, she changed her mind.

“When you start actually practicing and you have an opportunity to work in different departments within the firm, I realized that litigation was more suited to me and my personality more so than the transactional world.”

Directors Committee Chair

Cartwright has spent her entire legal career at Holland & Knight.

“When you’ve worked for a firm for that long, you are really invested in the firm,” Cartwright said. “You are invested in its success. You want to be part of a firm.”

As a member of the Directors Committee and now its chair, she has taken a leadership role in the firm’s future and policies.

The 27 members of the Directors Committee are elected by the firm’s equity partners working at Holland & Knight’s various offices, she said. Recently, Cartwright was elected chair by the committees’ 26 other members, becoming the first African-American woman to be elected to that post at Holland & Knight.

“I hope I make some significant contributions,” she said. “We are in a very competitive legal environment, so it’s important for a firm to stay on top of matters, from expenses to revenue.”

Civic Involvement

Cartwright’s hard work hasn’t been entirely focused on her career. She also has been involved in the community.

She has supported the YWCA of Greater Miami Dade Inc. and has served as a board member and a term as executive vice president, although she no longer is on the board, she said.

YWCA of Greater Miami Dade is part of YWCA USA, a national organization that works to empower women, eliminate racism and other social justice issues.

In the end, Cartwright’s story is that of an immigrant who worked to achieve the American dream.

“I am an immigrant to the United States and I still view the U.S. as the land of opportunity,” she said. “For the most part, if you work hard, you can be successful. A little luck has to come along with that but there are opportunities out there.”

Kelly-Ann Gibbs Cartwright 

Born: Georgetown, Guyana; 1967

Spouse: Dexter Cartwright

Children: Justin and Nicholas

Education: University of Florida, J.D. 1991; B.S.B.A. Finance, 1988

Experience: Holland & Knight summer associate 1990, started as an associate September 1991