Black History Month Spotlight: Damian Fletcher

Featured: Damian M. Fletcher

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February 28, 2022 8:33am

 

Tell me about your law practice at Tyson & Mendes.

I am the managing partner of the Florida offices in Fort Lauderdale and Tampa.  I opened the firm’s first Florida office in 2017, after having been a partner at a medium-sized national firm for about ten years. I have practiced law for about 27 years. We currently defend mostly general liability matters involving auto negligence, premises liability, professional liability against brokers, architects and engineers, and some construction defect matters. However, my first love is medical malpractice and trucking litigation.

 

In what ways does your heritage influence your work?

As a child of the 60’s and 70’s, I grew up at a time and place where it seemed everything I did was a reflection of the larger community. Therefore, the expectation and requirement was to be as excellent as you possibly could because your accomplishments (and failures) were not yours alone. And not everyone was cheering for you.  In the early 1970’s when I entered public school, schools in my community had only recently been desegregated (officially) and many teachers had little to no prior experience with or desire for teaching Black kids. Desegregation of public schools in my community was monitored by the federal court until 1990. After getting my bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida, I started law school in 1992 at The Florida State University College of Law. My class was the largest class with the highest percentage of Black students in the history of the law school as of that year. Not everyone saw that as an accomplishment. Some students even protested our presence, arguing we were only there because of affirmative action and that we would devalue the prestige of the law school and their law degrees. It was the subject of open debate and the Dean had to convene an open forum to discuss the issue. This only emboldened us to do better. In the end, the bar passage rate for white students in our class was no better than the Black students, and most of us passed the first time. (Some of my African American law school classmates have become law firm partners, managing partners, owners of law firms—some with national profiles—judges, federal magistrates, and even law professors). So, striving for excellence under difficult and sometimes hostile circumstances has become second nature. Even though when I entered law school,  I had no intent or expectation to be a litigator, I believe my heritage prepared me to recognize unfairness and injustices and deal with them under difficult and hostile circumstances. There probably wasn’t a better training ground for defense litigation than that!

 

What Black mentors have inspired or influenced you and in what ways?  

Joseph “Joe” Bell was my middle school band instructor who taught me to play the saxophone and led me to the All-County Concert Band that comprised the best musicians in an age group across the county to play in one concert band performance. He taught me the value of hard work and consistency. But most of all, he made me believe I could do anything if I made up my mind to be excellent. We are still friends today.

I did not get a chance to spend much time with Judge Henry Latimer before his untimely passing. He was an esteemed member of the bar and of the Black community in South Florida. He set me on the path to where I am today. He counseled me to take a job in Tampa, FL against my will. I really did not want to move to Tampa, and I most certainly did not want to be a public defender. I wanted to work for him or at a firm like his. And I wanted to go home to South Florida. At the time, before he became a judge, he was the managing partner of a Miami law firm. He assured me that,  even though it would take longer and be bit more difficult to get to where I wanted, moving to Tampa was the best path forward for me at the time. I trusted him, and he was right. He had an impeccable reputation for professionalism and legal ability. He was posthumously recognized by the Florida Bar. According to the Florida Bar’s website, “The Center for Professionalism was renamed The Henry Latimer Center for Professionalism in honor of Judge Henry Latimer. Judge Latimer served as one of the first African American judges in Florida. He had a 30-year career as a lawyer and judge, which was exemplified by passion, excellence, wisdom, and diplomacy. Henry Latimer served as a mentor to thousands, instilling in them his passion for equality, excellence, respect, and professionalism.” I have tried to live up to his standards each and every day in my professional life, with grace under pressure, strength in the face of adversity, and professionalism even if it hurts.

Delano Stewart is probably the oldest living Black lawyer in Florida today. He sought me out when I got my first legal job in Tampa, FL as a public defender. Co-incidentally, he was the first African American Assistant Public Defender in Hillsborough County where Tampa is located. It was the first time in my life that I was not a student, and I had a difficult job as a public defender. He made the world much smaller and familiar by introducing me to many influential people and getting me involved in the legal community. He is an elder statesman in the true sense of the term. He did not believe in going home early. He always said, “Why go home now? There is no improvement there.” He taught me that even though fear was an enemy, I had to make friends with it and use it. That took a while, and I do it only grudgingly. He has no shortage of stories about his own experiences as one of the very first Black members of the Florida Bar, traveling around the state, fighting for justice in both criminal and civil courts. He opened doors for many Black lawyers, and he has pushed me to do the same when I can. Most of all he has provided perspective for almost every life experience I have had since I have known him. He retired after 51 years in the profession, but he is still a dear friend to this day.

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