Host Laurence Colletti is joined by the Florida Bar’s departing president Michelle Suskauer to discuss her path to the presidency and accomplishments during the past year. She emphasizes the priorities her presidency held including supporting small/solo firms through LegalFuel, continuing support of lawyer mental health and wellness initiatives, and encouraging gender equality and diversity in leadership. Michelle also highlights her favorite accomplishment–the bar’s summit on criminal justice at which the bar collaborated with stakeholders in the criminal justice system on important issues to encourage much needed reform.
The Florida Bar Podcast
Florida Bar Annual Convention 2019: A Year in Review with Past President Michelle Suskauer
Intro: Welcome to The Florida Bar Podcast, where we highlight the latest trends in law office and legal practice management to help you run your firm, brought to you by The Florida Bar’s Practice Resource Center. You are listening to Legal Talk Network.
Laurence Colletti: Hello and welcome to the Florida Bar Podcast, recorded from the 2019 Florida Bar Annual Convention of Boca Raton, Florida. This is Laurence Colletti and I am the substitute host for today. Of course I am standing in for Christine Bilbrey and Karla Eckardt, your regular hosts. They are off handling a lot of business, this is a very busy event, but nobody is as busy as immediate Past President Michelle Suskauer. Welcome to the show.
Michelle Suskauer: Thank you very much. So happy to be here.
Laurence Colletti: Yes, we have known you for a series of years, you have always come by and interview during the Annual Convention and it’s just — I look around, this is an amazing event and you guys have so much to offer, your attorneys here in Florida, and just by count, I think it’s over 104,000, 103,000 right now?
Michelle Suskauer: I think we are over 106,000.
Laurence Colletti: 106,000, all right.
Michelle Suskauer: Absolutely.
Laurence Colletti: I don’t want to take 4,000 from you there.
Michelle Suskauer: Absolutely not. We are the third largest mandatory Bar in the country.
Laurence Colletti: Awesome. Awesome. It’s a great one. One of my favorite events to cover is the Florida Law Update. I love going and sitting there, getting the updates. And congratulations, this is the end of your tenure.
Michelle Suskauer: Thank you.
Laurence Colletti: I know it’s been a big wind up, but before we get to all of that, I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t ask, where do you work, what do you do? Obviously there is a firm out there that is missing you, so where is that?
Michelle Suskauer: That’s right. It’s Dimond Kaplan & Rothstein, main office is in Miami, but I am out of West Palm Beach. I am a career long criminal defense attorney and very proud of it.
Laurence Colletti: All right, all right. So first question, so you have a whole year now, and I know it’s kind of a two-year wind up into the presidency, a lot of it starts when you are the incoming president.
Michelle Suskauer: That’s right. For me actually, it was a much longer journey, because I actually had a contested election to get here, which is actually pretty unusual for the Bar, at least in the last bunch of years, and so for me, that was a 14-month statewide contested election. So this has been a nonstop race for the last several years.
Laurence Colletti: Wow. So it seems a little unusual. We travel around, we get to meet with a lot of different Bar Associations around the country and it seems the contested versus uncontested seems really unusual to Florida.
Michelle Suskauer: Yes, it does, it does, but I will tell you though, it was the best thing that I have — other than actually serving as President of the Florida Bar, running for President of the Florida Bar made me a much more effective leader, because I traveled all around the state. I learned how diverse our state was. I was really able to listen to lawyers and what their issues are, which really helped frame my year in terms of priorities. So I think really for me, it was the greatest thing ever.
Laurence Colletti: All right, so let’s talk about your path to get here. So I know everybody takes a different path, there is a lot of volunteering that goes into this. My hats off to you, back when I was a little bit more in law — more involved in the practice of law, there is no way I would have volunteered for anything like that. I would have never walked in front of the train that is volunteering for a Bar Association, but tell us about how you got started, how you got here.
Michelle Suskauer: Sure. Well, you know, I have a very unusual path and our theme for Convention is unCONVENTIONal and our Chair actually of Convention is sitting arm’s length away from me, Katherine Hurst Miller, and so unCONVENTIONal really sort of describes me and my path.
I started out as a government lawyer, an assistant public defender, the first former public defender to lead our Bar ever. And so it’s very unusual to have that kind of involvement in mainstream Bar work. I started out, I was very, very fortunate to be mentored as a young lawyer. One of my mentors is my aunt, she is an attorney and her best friend, Justice Barbara, then Justice Barbara Pariente, who basically said get involved in your legal community and join, join, join and you may be the only public defender in the room, and I was.
And so I worked my way up through the Palm Beach County Bar, became president; was president of my local Florida Association for Women Lawyers Chapter, was very involved in Legal Aid and Inns of Court.
Actually while I have been President of the Florida Bar, I have also been President of the Board of Directors of the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County. So give a busy person something to do, right? But I love it and it’s very, very important to me.
And so I worked my way up, and while I was serving my term as President of the Florida Bar, an opening opened up in my circuit and so I actually ran for president — I am sorry ran for the Board of Governors while I was President of the Florida Bar.
So worked my way up, I have been on the Board of Governors now, this is finishing off my ninth year and I have just loved every moment of it.
Laurence Colletti: Oh my gosh, that’s a big wind up. So how did it go? I mean the year as President, leading the third biggest Bar Association state in the country and so how was it, how did it go?
Michelle Suskauer: I loved it. It was an incredible opportunity. I had some main priorities that I needed to get accomplished that were important to me. I wanted to focus on solos and small firms, because the majority of our lawyers are in small firms, ten or fewer, and so that’s my lens. I am a small firm lawyer and so I wanted to make sure our lawyers were productive and profitable, that’s what they care about. And they needed to be connected with the resources that the Florida Bar had to offer.
So that to me — we rolled out LegalFuel last summer, it has been used and used and used, which is fantastic. I came up with the LegalFuel Speaker Series. We rolled out eight different videos, which have been downloaded so many times. People really are enjoying those free CLEs.
And then another focus of mine was continuing mental health and wellness, and we fully support the Young Lawyers Division Program, StigmaFreeYLD to try to destigmatize these issues, because they affect all of us. The numbers are tough, they are staggering numbers on lawyers that are being affected by addiction issues and mental health.
So we are not immune, we actually have more than the general population in terms of issues. And so we must focus on that or else it trickles down to our families, to our perception in the community, to our clients, and so we have continued the focus on our Florida Bar website with a Mental Health and Wellness area that we hope is being used.
Third, gender equality and diversity; I am the sixth woman President of the Florida Bar and there needs to come a time when we stop counting the number of women who have been President of the Florida Bar and the number of women on the bench and the number of women in the legislature, but we are not there yet. So we are all in this together, men and women, we need to work together to help each other.
But importantly, women need to see other women lead. It’s crucial, it’s inspiring, it’s empowering, and it’s my pleasure and my obligation and my opportunity to open the door for other women to walk-through. And so we are seeing other women walk through, so that’s exciting.
And finally, as a criminal defense attorney, I learned that the Florida Bar had never taken a hard look at the criminal justice system in Florida, and so I thought well, if anyone is going to do it, it’s going to be me, and I brought together stakeholders from all around the criminal justice system; elected state attorneys, public defenders, legislators, folks and think tanks from both sides of the aisle and judiciary, brought them together. We had a two-day first-ever summit where we collaborated on important issues like sentencing reform, juvenile direct file, mental health, specialty courts and more, and that really fed into what we saw with the legislature, which was meaningful criminal justice reform.
The Florida Bar had a seat at the table. We don’t take a position on any type of legislation, but we are going to continue to work on these issues with a special Criminal Justice Committee that John Stewart has appointed, that I am sharing with past President Hank Coxe and I am really excited to see what’s coming up for the future.
So that’s just a little bit about what we accomplished. So the question was, are you happy with your year, absolutely, I am happy with my year. I had a wonderful board that was supportive, Florida Bar staff that was exceptional, and the goal is move the ball forward, don’t leave anything on the table, and I hope that’s what I did and leave the Bar in better hands, because Florida Bar Presidents are just placeholders and we need to — our obligation is to protect the branch and to protect the Bar and move forward. So hopefully that’s what we did and I am thrilled with the year, it was an amazing opportunity.
Laurence Colletti: Awesome. Awesome. So we would ask a much harder question that’s two-part. Now we have heard great work with small firms and solos, we have heard about the criminal justice, we have heard about diversity inclusion and gender equity, and so my next question is two-part; I want to know your favorite moment and I want to know your favorite accomplishment. It’s tough.
Michelle Suskauer: It is. Favorite moment. My favorite moment was getting sworn in as President of the Florida Bar. My husband introduced me and my children sang and that to me was the highlight — one of the highlights of my life. It was very special for me and so that was I would say my favorite moment.
What was the other question?
Laurence Colletti: Your favorite accomplishment?
Michelle Suskauer: My favorite accomplishment, I would say the Criminal Justice Summit.
Laurence Colletti: Okay.
Michelle Suskauer: That to me — I am fortunate to have a number of things that I am very proud of, but that to me was I think my shining moment this year.
Laurence Colletti: Excellent. And you brought it up, kind of that was my second to last question here about your family. So I have met your husband and obviously nobody can do this on your own, you have to disappear for a period of time, your law firm, they have been a saint, they have been very understanding. But your family too, I mean you have got to go away, you have got to travel around, there’s a lot of speaking engagements, it takes time, you have to be away from your familiy.
Michelle Suskauer: It does, it does. Well, my oldest daughter lives in New York, she is an actress; she is in a Broadway musical.
Laurence Colletti: Wow, which one?
Michelle Suskauer: It’s called Be More Chill.
Laurence Colletti: Be More Chill.
Michelle Suskauer: And so Talia is doing that and I do my best to try not to miss performances. She is an understudy and I just get on a plane and go.
My little one, Becca, is going to start her junior year at Penn State, so they are both not home, and I am there, but regardless of — and family always comes first and I love Bar work and it’s very important to me, I love the time that I have spent, and yes, it’s a tremendous sacrifice, but my family always comes first. I don’t miss performances. I don’t miss that important family time, and it’s a hard balance, but it’s an important balance for me.
Laurence Colletti: All right. So my last question is, and I understand that the Florida Bar may be unique to this, and so with other Bar Associations there is a transition out period for the immediate past president.
Michelle Suskauer: Not us.
Laurence Colletti: That’s right. So it’s like once you are done, you are done. And so let me ask you this immediate past President Michelle Suskauer, what is next?
Michelle Suskauer: Well, I am going to be working on criminal justice issues. I am a working lawyer, I have been a working lawyer the entire time I have been President of the Florida Bar and I am going to continue to do that. I am going to spend a little more time with family, a little more time with friends, but enjoy my life and enjoy this experience and join the past presidents club.
Laurence Colletti: Is it fair to say you are going to just chill?
Michelle Suskauer: You mean you want me to Be More Chill?
Laurence Colletti: Oh, that’s right. I ruined the joke, yeah.
Michelle Suskauer: I will tell you, I don’t think it’s possible, for those who know me, I do not chill.
Laurence Colletti: Do not chill?
Michelle Suskauer: I never chill. That’s my personality. So I am just going to keep on keeping on.
Laurence Colletti: All right. Well, that sounds great. Well, thank you so much for joining us. If our listeners, they want to follow up, they want to ask about female leadership, you have been a great example of that, how can they find you?
Michelle Suskauer: They can find me on Twitter @criminaldefense. They can find me at [email protected], Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram. I am everywhere baby.
Laurence Colletti: Awesome. Awesome. Well, that’s all the time we have for this episode of The Florida Bar Podcast. Thank you to our listeners for tuning in. Thank you to Michelle for stopping by.
And if you liked what you heard today, please rate and review us in Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, also Spotify, but best yet, your favorite podcasting app.
I am Laurence Colletti. Until next time, thank you for listening.
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