Hilarie Bass is every parent’s dream child; she is brilliant, incredibly talented, creative and curious, wickedly funny, hardworking, generous, and best of all, bursting with life. And, like most extremely successful people, Bass has a continuing love affair with her work.
Sitting in her dazzling 42nd floor corner office with floor to ceiling windows looking out to the Gulfstream and beyond, it’s hard to imagine that the Co-President of Greenberg Traurig once saved soda bottle deposits to buy school supplies.
Bass is the top female executive at the storied international law firm founded in Miami and now with offices in 36 cities throughout the U.S., Latin America, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. The second of four children, and the daughter of a journeyman folk singer/actor and stay-at-home mother, Bass’s drive to strive started at a young age.
Today, high-profile corporate clients from Florida and across the country seek her expertise on litigation when, in many cases, both a company’s reputation and millions of dollars are at stake.
The challenge of a two-hour closing argument is pure joy for Bass, but as a girl, she pictured brightness in her future as star of stage and screen. She trick-or-treated as Shirley Temple. By high school at Miami’s Coral Park, she was singled out for a Silver Knight Award, one of the nation’s most highly regarded student awards programs, in drama. Three years at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a degree magna cum laude in political science tempted her to pursue a dream career as a U.S. Senator or work in public policy.
At the age of 20, however, she headed to New York under the auspices of attending The New School studying political philosophy. At the same time, she enrolled to study under Lee Strasberg at the famed Actor’s Studio, determined to test the waters of her childhood dream.
The political philosophy study was short lived but she soldiered on as an aspiring actress for three years, supporting herself with a string of 18 waitressing jobs to pay the rent between acting gigs. Her key achievement: landing a recurring role on a soap opera, Somerset. “Had that show not gone off the air,” Bass said, “I might have never gone to law school.”
What finally pushed her to enter the world of contracts and writs was the sickening revelation that struck her one morning: acting was the only thing she had done in her life where hard work and talent had no correlation to success. Assuming she would attend either New York University School of Law or The George Washington University Law School, Bass applied to Miami Law on a lark, never envisioning returning to the city where she grew up to study law.
She was, of course, accepted everywhere, and had even thrown the Miami acceptance away, but Miami Law wouldn’t let her slip through their fingers. “Two weeks later, they sent me another letter offering me a partial scholarship to attend. I was going to be paying my own way through school,” she said. “I thought, hmmm, maybe I should think twice about this. The more I thought about it, the more sense it made. It ended up being the best move I ever made, no question about it.”
Bass’s eureka moment came as a 1L in a course called Elements of the Law, a course taught by Professor John T. Gaubatz. The class focused on following one set of cases through the courts, teaching students to think like a lawyer by showing them how the court system worked, and how judges interpreted precedent.
At the end of the semester, Bass would have to defend a case while being peppered with questions by Professor Gaubatz for 45 minutes in front of the entire class. “I was with him every step of the way,” Bass said. “When I finished, I had such a high; it was an exhilarating experience to be able to stand there and go toe-to-toe with this law professor and know the answer. I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is the most fun I’ve had in years.’”
Bass loved law school. “It was like a mind meld; I totally got it. I got what they were looking for, I loved taking law school exams; it was like a game.” Not surprisingly, she would graduate first in her class, summa cum laude, and as Editor of the University of Miami Law Review.
“Law School taught me to solve people’s problems,” she said. “Being a good lawyer is more than just being able to write a great 20-page memo. While detailed legal analysis is the foundation on which everything else is based, clients want a straightforward, focused answer about how you can solve their problems. I have to credit Miami Law with teaching me those important skills.”
Bass interviewed at Greenberg Traurig the first month of her second year for a summer associate position. She was clueless about the power of her class ranking. She sent out 100 resumes. “Greenberg was the fourth or fifth interview; they offered me a job on the spot and I immediately accepted.”
Bass found a home at Greenberg Traurig under the protective wing of Mel Greenberg, who played a key role as her mentor throughout much of her career. “Mel offered me such a wonderful role model: a brilliant lawyer, a caring community activist, and someone who was always willing to offer those in need a helping hand.”
More than 30 years after joining Greenberg Traurig, the enthusiasm Bass felt as a summer associate still remains.
“I still love solving people’s problems, standing up in a courtroom and trying to convince a jury to see things my clients’ way.” She spent eight years as the national chair of Greenberg’s 600-member litigation department and serves on the firm’s Executive Committee. She has resolved difficulties for a wide array of clients including Microsoft, Hilton Hotels, Lennar and Interval International.
Recently, she served as lead counsel for the Homebuilder Group in the Chinese drywall multidistrict litigation, which is considered one of the largest construction defects cases in U.S. history. Her work means homeowners and homebuilders will receive tens of millions of dollars back from negligent Chinese manufacturers to cover the home repairs. Just a few months ago, Bass obtained a defense verdict in a federal securities fraud jury trial.
Within the law firm and the legal industry, Bass strives to pass on what she has learned to the next generation of lawyers. While serving as chair of the ABA’s Litigation Section, she spearheaded a program that looked at implicit bias in the Justice System and another that taught trial skills to lawyers in Haiti. As part of her mission to support the advancement of women lawyers, Bass established the Greenberg Traurig Women’s Initiative, an effort that is duplicated in all 36 offices.
While Bass has been victorious in cases involving hundreds of millions of dollars, the one of which she is most proud of is the pro bono case of Frank Martin Gill in 2010. Gill and his partner were the foster parents of two boys. Florida was the only state in the U.S. to have a prohibition against gay adoption, although they were allowed to be foster parents.
Bass, as pro bono counsel for the two foster children, challenged the law and won in the trial court and again on appeal. The State decided not to push the case to the Florida Supreme Court and within days, the State committed to stop asking prospective adoptive parents about their sexual orientation.
Bass’s proudest accomplishment is her daughter Rebecca, 23, who is in her last year of culinary school and plans to open a farm-to-table organic restaurant.
Bass still believes in the power of social change, but these days effectuates it through her community involvement and philanthropic efforts. “One of the reasons that I have been so committed to the United Way over the years is because I really feel like we are changing people’s lives in significant ways by just giving them the smallest amount of help.”
That giving also extends to many causes including Miami Law. Bass has served as chair of the Board of Directors for United Way of Miami-Dade County and chair of several committees of the University of Miami Board of Trustees.
"It is important to me to give back to this institution that played such a crucial role in my development as an attorney and in shaping the person I am today," said Bass, a member of the School of Law's Visiting Committee and Momentum2 Campaign Committee. "I chose the Bricks because it's the center of campus life at the School of Law, and I have fond memories of the time I spent there. I hope that future students who gather there will leave inspired to fulfill their own dreams and go on to great success within the legal community."