Q&A with H.T. Smith and Alan Kluger: Creating a Diverse Workforce in the South Florida Legal Community

By May 4, 2021

Earlier this year, Kluger Kaplan launched its inaugural H.T. Smith Legal Studies Scholarship to support minority law school students who have a strong connection with the South Florida community. The scholarship is named after H.T. Smith, founding Director of the Trial Advocacy Program at Florida International University College of Law – who was Miami’s first African American assistant public defender, first African American assistant county attorney, and the founding president of the Black Lawyers Association.

Smith’s entry into private practice marked the launch of Downtown Miami’s first Black-owned law firm. Smith also led the Boycott Miami Campaign, the Quiet Riot, in response to local politicians snubbing Nelson Mandela when he visited Miami in 1990.

This year, the legal industry and law schools across the U.S. have been under pressure to expand diversity and inclusion. Specifically in Florida, 84% of Florida Bar members are white and Black lawyers represent only 3% of attorney headcount at the state’s 10-largest firms – and only 2% of all partners.

Against this backdrop, Alan Kluger and H.T. Smith discuss the firm’s goals for launching the scholarship in an effort to create a more diverse workforce and industry.

Can you talk about your relationship and how you came together for this initiative?

HS: In 1976, I became the first black lawyer in Miami-Dade County Attorney’s Office, and one of the first interviews I participated in was with Alan’s wife, former judge Amy Dean. I was the only black attorney and she was the only female. When she came in, we became friends and partners. We made sure we were treated fairly and opened the vault for opportunities for other black and female attorneys.

I founded the Wilkie D. Ferguson, Jr. Bar Association and have been working on this issue of scholarship and mentoring for 48 years. When Alan called me, I knew it was right up my alley and was very pleased to answer his questions and input my suggestions. I told him that it’s not just about money – if you look at any successful person, they had some kind of mentor who helped them advance. And like anybody else, you have to earn it. If you get an internship, it gives you the opportunity to prove your work.

The final product for the scholarship was a dream come true. We’re already seeing other firms interested in formulating similar programs, and that’s progress. I was honored that the firm allowed me to have my name connected with this transformative initiative. 

AK: I was looking at this systematic racism in Miami and other parts in the country and thought, ‘The only way this is going to change is if we go out there and do something.’ When you play in the same sandbox as groups who have been historically excluded, it ends rapidly. I came up with the idea to create a scholarship and called the person who I most respect, H.T. Smith.

When I initially called him, this was just a concept. He said I needed to name it after someone – he even gave me names to use! I sent those names to the partners, and they asked, “Why isn’t it the H.T. Smith Scholarship?” There’s nobody who’s more deserving, and I called him right after.

Why has diversity historically been an issue for Kluger Kaplan and in the South Florida legal community?

AK: Almost everyone at our firm starts with us from the beginning of their career. We made offers to four African American summer associates – three out of the four said they were going to New York, D.C., LA, because there’s more opportunities there for African American lawyers then there is in Miami.

That’s when we said we need to do something that is going to be an incentive for minority students to stay here. We needed to be proactive; It’s not going to happen by itself.

HS: When I applied to the County Attorney’s Office, I was the only lawyer in the office who had not attended an Ivy League School or was on Law Review, but I had won every case that I tried. In the 48 years that I’ve been practicing, I’ve never been offered a job by a white law firm. The same thing is happening in Miami Dade County. There are very good black law students who are leaving Miami because they do not feel they have opportunity here to reach their full potential. It’s about creating opportunities with intentionality.

H.T., how has your experience leading the Black tourism boycott and pioneering trails for African American attorneys affected your perspective on diversity? What has been one of the greatest lessons you’ve learned?

HS: One of the greatest lessons that I learned is that talent and accomplishment are not sufficient in an environment where people are not intentionally providing equal opportunities for everybody. For us to be able to make diversity meaningful, we need to have white allies who commit to providing opportunities with intentionality. We also need an infrastructure of black professionals who make people feel comfortable outside of the workplace. I believe we will see this when we have enough black professionals in every profession. I’m looking forward to living to see that day for my children and grandchildren.  

I also learned that it is hard to be the first person, but it is a leadership opportunity. People need to stand up and be the first to create a pathway for others.

What are your goals for the firm and community at large in creating the scholarship initiative? Why is a step like this important to the larger goal of creating a more diverse workforce?  

AK: In Hebrew there’s a word that means follow me, “Aharai,” that officers in the Israeli army follow when they stand on the frontlines. The concept is if you are really going to lead, you have to lead by action.

The legal profession has been behind in this, but you don’t need a whole lot of action to change the metrics. If you had 10 firms creating similar initiatives, you would have a dynamic that overshoots the mark within three years. Miami is also the number one city in the country for people wanting to relocate, so the timing for this is perfect.

There is no lack of good will, there’s just inaction. But they both get you to the same place.

HS: Having diversity in our community requires intentional, coordinated, positive, action and the feeling of belonging. Kluger Kaplan is showing the way. If you can get a conversation going with smart people who want to make a difference and have the ability to, you begin to see change.

What is your message to law firms that may want to create opportunities for minority students but don’t know where to start? 

HS: Start by looking at what others have done, not just here but around the country. Talk to black lawyers and people who work with them. I always laugh when organizations pay consultants to tell them what students want. I raise my hand and ask, “Have you asked the customer what the customer wants? That’s the most important person.”

With regards to needs, you can give a scholarship, but black law students are yearning for mentorship. Students who were at the top of their class and did well in school now feel like a fish out of water because it hasn’t been their life experience. They need to have a mentor, black or white, to help guide their path, tell them what organizations to join, how to network, and who can help them in a non-work environment. People want to feel comfortable. Proximity can make a big difference between a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ for an internship or job opportunity.  

AK: It benefits us as much as it benefits them. Having a diverse and inclusive environment enriches everyone – accelerate it at your work.