It seems that everyone who knew Sonny Flowers personally or professionally learned something from him, whether about building a successful career as a Black attorney or living a full life and not taking things too seriously. And people tend to remember his easy smile and “infectious” laugh.
“Every time I think of him, that is immediately what comes to mind. The smile on his face and the laugh that always seemed to be at the tip of his tongue,” said Holland & Hart partner Chris Toll, who didn’t work directly with Flowers but knew him as a colleague.
“Sonny lived a full life,” said Denver County Court Judge Gary Jackson, whose friendship with Flowers dates back to their college years. “[He] did basically everything he wanted to do before he died, whether that’s fishing in Alaska or traveling to Brazil for vacation or being president of trial organizations.”
W. Harold “Sonny” Flowers, Jr. died July 29 at 74. Flowers stands out In Colorado’s legal profession as one of a handful of names that always comes up when talking about long-fought efforts to improve diversity and increase opportunities for Black lawyers, no small feat for someone who grew up and worked in Boulder. The University of Colorado Law School had a tiny handful of Black students when Flowers attended in the late 1960s. He served as president of the Sam Cary Bar Association and the Boulder Bar Association.
Flowers spent most of his career in private practice doing plaintiffs’ work, for eight years at Holland & Hart and at his own practice, for a time along with Penfield Tate, Jr., who later was elected as Boulder’s first Black mayor. Flowers practiced at Hurth Sisk & Blakemore for the last years of his career.
As part of a generation of older lawyers that’s now aging out of the profession, it wouldn’t be uncommon for Flowers to be the only person of color in a given room or leadership position. And Toll remembers a meeting at which partners were discussing attorneys up for possible election to partnership. Flowers was one of few, if not the only Black partner at Holland & Hart at the time. Another Black attorney was up for possible promotion to partnership, and Toll remembers Flowers stood up and said one word when the attorney came up for discussion:
Toll said it was a powerful moment because while the comment had a lighthearted tone and made others in the room laugh, they also immediately understood the point Flowers was making.
“He said more in that one word than probably every other partner did in all their combined comments about all the candidates that day,” Toll said. “I think that it reflects a lot of Sonny’s character traits. It shows his great sense of humor, and also he knew how to be persuasive.” Toll remembers the attorney in discussion was elected to partner.
Jackson said he believes the obstacles faced by Flowers’ parents in a still-segregated society motivated Flowers to open more doors for himself. His mother had three advanced degrees but still lived in a segregated part of Boulder. Flowers’ father was an early president of the National Bar Association, which was formed because the American Bar Association did not admit Black attorneys at the time. “I think Sonny’s motivation was a self-motivation to be able to do those things and to be those things that his parents never had the opportunity to be afforded,” he said.
David Powell, now a deputy attorney general in the Colorado Office of the Attorney General, also overlapped with Flowers at Holland & Hart. He said although Flowers had plenty of criticism for law firms and their slowness in increasing diversity, Flowers didn’t discourage Powell – who also spent several years at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck – from working at large firms.
“He didn’t have a bad attitude and he didn’t try to extend [it] so that it would impact my success. He would call things like they were, but he always was positive in his discussions with me,” Powell said. “Even though he didn’t think that being in a big law firm was necessarily the right thing for him for the entirety of his career, he never really discouraged me from being at a big law firm.”
Flowers already had a background as a plaintiffs’ attorney when he arrived at Holland & Hart. Partner Maureen Witt worked with Flowers on cases representing plaintiffs who had contracted HIV from blood transfusions. She said he had sharp instincts about how jury members were likely to react to certain evidence, which she said she believes was a product of Flowers’ natural outgoing nature and ability to relate to people.
Flowers left Holland & Hart after eight years. Powell said he believes Flowers’ eventual return to practicing at a small firm was probably based on his desire to keep doing plaintiff work and criminal law, which don’t tend to be core focuses for big firms.
“As far as representing individuals in criminal matters, representing individuals in personal injury matters, that wasn’t Holland & Hart’s bread and butter. And that was really more Sonny’s bread and butter,” he said.
Being a Black attorney in leadership roles meant Flowers took on a mentor role for younger Black lawyers carving out their own places in the legal profession. Penfield Tate III met Flowers as a child through his father. Along with admiration of the Afro hairstyle Flowers once had and outspokenness about racism he encountered going to school and working in Boulder, Tate relied on him and Jackson for advice about his law practice.
“They were people I got together with to help navigate professional life. Even though my father was an attorney, sometimes you want advice from other folks who aren’t necessarily your parents.”
Tate remembers a particular complex wrongful death case he had that he reached out to Flowers for guidance on. Flowers emphasized the importance of using plain language to present his case in order to make it relatable to the jury.
“I’ll never forget that, because just as he walked me through that, even though I was very familiar with the case and the facts and the emotion and everything, it even hit me differently as he was teaching me how to articulate the case so that someone could pick it up and just read it like a storybook,” Tate said.
Witt also remembered the sincerity of Flowers’ character, which she said came through whether he was talking about something lighthearted or something in disagreement.
“Sonny was nothing if he was not genuine,” she said. “He didn’t sugarcoat things that he told you, but he told you in a way that you could have a really good, respectful conversation about it.”