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Suskauer to be a champion for Florida lawyers: 'I know what it's like to bring in business and deal with increased competition'.

Michelle Suskauer, an intensely driven and reform-minded criminal defense attorney from West Palm Beach, was sworn in as president June 15 at The Florida Bar's 68th Annual Convention at the Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek.

Surrounded by her daughters, Talia and Becca, and her husband, 15th Circuit Judge Scott Suskauer, the eight-year Board of Governors veteran waved her kindergarten report card and, in a flash of self-deprecating humor, poked fun at her take-charge reputation and outsized personality.

"Michelle is an enthusiastic, happy child. Michelle is especially verbal," Suskauer quoted her teacher. "Michelle has a tendency to be a bit bossy. Michelle finds it difficult to share attention with others."

Smiling broadly and pausing for effect, Suskauer deadpanned, "Well, I've changed quite a bit since then."

A skilled debater with a quick wit and iron resolve, the 52-year-old is known mostly outside of Bar circles for her work as a legal analyst for NBC, FOX, MSNBC, and CNN.

But in an emotional tribute before her swearing in, Scott Suskauer recounted how his wife is better known locally for her work as president of the board of directors of the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County.

Each year, the judge said, his wife emcees a legal aid society ball that raises as much as $250,000 for charity. When she noticed some of her jailed clients were illiterate or poor readers, she began a "Breakfast and Books," literacy program that matches local attorneys with inmates struggling to improve themselves, Judge Suskauer said.

That same energy and determination sustained them in the early years, the judge said.

"Relentless, passionate, selfless, that's Michelle Suskauer," he said. "Her path to president has been quite different ... She chose to represent and fight for the indigent accused, the most unpopular underdog in a mom-and-pop small business together, just like the majority of our Bar."

Fighting for the underdog became a central theme of Michelle Suskauer's subsequent remarks.

She vowed to continue promoting equality for women, pledging that this year the Bar will begin implementing the recommendations from a special committee on gender equity--including a "blue ribbon" designation for firms that meet hiring, promotion, and retention targets.

And in an acknowledgement of the "#MeToo" movement, Suskauer promised to beef up reporting mechanisms for lawyers and judges who witness bias and discrimination, and to better communicate existing regulations.

"Given the national conversation regarding gender bias and sexual harassment, the high-profile figures being exposed, resigning from their positions and some even arrested, if we are going to make a change, it is here, it is now, and The Florida Bar will be a driving force of change under my leadership," Suskauer said.

During her nearly 50,000-mile campaign trek to virtually every corner of Florida's 20 judicial circuits, Suskauer said she listened carefully to the concerns of every day lawyers "and took it all in."

"I heard about the challenges lawyers are facing--emerging technology, work-life balance, the civility of opposing counsel, and how the practice of law has changed and continues to evolve," Suskauer said. "I know that it is not easy practicing law, I know what it's like to bring in business and deal with increased competition and balance family life and Bar service."

The take-home lesson, Suskauer said, was that the Bar needs to reconnect with, and bolster services to, the 75 percent of members who--like she and her colleagues at Dimond Kaplan & Rothstein--toil every day as sole practitioners or in firms with fewer than 10 attorneys.

"One way we can do that is with LegalFuel --The Practice Resource Center of The Florida Bar," Suskauer said. "The new site, which will officially launch next month, will offer law office management and technology support for Bar members. This will be free of charge and will assist lawyers with the business aspects of running a law firm."

Suskauer added that, "I'm so excited that it will have resources for all lawyers, especially solos and small firms and it will host a variety of free CLEs so that members can devote their time to what they love to do ... the practice of law."

While Suskauer touts her 52 percent female appointment rate to leadership posts on Bar committees, she has spent much of the past year telling small groups that she yearns for the day when her status as only the sixth female Bar president no longer makes headlines.

Just as telling, Suskauer said, is that women presidential candidates have been discouraged from running, or tend to draw opposition when they do.

Instead, Suskauer stressed another hallmark, her status as the first former public defender to hold the Bar's top job.

She vowed to use her new office to address the failures of a criminal justice system she has navigated for 26 years.

"Florida currently has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country and the result is not good, a system based on punishment, as opposed to rehabilitation, which does nothing to reduce crime or recidivism," Suskauer said. "This is the time for meaningful criminal justice reform."

To that end, Suskauer said, she will call a first-of-its-kind criminal justice "summit" in October and gather together judges, elected state attorneys and public defenders, a bi-partisan group of lawmakers, and academics with a wide range of perspectives.

"They will provide in-depth discussion and most importantly--collaboration --on important issues facing Florida's criminal justice system," Suskauer said.

By Jim Ash

Senior Editor

Caption: SURROUNDED BY HER DAUGHTERS, Talia and Becca, and her husband, 15th Circuit Judge Scott Suskauer, Michelle Suskauer was sworn-in as Bar president by Justice Barbara Pariente June 15 at the Bar's Annual Convention in Orlando.

Caption: MICHELLE SUSKAUER became the sixth female president of The Florida Bar when she was sworn in on June 15 in Orlando. Suskauer is pictured here with the women lawyers who preceded her. From the left are Gwynne Young, Mayanne Downs, Suskauer, Kelly Overstreet Johnson, Edith Osman, and Pat Seitz. Suskauer has vowed to continue promoting equality for women, pledging that this year, the Bar will begin implementing recommendations from a special committee on gender equity.
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Author:Ash, Jim
Publication:Florida Bar News
Geographic Code:1U5FL
Date:Jul 1, 2018
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