As his two years as president comes to an end, there’s a lot for Michael Higer to reflect on. In this episode of The Florida Bar Podcast from the 2018 Annual Florida Bar Convention, host and president-elect John Stewart talks to Florida Bar President Michael Higer about his position. They discuss his initiatives, including his focus on lawyer health and wellness, and the challenges he overcame dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.
Michael Higer is a partner of Berger Singerman’s Dispute Resolution Team and the immediate past president of The Florida Bar.
The Florida Bar Podcast
2018 Annual Florida Bar Convention: President Michael Higer
Intro: Welcome to The Florida Bar Podcast, where we highlight the latest trends in law office and law practice management to help you run your law firm, brought to you by The Florida Bar’s Practice Resource Institute. You are listening to Legal Talk Network.
John Stewart: Hello and welcome to The Florida Bar Podcast, brought to you by The Practice Resource Institute on Legal Talk Network. This is John Stewart recording from the 2018 Annual Florida Bar Convention here in Sunny Orlando, Florida. Thank you for joining us today.
I happen to be the President-elect elect, President-elect designate, the name is uncertain, but I am joined today by our current President Michael Higer for 24, 36, 48 more hours and we are going to talk about his term, and before we do let’s just learn a little bit about our President Michael Higer; so, Mr. President, please tell the audience about yourself?
Michael Higer: Well, that’s a pretty wide-open question there, but of course, I would expect nothing less from you, President-elect designate John Stewart. I am a native born of Miami, Florida. Lawyer practicing in South Florida, Miami mostly, with the law firm of Berger Singerman, and I am, as you said, John, I am for X amount of hours, minutes, seconds, the current President of The Florida Bar, and I am sure there are others out there who are doing the countdown as we speak.
John Stewart: So, we’re excited to talk to you today because 2016 at this very venue you were in my position being ready to be sworn in as President-elect of The Florida Bar, and now here we are, fast forward, you finishing your fantastic years as President-elect and President. So, how would you sum up those two years, I mean, do you feel like it goes by pretty fast?
Michael Higer: Yes, so I get that question a lot; especially, over the last month or so and more so with every single day. Oh, this year, it really seems like it’s gone fast and I always say back to them, that’s because it wasn’t you. There are certainly days that were longer than others and seemed to go faster than others. It’s really been and you’re in store for a really great treat, John. I know you already impart know this because you are engulfed in Bar world and it defines in large part who you are and you have a great passion for Bar service. But, I don’t think you can in any way comprehend what you are about to embark on. I mean, your Present-elect year is going to be a great year and you will be very supportive.
I’m sure of, Michelle, as she goes through her year as President, but it really won’t hit you until the minute you put up your arm a year from now and become President and then the trials and tribulations that you will experience, the good, the bad, the ugly, between the start to the finish of that year, but it’s a great ride, it’s a great rollercoaster. It’s probably one of the most fun, exciting, interesting, intriguing things I’ve ever done, and I’m sure it’ll be the more so for you. I am looking very much forward to your year.
John Stewart: Well, I appreciate you saying that. We know you had a fantastic year. We also know that comes with a lot of planning. You’re known as a great planner, a great notetaker, someone who gets down to the details, and as I think through this year that we spent together, maybe it didn’t totally go as scripted, notwithstanding the fact that it was an excellent year. We had Hurricane Irma. It may have been a little bit of surprise for you. The Health and Wellness Revolution may have been percolating, but it certainly took on a life of its own.
So, let’s run through some of those really areas where you had to go off script and still be President, maybe we’ll start with Irma, Irma was certainly an unanticipated event which was a lot of work, but I know went very well.
Michael Higer: I think for me, and everyone has their own style. John, you are at least, to outward appearances, you are a back of the envelope kind of guy, but I’m confident that’s not really the case.
For me what works is to be extremely organized and to be uber-organized. My lists, as folks know, not only have lists but they are highlighted and they are cross-referenced.
And so, when Irma came along, obviously I couldn’t predict that Irma was going to happen, but we approached Irma not as an obstacle or not as a challenge but for an opportunity to better serve and better connect with our members, and so we had great resources in terms of the Young Lawyers Division who hit the ground running for us on that.
They work with FIMA to set up a hotline so that they could help folks who were suffering all across the State. We worked with our voluntary Bar organizations and then our Chief Justice, Justice Labarga was incredibly on top of it from day one.
We had multiple, multiple meetings and conferences internally with our Board members, with our executive team of the Bar, and with the court so that even though the court — I think all but one or two counties had court closures as a result of Irma. It was a very small number of courts that were able to stay open, but notwithstanding that court function and the delivery of court service continued throughout and following Irma. And I think that was in large part due to organization, due to planning, and due to the leadership of Chief Justice Labarga.
John Stewart: And the Bar kept functioning?
Michael Higer: The Bar never missed a beat. In fact, again we saw it as a great opportunity to reach out to our members, probably connect with our members in ways. They didn’t know we even existed. I mean, oftentimes – and I understand that and I think we use Bar leaders know that is that our Bar members don’t really think about the Bar very much. They are out there practicing and serving their clients as well they should be. And it’s only in certain rare situations like a crisis, like a hurricane where all of a sudden they want to know, hey, where’s my Bar? Who’s helping me to get my practice back up and running? Who can I go to, to get some funding to help me re-get started, and the Bar was there and I think that provided us with a great opportunity to connect with folks.
And again, I have to give great credit to President Zack Zuroweste of the Young Lawyers Division, Christian George who’s going to become the President of the Young Lawyers Division, because they really showed great leadership in terms of the Young Lawyers Division’s response to that. Again, I hate to call it a “crisis” by that opportunity to be there for our members.
John Stewart: And so, unfortunately for you, as President a lot of thing, the only thing you have absolute control over is where your meetings are, and even you didn’t have control over that because Irma took your out-of-state meeting from Boston to the Gaylord Palms, but we all agree that it was the right thing to do for our members for the Bar, for all the people that we were assisting.
It’s interesting to me — I came up to the Young Lawyers Division, so I’m interested. From your President’s perspective, you mentioned President Zuroweste of the Young Lawyers Division and Christian George will be sworn, how is it to work with some of the young leaders that we have?
Michael Higer: I think in Florida and in my experience as a Bar leader that, that is one of the most enriching parts of Bar service. I did not come up through the Young Lawyers Division. I had a very brief cameo in the Young Lawyers Division when I first started out. It just wasn’t for me. At that time I wasn’t ready for it, but I am constantly impressed by the folks who now serve on the big Board who are from the Young Lawyers Division, present company excluded, John. But, Zack and Christian and the Young Lawyers Division as a whole are just phenomenal. I mean, I say it all the time, which is, if you want to get something done in the Bar, just give that project to the Young Lawyers Division. And if you want make sure that it’s done better than it’s ever been done before, give it to Zack Zuroweste.
I mean, I think I’m an uber-organized person. Zack takes it to a whole new level. His Board loves him, and he does it with such great enthusiasm and great attention to detail, there is nothing that I asked Zack that he didn’t accomplish, and frankly, I don’t have to ask Zack to do anything because he was always two, three, four steps ahead of me in terms of pushing the initiative, which was certainly the case with Irma.
John Stewart: So, you and I were both in what is now known as the Standing Committee on Health and Wellness before we came to the Legal Talk Network Podcast?
Michael Higer: We walked a mile from there to get here which in and of itself provided us with some physical exercise.
John Stewart: Which is at least on my part certainly needed. So, I don’t know, maybe you can explain to us, I mean, was that part of your original vision? Was it something that just sort of, I know, we had some events in Florida that may be heightened the awareness of it, but now this is probably the most talked about issue for Florida lawyers?
Michael Higer: I wish I could say that I had the vision in a sense that I knew how well it would be received, and I’m not sure that’s the right phrase to say, well-received. I certainly knew it was important and it was certainly something that was important to me personally and it has been for me for many years, and I did not see getting traction at the Bar level for a variety of reasons that aren’t important now.
But I could not have honestly predicted how lawyers, judges and law students across the State would respond to this initiative and how folks would react, and in particular I really had no way of knowing that whether I was in Pensacola or Key West or all points in between that lawyers by the dozens, the hundreds, maybe even more, and I want to be careful of hyperbole, but I mean, it’s probably substantially more than in the hundreds came up to me and wanted to share their stories, no matter where I was.
And the same was true with judges and the same was true with law students, the outpouring of e-mails and phone calls. So, I knew it was an important initiative. I knew that the numbers said that we needed to do something and that we needed to care about our lawyers and to make some critical changes in terms of how we are addressing the issue, and frankly to address something that we weren’t addressing up until this year.
But I didn’t know that folks would respond as favorably, that is that they would acknowledge that they needed help and that we needed to make some changes, and so for that I couldn’t be prouder and happier, I put the right person in-charge. Dori Foster-Morales, who you and I have worked with for many years, she too is passionate about the subject. We put together a powerhouse of a committee of six people who have really worked incredibly hard in terms of coming up with deliverables, but as I have said, in all the rooms that I’ve spoken to on the subject, this is just the first year when we are talking about health and wellness, at least from a proactive standpoint.
And so, the baby is just starting to crawl, it’s not going to run, it’s not going to walk, it’s going to take years, and just like any other really important initiative that affects culture, that affects lifestyle is going to be something that’s got to be developed and nurtured over many, many years; and so, that’s the challenge for us to continue to make sure that that’s front of mind for what we are doing.
John Stewart: So, the health and wellness or new member benefits is something that we preached to our members all the time to go The Florida Bar’s website, find the member benefits, there is a wealth of them including the health and wellness ones. Two, come to mind that were dramatically advanced during your presidency, they maybe not quite ready for publications as yet formally, but they certainly are in a soft launch way, and that is, legal fuel, which is going to be fantastic, and then also something I know that was very, very important to you, that was worked on very hard this year, which is the Trust Accounting Program, maybe you can speak to one or both of those.
Michael Higer: Right, so briefly on legal fuel, so we expect that legal fuel, which is really kind of like the next generation of the Practice Resource Institute and we will really be taking that initiative hopefully to a higher level. I mean, one of the challenges and you kind of touched on it a bit was we can create the best member benefits, whether it be on health and wellness, technology, practice management, and by the way they are there.
And they are there now on the Practice Resource Institute site and they will be there as a part of legal fuel, but if our members are going to take an advantage of them then it’s like playing in a room all by yourself, because nobody else is just echoing, because nobody is taking advantage of it, which is a great shame.
And so, we will go hard at this convention as we walk around you and I, John, and we will promote legal fuel and let them know the great benefits that are there for practice management from all assets. Right from the time, you go out, John, and you need to sign your first lease for your office, what do you do to cybersecurity issues which are critical for our lawyers to be able to practice? So, we will certainly focus on that.
As to the other initiative which you were kind to bring up which is the trust accounting software, I am so bullish on that because to me that’s one of those rare moments in life where we should have a win, win, win, and in its simplest form it provides a technological platform for our lawyers to be fully compliant with rules regulating the Florida Bar concerning the trust accounts.
The first win is that it will help them to be in compliance. Second win is that it will be free. The third win is that we are always concerned — lawyers are — that if they violate the trust accounting rules, they could somehow run a foul of Bar Disciplinary Rules because it’s a strict liability rule.
And so, one of the things the Board is working on and probably will get completed during Michelle’s year, and hopefully very soon into Mitchelle’s year because we will adopt a safe haven rule which essentially will insulate a lawyer who is compliant through the trust accounting initiative from disciplinary action as long as you are not trying to game the system in some way.
And then the last win, and this is the one that I think can be the game-changer for us is that, by consolidating interest income through the trust accounting initiative, we expect that we will throw off at least an additional 10 or so million dollars to the foundation in IOTA funds, and that of course affects the access to justice challenge and that’s potentially the most significant impact that this initiative could have.
John Stewart: Well, the Legal Talk Network has guaranteed us that to raise awareness about member benefits that all 106,000 Florida Bar members will hear this podcast at some time during the next 12 months.
Michael Higer: Do we get like some kind of money-back guarantee on that?
John Stewart: I think we do. So, we are about out of time, so I am going to have one more question for you, and at that time when you — after you answer the question or before I want to make sure you leave your contact information for our listeners. For those of you who want to reach out, probably the very few people who have not yet met you, because I know you traveled the State, you came to the likes of my neck of the woods, like Brevard County and places that people don’t always frequent as a President of The Florida Bar and were all appreciative —
Michael Higer: I think, John, you had a suffer for me speaking at least three or four times you got to witness that —
John Stewart: I did, I did —
Michael Higer: And “witness” is probably the right word.
John Stewart: So, make sure you leave your contact information but the last question that I have for you to conclude the podcast is what’s your take-away from the two-year ride that you have been on? What’s your take-away as the outgoing President of The Florida Bar?
Michael Higer: For me, personally, my heart is bursting with joy. I had such a great year. I don’t know what the members think, I don’t know what my Board thinks, I certainly know what they have told me they think, which is not always the same as what they really think but I personally had a great year. It really was one of the most enjoyable, enriching, interesting years I have ever had as a lawyer, and I’ve had some pretty good years as a lawyer.
In terms of take-aways on a bigger scale, for me, John, it really is ultimately about caring, and I think you got to care deeply about lawyers and people to do this job well, and I know that you do, John, and I know that you will go about the tasks and the duties, the to-dos of being President every single day, but in the end what will get you up early in that morning and keep you going late at night is because you really care about those 106,000 lawyers and the people they serve, and so, don’t ever lose sight of that.
John Stewart: Well, I can’t speak for all 106,000 members, though starting in June 2019, I will be able to do that. For now I can only speak of the Board members who certainly echo and recognize the hard work that you put in. Very appreciative of the successful year that you had and you will now soon be bestowed upon what I understand to be the best title, which is Immediate Past President or Past President of The Florida Bar, though knowing you, I know that you will maintain your involvement in many Florida Bar projects for years to come.
So, we appreciate everything you’ve done for The Florida Bar for this year and look forward to your continuing to work with us notwithstanding your title as immediate past President.
Michael Higer: Thanks, John. So, you want the contact information now?
John Stewart: Yes.
Michael Higer: So, I can be reached at HYPERLINK “mailto:[email protected]” [email protected]; anytime, anyplace.
John Stewart: Well, we thank you for your time. This has been another edition of The Florida Bar Podcast, brought to you by the Practice Resource Institute, soon to be called Legal Fuel on Legal Talk Network.
I want to thank you, Mr. President, for joining us. If you like what you heard today, please find and rate us in iTunes.
I am John Stewart, you can find me — I love Twitter @THE_johnstewart.
Thank you for your time. Until next time thank you for listening.
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