By Evan J. Cutts
When the words global citizen and service are used, Mr. Pierre Georges Bonnefil should be among the first associations that come to mind. Described by the former French Consul General of New York, Bertrand Lortholary, as “a man whose entire career has been characterized by [an] unwavering desire to reach out to as many people as possible,” Mr. Bonnefil has built a life and legacy upon tireless service to those in need. Whether they are newly-arrived French Citizens in New York, Cuban Refugees relocating to St. Louis, Missouri, or the viewership of the Montel Williams Show, Mr. Bonnefil has offered his time, expertise, and compassion to ease their transitions into the next chapter of their lives. Currently, he holds the positions of Member of the Firm in the Immigration Law Group of the Employment, Labor, & Workforce Management Practice (since 2006) and Vice Chair of Diversity and Professional Development Committee (since 2013). In 2007, Mr. Bonnefil was awarded the French National Order of Merit and, in 2015, appointed one of the highest honors in the French government, Knight of the French Legion of Honor, for his years of service to French citizens in the United States and overseas. Color Magazine had the distinct pleasure of getting the story from the esteemed lawyer himself.
Color Magazine: Can you tell me about your role and responsibilities as Vice Chair of the Diversity and Professional Development Committee at EBG?
Bonnefil: I have served on the committee since I joined EBG, and I was asked to become Vice Chair, three or four years ago. Since then, it’s become my job to further EBG’s commitment to diversity. I am, in many ways, the ambassador of the committee. I communicate with our twelve offices to advance our committee’s goals and ensure that valuing diversity is something we do every day.
CM: As a Member of the Firm, what is your business strategy?
Bonnefil: Every lawyer has their brand, and they develop that brand over the years. You have to do whatever you can to enhance that brand. As for the firm, I market it as an inclusive firm where the work our clients need gets done and where our clients will be represented well under one roof.
In terms of business development in the immigration practice, especially in New York, I often feel like everyone I know has an immigration story. Or they know someone and could refer them as a client. In those instances, I approach them by asking: What can I do for you?
I’m not overly aggressive when securing clients. I like to listen to people, to learn what their story is and how best I can help them. Speaking five languages fluently certainly helps me connect with clients in a meaningful way.
CM: Five languages? I’d love to hear more. Tell me, has speaking five languages shaped your life and path as a lawyer?
Bonnefil: Well, it started with my mother and French. We’re originally from Haiti, and at 94-years-old, she still speaks to me exclusively in French. I wouldn’t, for example, be able to fulfill my immigration volunteer obligations at the French Consulate in New York had she not insisted on speaking to me in French. When I received my two medals, I dedicated them to my mom, since she was instrumental in my upbringing.
As my family emigrated from Haiti, we lived for some years in Costa Rica and Puerto Rico. By the time I was seven, I could speak French, Creole, Spanish, and English. Italian came later in my life.
In my field, being multilingual serves me every day. When someone is immigrating to this country, for example, it means a lot to be able to communicate with them in their own language. If they feel understood, they’ll be more comfortable. Likewise, if I can better understand them, I’m more equipped to represent them.
CM: Within the numerous roles you fill, what motivates you to keep at it day after day?
Bonnefil: I was very lucky that my family was ultimately able to emigrate to the U.S. when they did and, because of that, I have much to be grateful for, in terms of my education and the opportunity to live in Costa Rica and Puerto Rico. I strive to make the most of the sacrifices my parents made for me to be here.
Beyond that, something many people may not know about me is that in 2013 I suffered a pretty severe stroke. I recovered with little or no permanent damage, and because of that I wake up every morning and say thank you. In my mind, every day is a gift, so whatever I can do to make my life, and the lives of those around, me better, I move in that direction.
CM: What is your vision for the department in the next 5 to 10 years?
Bonnefil: I want potential candidates and clients, and the general public alike to know that EBG is a diverse, inclusive, and positive environment to be in. There are so many talented and qualified candidates of color in New York, and I think there is a wonderful opportunity at EBG to recruit these diverse individuals.
Development, mentorship, and sponsorship opportunities for the younger talent are definitely something I want to continue building within EBG because these initiatives can really have an impact.
You know, there were a couple paralegals [of color] whom I worked with at the office, and after they met me they said, “Oh, wait a minute. I can be like him.”
I think I inspired them to take the LSAT and eventually go to law school. I believe, in my own little way, that by showing them that a person of color can be successful, becoming a lawyer is a goal that they too can achieve.
CM: How are you transforming your vision into a reality?
Bonnefil: We are very active about diversity in our firm. There is room to improve, of course, but there is a strong dedication to diversity here. October, for example, is Diversity Month, a program that’s been run by the firm for about seven years now. We use this month to “plant the seed,” so to speak, by sharing daily lessons on diversity and engaging our members through videos, and we celebrate various cultures with our food fair. But celebrating diversity doesn’t stop on November first; it’s a twelve-month affair.
I’m proud to say we’re entering the third year of our Professional Development Pipeline Initiative for candidates of color. Currently, we work with one candidate per year and provide them with a bird’s eye view of the practice and an invitation to sit in on trials and meet with clients, as an example. Our goal is for the candidates to fall in love with the practice so that when they graduate from law school, they can be invited to become associates at EBG.
Over the next few years, we’re working to expand the program to work with several candidates at once.
CM: In your opinion, What does it mean to be a man of color in 2017?
Bonnefil: We, as men of color, we have an obligation to be role models. It comes with the territory. We must show up for the younger generations and represent something worth achieving. In doing so, we show the world not only that we are an important component of society, but that we are intelligent, hard-working, unified, and a force to be reckoned with.
CM: How would you describe the importance of volunteer work in your life and career?
Bonnefil: What does helping someone cost me in terms of time? An hour or two? That’s a small price to pay to make a difference in someone’s life and help them move in the right direction, or avoid a life-changing mistake.
I believe that giving back is one of the most important things people can do for their community. For nearly two decades now, I’ve volunteered at the French Consulate in New York, providing free legal advice for newly-arrived French nationals. In 2015, the French government recognized my service and appointed me Knight of the French Legion of Honor.
But that was never the goal or even on my radar. I do what I do to help people, to uplift whoever I can as I climb the proverbial ladder; the honors and awards are secondary to that.
CM: If you could give some advice to your younger self, what would it be?
Bonnefil: I would encourage my younger self to do as much volunteer work as possible. And to keep studying, because education is the cornerstone of what we do. Other than that, I’d say: Listen to your heart and stay true to yourself, and to your family.