Lawyers set table for more diversity

By Ernest Hooper, Times Columnist
Published February 22, 2008

When attorney Tony Cabassa first moved to Tampa 11 years ago, entering into the legal community turned out to be a bit daunting.

The Florida State University law school graduate knew only a few classmates from Tallahassee, and it took him a while to find his place among the area judges and lawyers.

"It can be a little intimidating, especially for someone who didn't grow up in Florida," said Cabassa, who at least had the advantage of being a Miami native.

Now that Cabassa, a labor and law attorney for Thompson, Sizemore & Gonzalez, is on firm ground, he's hoping to make it easier for the young lawyers coming out of school today. The president of the 2-year-old Tampa Bay Hispanic Bar Association has led the effort to create the inaugural Central Florida Diversity Picnic.

The event will take place Saturday at 1 p.m. at the Stetson University College of Law Tampa campus, and will include food, entertainment and prizes for students from all 11 of the state's law schools. Judges and attorneys, including state Supreme Court justice Peggy Quince and Florida Bar president Frank Angones, will be among the 300-plus attendees.

In addition to being president of the Hispanic lawyers group, Cabassa also belongs to the Hillsborough County Bar's diversity committee and the George Edgecomb Bar Association. That's helped bring on board a number of other bar associations and firms from Pasco County to Sarasota County.

Cabassa says the event is galvanizing the legal community because of the success of a similar event in South Florida that annually draws nearly 2,000 people.

"We're riding off of some of the reputation of the South Florida event," Cabassa explained. "The idea was to do a similar event up this way because not every lawyer in Florida wants to work in South Florida. I don't mind South Florida, I grew up there. But a lot of people have fears of going to the big city in Miami."

Ultimately, Cabassa hopes the Central Florida event will be as significant as South Florida event. It may end up shuttling between Tampa and Orlando to include all lawyers, firms and students along the Interstate 4 corridor.

For now, the inaugural event is a grand opportunity for the area legal community to sell itself to aspiring attorneys. Getting a chance to meet some of Tampa Bay's top legal professionals in an informal setting could be the first step to getting these young folks to relocate here.

Of course, the students also have to be sharp. Even at a picnic, they way they converse and carry themselves could influence their futures.

"We're going to look for people who are good on their feet, very personable and come off with a good presence," Cabassa said. "The books and the academics are good, but I like to look more at the persona and the personality. There will be 20 of us to facilitate communications between the local lawyers, the judges and the students. We just want to make it as friendly as possible."

Normally, when you have a picnic, you want people to come, eat, have a good time and eventually leave and go home. As my mom used to say, no one likes a guest who overstays his welcome.

But this time, we're willing to make an exception.

That's all I'm saying.