Hilarie Bass, J.D. '81: Advancing Women Leaders

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Hilarie Bass

Hilarie Bass, J.D. '81 (photo courtesy of the Bass Institute)

Hilarie Bass, J.D. '81, is dedicated to advancing more women to positions of leadership. "For companies to reach their fullest potential, they must successfully tap into all available talent," said Bass. "That means recruiting a diverse workforce, creating an inclusive workplace where women want to grow their careers, and helping them to take senior management roles. Otherwise, organizations will miss out on more than half of their available talent."

Bass stepped away from a noteworthy litigation career that brought her to the pinnacle of the legal profession when she launched the Bass Institute for Diversity & Inclusion. She now works with senior management of companies, law firms, and non-profits around the world to create effective strategies to retain women throughout their careers, and elevate them to senior management roles.

"Our work is based on intimate knowledge of why women leave companies and the factors that can help make them stay," said Bass, who served as Co-President of Greenberg Traurig from 2013 to 2018 and as President of the American Bar Association from September 2017 to August 2018, the largest voluntary professional association in the world. During her year as President, she traveled to more than 25 countries and implemented initiatives that included the future of legal education, wellness, diversity and fairness in the justice system. She currently chairs the ABA Rule of Law Initiative, which oversees grant-funded programs in over 100 countries.

Since launching her institute, Bass has been a keynote speaker at several U.S. and international conferences, including an Am Law 100 Managing Partners event in Washington, D.C, and Miami Business School's inaugural Diversity & Inclusion Conference in September. "Most business leaders recognize that what they have been doing for 20 years to try to achieve gender parity in senior management has not been effective," Bass said. "They also realize their organizations can't be competitive if 50 percent of their experienced talent pool walks out the door."

A Career Focused on Service

Bass grew up in South Florida, earning a "Silver Knight" in drama from The Miami Herald at Miami Coral Park High School. She decided to become a lawyer, majored in political science and graduated from George Washington University at the age of 20—the first member of her family to earn a degree. She then moved to New York and became a professional actress, before returning to Miami to resume her education. Bass enrolled at Miami Law, planning to develop a career based on service. She graduated first in her class, after having joined Greenberg Traurig as a summer associate. Through the years, she built a successful nationwide litigation practice and rose through the ranks at the Miami-based global law firm. She also maintained her commitment to pro bono service, including her advocacy on behalf of two foster children that led to the elimination of the State of Florida's 20-year-old ban on gay adoption. 

In May 2019, Bass took on an additional role as chair of the University of Miami Board of Trustees—a position that requires a "24/7 commitment" to the institution's 12 schools and colleges, as well as UHealth—the University of Miami Health System. The Board's varied workload includes finding financial support for facilities and programs, setting standards for faculty, staff, and students, and fostering a culture of collaboration, inclusion and diversity, according to Bass.

"My education and experience as a lawyer have trained me to be a problem solver," Bass said. "When clients came to my law office, my role was to identify solutions, provide them with options, and help them work their way through the issue. I enjoy serving in that same role as UM board chair."

Addressing Gender Parity

In her term as President of the American Bar Association, Bass focused on several initiatives, including a task force to examine the high rates of anxiety and depression among lawyers, and one focused on eliminating fees and fines in the criminal justice system assessed against people who could not afford to pay them. She also established a Commission on the Future of Legal Education on which she asked Miami Law Professor and Dean Emerita Patricia White to serve.

Bass is concerned about why a high percentage of women leave the practice of law before reaching senior leadership. "Very little has changed in the 37 years since I graduated," she said. In the early 1980s, about 50 percent of law school students and 50 percent of incoming attorneys were women," Bass said.

But the ABA’s study found that the number of female attorneys has dwindled to just 27 percent by age 50, leaving a significant gender parity gap in senior leadership. After reviewing the findings, Bass decided to exit her firm and spend her time working with managing partners and CEOs to assist in ensuring maximal efforts by law firms and corporate America to retain women.

Bass says senior leaders need to understand their implicit biases regarding men and women. "When male attorneys become parents, they are perceived as being more committed to the firm because they now have a family to support," she said. "However, the ABA study indicated that about two-thirds of women lawyers felt they were seen as less committed to their practice after becoming mothers, affecting their compensation and their assigned clients and projects."

Examining those unconscious biases is one of "The 7 Bass Principles" that can help senior leaders do a better job in retaining and advancing women. "Companies also need to create a culture of inclusion in order to maintain diversity," she said. "Inclusion needs to start at the top as a fundamental business goal of senior leadership."

Along with a commitment to gender parity, organizations need to collect and analyze their internal data, rather than relying on anecdotes. "For instance, certain departments may not be recruiting or retaining women professionals," Bass said. "Senior leaders need to understand why they are leaving and then take steps to fix the problem."

On the personal side, Bass enjoys working out regularly and spending time with her daughter, Rebecca, and three-year-old grandson.

A Time of Transformation

Along with being a global evangelist for gender parity, Bass is also a thoughtful observer of the changing legal profession. "Today's Miami Law students are entering the field at a time of transformation," she said. "It's an exciting time to be planning a career in law."

Technology is one of the disruptive trends, she added. Artificial intelligence and predictive analytics are providing law firms with new tools and capabilities. Technology will also open doors to competitors offering less expensive legal services, making legal assistance available to a more significant segment of the public.

Another change is the growth in social activism, added Bass. More students see the law as a platform for addressing issues related to poverty, discrimination, climate change, and social injustice. That's a theme that resonates with Bass herself.

"I feel strongly about community service and about making the world a better place to live," she said. "There is no doubt that when I look back on my career, I will be proudest of those things I did that helped improve the lives of others."

 

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