Father’s Fight for Justice Seeded Path to Daughter’s Success

Father’s Fight for Justice Seeded Path to Daughter’s Success

Tiffani Lee, J.D. '97
Tiffani Lee, J.D. '97
PHOTO BY Jenny Abreu

When Tiffani Lee, J.D. ’97, was a young girl, her father was fired from his job as a result of racial discrimination. As the fourth of eight children growing up on a farm in the rural Florida panhandle, Lee watched her father fight back against his firing while struggling to provide for his family. With little money to spare, the legal challenge was daunting. “The pattern was that he would save up money, get a lawyer, run out of money, not have a lawyer, save up money…,” Lee said.

After several agonizing years, James D. Lee, Sr., won his case. He got his job back and received full back pay. The experience planted a seed that ultimately led Lee to law school.

“For my dad to have won a complete victory, it must’ve been a compelling case,” she said. “If he had had a lawyer that whole time, it probably wouldn’t have taken so long.”

The memory of her father’s experience lingered in her mind. In 1994, after graduating from the University of Florida and working for two years in South Florida, Lee enrolled at the University of Miami School of Law. She was awarded the prestigious Soia Mentschikoff Scholarship and a scholarship from the Minority Participation in Legal Education Program, which allowed her to be a full-time day student.

Lee was part of the largest incoming class of Black law students at Miami Law at the time, which sparked complaints about affirmative action and challenges to the Black students’ qualifications to be at the law school. Someone even stole admissions information about those students and gave it to the student newspaper for publication, prompting demonstrations and threats of lawsuits.

Lee said that distressing experience made her all the more determined to excel. She spent hours talking to Professor Robert Waters, the first Black professor at Miami Law, about the injustices she was experiencing. She joined the Black Law Students Association and collaborated with the Association of Caribbean Law Students to fight against the inequities.

“I was much more motivated to demonstrate that I was rightfully there and that I could be as successful as any other law student at UM,” she said. “We were resilient and gritty and determined to be successful.”

Lee not only survived but thrived. She was president of the Honor Council, writing and research editor of the University of Miami Law Review, a Society of Bar and Gavel member, and a founding fellow of the Center for Ethics and Public Service. In 1997, she was tapped for the Iron Arrow Honor Society.

Lee joined Holland & Knight as a full-time associate in 1997. Shortly after joining the firm, Lee earned a rare opportunity to work directly with Chesterfield Smith, the legendary co-founder. Lee credits Smith with creating unique opportunities for her to learn and grow, making critical introductions inside and outside the firm, and giving great advice. She recalled him introducing her as “my lawyer,” which gave her what she describes as “transferred credibility.”

“That early mentorship and sponsorship by the founder of the firm set me up for success,” she said. “He spoke about doing good and that you can have a great legal career and be somebody in the community.” Throughout her career, Lee has tried to follow those lessons—to do good and be somebody.

Lee has spent her 26-year legal career at Holland & Knight, a global law firm that now has approximately 2,200 lawyers and other professionals in 34 offices worldwide. She concentrated her practice in complex commercial litigation, handling contract disputes, corporate dissolution actions, securities fraud class actions, shareholder derivative actions, and actions alleging various business torts.

Throughout her career, Lee has prioritized doing good inside and outside the firm. She has provided pro bono representation to foster children, incarcerated persons, and homeless individuals. In the community, Lee is a member of the Orange Bowl Committee, on the board of the Florida Justice Institute, and a member of the Greater Miami (FL) Chapter of The Links, Inc. She also has guided numerous law students and younger attorneys as a mentor.

“I was the first in my family to go to law school and benefitted from several great mentors,” she said. “I feel obligated to pay it forward.”

Several publications have recognized Lee for her leadership and success, including South Florida Business Journal, Top 40 under 40; Daily Business Review, Top 10 Women in Law; Florida Trend, Florida Legal Elite and Women Leaders in Law; and Super Lawyers magazine. At Holland & Knight, she has led diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives as the firm’s diversity partner, has served on the Partner Compensation Committee, and will join the senior leadership team as deputy managing partner in April 2024.

Looking back to her time at the law school, Lee is thrilled to see the progress made at her alma mater. The year before she arrived at Miami Law, 27% of entering students were people of color. In 2023, it was 55%. Lee spoke to 1L students during their 2023 orientation. “As a proud UM Law alum, it is great to see how much investment and progress the school has made with respect to diversity, equity, and inclusion,” she said.

And when she thinks back to people who questioned whether she truly belonged at Miami Law, Lee smiles and says: “Sometimes success is the sweetest revenge.”

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