News Column

The Case of a Lifetime

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Brigida "Bridget" Benitez spent six long years working on a pair of cases for the University of Michigan admissions office. When the Supreme Court finally settled the matter in June 2003, it marked what the New York Times called "the most important statement on affirmative action in a quarter century." Plaintiff and former University of Michigan president Lee Bollinger declared it "a great victory for American higher education, and for the nation as a whole."

At issue in the cases involving three white college applicants who claimed discrimination because race was considered in the application process was whether diversity

at public universities was a compelling state interest and whether the specific Michigan programs were "narrowly tailored" to address discrimination, as the Supreme Court had previously required.

Ultimately, although the Michigan cases yielded a split decision striking down
an undergraduate numerical system. But by upholding the university law school's system, the court clearly upheld the principle of a compelling public interest for diversity in education.

"It was a once-in-a-lifetime case," says Ms. Benitez, partner at the law firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr in Wash-ington, D.C. "I wanted to protect the opportunity for millions of people to get a college education."

Ms. Benitez's influential role in the nationally significant cases helped propel her selection as Hispanic Business magazine's 2005 Woman of the Year, honoring the national impact of her accomplishments and her long-term commitment to progress in the Hispanic community, as well as her leadership, innovation, vision, and character.

John Payton, a partner at Wilmer Cutler and one of the most prominent African-American attorneys in the nation, recalls asking Ms. Benitez to join the University of Michigan cases soon after the firm took them in 1997.

At the time, he says, people considered affirmative action a lost cause. The consensus opinion was that it was going to die, so the attorneys should "just make the noble arguments and let the end come," Mr. Payton says. "But we were determined to talk around that argument. We were in this to win, not just to play it out."

With Ms. Benitez as second chair, the legal team set out to develop new arguments about the real-world benefits of affirmative action, rather than relying on the idealism of social justice. The litigators assembled a massive body of evidence from psychologists, demographers, sociologists, educators, and historians.

"We presented concrete data on the benefits of diversity in education," Ms. Benitez says. "The experts came together, all to tell the story of how diversity helps all students."

The court quickly grasped the argument. In her opinion for the majority, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote: "These benefits are not theoretical but real, as major American businesses have made clear that the skills needed in today's increasingly global marketplace can only be developed through exposure to widely diverse people, cultures, ideas, and viewpoints."

One example of the arguments presented by Ms. Benitez and her team involved affirmative action in the military. During the Vietnam War, the Army had an all-white officer corps while the enlisted men were disproportionately minority. In combat conditions, the racial tensions contributed to what the military officially called "loss of unit cohesion." "What that means is that the soldiers were sometimes attacking their leaders and killing them," Mr. Payton explains.

To remedy the situation, the military worked to achieve racial and ethnic integration in the officer corps. That included recruiting minorities to the military academies and insisting on a diverse student body in ROTC (Reserve Officers' Training Corps) programs at colleges and universities across the country. The lawyers applied the same logic to civil professions, particularly law.

Ms. Benitez worked on the politically charged cases from their inception at a federal district court in Michigan, through the appeals courts, and all the way to oral arguments before the Supreme Court. The cases put Ms. Benitez, a prominent Republican, on the same side of the issue with traditionally Democratic groups in favor of using gender and ethnicity as a factor in college admission, an idea opposed by some conservative Republicans.

But in six years of working the case, the issue of partisanship never once came up, says the Democratic-leaning Mr. Payton. "There's a recognition in Washington that there's a need on important public issues for bipartisanship," Ms. Benitez says. "I think diversity in public education is tremendously important."

"We've had a number of high-profile Republicans, like former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who have come out in favor of the principles of affirmative action," adds Cari Dominguez, chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and a friend of Ms. Benitez. "I think there are many Republicans with similar views."

When the Supreme Court handed down its decision, praise rolled in from across the political spectrum. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle called it a "clear victory for all Americans." President George W. Bush congratulated "the Supreme Court for recognizing the value of diversity on our nation's campuses."

As the first Hispanic female partner at her firm, Ms. Benitez has a personal interest in the issue of diversity. Women now account for nearly half (48.3 percent) of law school graduates, and they make up 40 percent of the legal professionals in the private sector, a significant gain from 14 percent in 1975, according to a 2003 study by the EEOC. But Hispanics represent only about 3 percent of legal professionals, the study found, far below the Hispanic proportion of the population at 13.5 percent.

The numbers shrink at the top of the profession. Research from the National Association of Law Placement (NALP) based on 2004 data found that in Washington, D.C., only 4.9 percent of the law partners at major firms were people of color. Nationally, the figure came in even lower at 4.3 percent. In terms of gender equality, women accounted for only 17 percent of the nation's law partners. "Although the presence of women and attorneys of color at firms has increased each year since 1993, the total change since 1993 has only been marginal," the NALP observed.

"It's a rough road," Ms. Benitez concedes.

"All I can tell you is I started at Wilmer Cutler in the second year of my practice, and I was the first Hispanic woman partner. Today, I'm the only Hispanic partner."

"Bridget has been a pioneer, and she has handled it marvelously," exudes Mr. Payton.

"And being a pioneer is never easy I don't care what people say."

For her part, Ms. Benitez offers a simple remedy for prejudice and discrimination: excellence on the job. "You have to know that people are going to make negative assumptions about you, and you have to be ready to prove them wrong," she says. "When people make those assumptions, make sure the opposing side is the one that gets the surprise. The one way to break down barriers is top-level performance."

Ms. Benitez graduated from Boston College Law School, where she was a National Hispanic Scholar and served as editor-in-chief of the law review. She worked for two years at a firm in Boston before joining Wilmer Cutler in the nation's capital. Besides the Michigan cases, Ms. Benitez has handled legal matters for clients including Citigroup, Sears, Pulitzer, American Home Products, and Qwest Communications. In 2003 she obtained a multimillion-dollar arbitration settlement for the federal government's Overseas Private Investment Corp. (OPIC) for a deal in Egypt.

In her practice she also leads teams of attorneys to conduct internal investigations of Fortune 500 corporations. Here her bilingual and cultural skills come to the fore. Ms. Benitez has organized multinational investigations in conjunction with local lawyers in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and other venues in Latin America.

She often works from home before coming into the office, where she typically can stay until 7 p.m. or later. Somehow, she finds time for community and pro bono work another key consideration in the Woman of the Year Award.

Her connection to the Hispanic community played a role in her most recent volunteer work. Last year, as president of the Hispanic Bar Association for the District of Columbia, she organized a Spanish-speaking legal aid clinic. According to the Brookings Greater Washington Research Program, the proportion of the population with limited English-language skills has increased from 6 percent to 9 percent since 1990, and most of these immigrants are Hispanic. Ms. Benitez addressed
the issue by working closely with Court of Appeals Judge Vanessa Ruiz and social service organizations CARECEN (Central American Resource Center) and Ayuda.

"As an attorney, I'm not sure she has any weaknesses. She has an unbelievable personal presence. She has substantial leadership skills," says Mr. Payton. "And all that has possibilities outside the firm. That's why she is head of legal organizations."

Ms. Benitez currently is on the American Bar Association's Standing Committee on Election Law Advisory Commission and the D.C. Bar's Pro Bono Committee. She is vice-president of communications for the Republican National Lawyers Association. In addition to her presidency at the D.C. Hispanic Bar, she has served in the past as vice-president for the Hispanic National Bar Association, co-chair of the D. C. Women's Bar Association Litigation Forum, and as a member of the Advisory Committee for the Minority Corporate Counsel Association.

Mr. Payton notes that the law's tradition of public service has frayed in recent years as firms demand more billable hours from their employees. But for Ms. Benitez, community involvement is a natural part of her culture and career. Last
year, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund gave her its Excellence in the Legal Profession Award.

"The legal profession is an excellent career choice for those interested in the great debates that go on in our society," Ms. Benitez advises. "It allows you to balance your profession with public service, and I value that."

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