Some days, it seems like it was just yesterday while on other days it seems much longer since I first heard the news that Henry Latimer much too soon had suddenly and without warning left the physical world. Still, on all days, his words play in the background of my script as I do my best to emulate his teachings. How do I begin to capture in words the giant of a man that was Henry Latimer, who I simply knew as Lat?
My first job as a law clerk and then as a lawyer out of law school was with the Fine Jacobson law firm where somehow through charmed fate I bumped into Lat, who eagerly teased me to the effect — are you ready to work? I was. And we did — trying cases together, which started from the moment a client walked in the door until a verdict was rendered and all points in between. That moment when I first met Lat defined my path as a lawyer. I am forever thankful and blessed for that moment.
Writing this piece for the Center of Professionalism that now bears his name, the expectation might be to paint a picture of Lat as a saintly lawyer. Certainly, his clients saw his angelic aura. In truth, he was not so one dimensional. He was a brilliant warrior who fought for his clients. And when I say he fought, I mean he did so zealously and passionately. Despite the challenges he like many of us face to be civil while working within an adversarial system, Lat always exuded professionalism with the public, counsel, and the court. At all times, he conducted himself with fairness, integrity, and civility.
'I make other people's problems my problems'
The battle for Lat did not start in the courtroom but with him marshalling all the information that formed his understanding of the obvious, as well as the nuances of his client’s case. Time stopped as he first patiently listened as his client shared intimate details both relevant and not so much. He did not hurry. His mind was in the moment. He was completely focused on the client and the details of the story as it unraveled. And when he spoke, he was compassionate, warm, and confident — all of which eased the client and let them know everything was going to be alright.
He understood this was the client’s case. This was the client’s pain. This was the client’s day in court. Lat fully embraced his clients and their cases. To this day, when people ask me what I do or what is my specialty, I say I make other people’s problems my problems. That is a nod to Lat.
From that first moment until the final resolution, client communication was paramount. Lat urged not only communication with the client when there was something noteworthy but also when there was nothing of note. The client was the center of everything we did. It was our responsibility to maintain and sustain the client’s centricity. We are there for the client.
Not just as advocates with counsel and the courts but also with the client. Lat often preached we are there to counsel and advise the client not just with what the client wants to hear but sometimes it was our responsibility to gently, but firmly, guide the client in the right direction.
Lat’s empathy could not be faked — it was real
When engaged in the battle, Lat treated opposing counsel and parties with great civility and respect. He did not allow the moment or his passions or the personalities tarnish his professionalism. It would have been easy and understandable if he did so. He certainly dealt with his share of difficult lawyers, witnesses, facts, and circumstances. We had plenty of high-profile cases. We did not win every skirmish. We had setbacks. But Lat always was calm and composed. He was reflective and not reactive. When all else failed, Lat smiled broadly and warmly. And in return, the most tense moments melted away. The most difficult people may have chafed but were disarmed by Lat’s easy way.
In court, he shined brightest. When he spoke, he knew the facts. He knew the law. He weaved both with self-assurance and without pause resonating truth with his words. The court knew it could rely on him to be accurate and candid while making his argument for his client. He did not raise his voice. He did not need to. He made his points simply and clearly based on long preparations. And when he spoke to a jury, he made them feel like he too was one of them. And it was for good reason because Lat’s empathy could not be faked — it was real. Juries knew they could trust his words. Lat built trust from the first moment you met him.
I suppose I could have written about all the accolades Lat accumulated. He was first this, he had plenty of thats and had dozens of distinctions all of which looked nice on a wall. But the essence of Lat was much more. Whenever you were around him and whenever you think of him you were drawn to his warm, easy manner, which always tempered the roar of the lion just below the surface imbued with the call of justice for all who sought his counsel. May the name Henry Latimer and his memory always be for a blessing.
Michael J. Higer is a past president of The Florida Bar. He is a partner with Berger Singerman in Miami.