At every juncture, Michelle Suskauer has had her leadership ability questioned. Suskauer is the newest president of The Florida Bar, a position that has been held by only six women in the organization’s 70 year history.
According to Suskauer, volunteer leadership roles within The Florida Bar’s various local and regional bodies are elected but rarely contested. This wasn’t her experience. As she ascended into each new leadership position, she faced a male opponent – from 2008 when she became President of the Palm Beach County Bar, to her seat on the Board of Governors for The Florida Bar, to her newest role as statewide President.
Each time, people told her, a partner at Miami-based Dimond Kaplan & Rothstein, P.A. who had already served in many leadership positions, “You’re not qualified. You shouldn’t do it.” For each of these roles, a man ran against her (and lost).
As we talk, Suskauer tells me about the bias and discrimination she and other women experience when navigating their often male-dominated industry. “When women experience bias, whether implicit, explicit [or in the form of sexual] harassment, it’s not expected,” she says, “We’re often left befuddled, resentful, powerless – feeling like we didn’t know how to handle it.”
“It Started on Day One.”
In her first day of work as a public defender, she walked in feeling confident, briefcase in hand. She was asked if she was the interpreter.
No matter how high she rose, this bias never went away. Within the last year, during her campaign for President of The Florida Bar, she approached the front desk person at a statewide law firm. She was asked if she was the court reporter. By that point she’d been practicing law for 25 years.
Suskauer says, “This started on day one for me. It’s the rule, not the exception, that’s why we have to deal with this.”
These experiences of bias are compounded for women of color.
Years ago, I was hired to speak to a large legal conference at a fancy Florida resort. Before the conference began, I started chatting with an attorney privately. With resignation, she described the inevitability of getting asked, “Who are you here with?” when she walked into the exhibit hall. She’s a successful female trial lawyer and a woman of color, but people assume she must be a “booth babe”, an attractive woman brought in by vendors to appeal to male attorneys.
When driving through resort security to get onto the property, her sister explained that she wasn’t an overnight guest, “I’m here to see my sister.” The security officer assumed she was housekeeping, asking, “Does she work here?”
Implicit in these sisters’ stories are dimensions of classism, racism, and sexism.
It Continues In Court.
These common, subtly (and not-so-subtly) revealing moments can be even more difficult for female attorneys to navigate when they happen in the courtroom.
While she was running for Bar president, Suskauer represented a friend in traffic court. She laughs, “No good deed goes unpunished,” as she begins the story.
When she arrived in traffic court and approached the podium, the traffic magistrate called out, “I’m not ready for ya. Have a seat, babe.”
If she had a time machine, Suskauer wishes she could go back and approach the magistrate quietly to say, “What you said was inappropriate in front of all these people. I‘m sure you didn’t have a terrible intent, but the fact is, as someone who’s supposed to garner respect, you shouldn’t be speaking that way.”
Instead, she stepped out, took a breath, and called her husband – her former law partner of 18 years and a sitting judge. Her husband asked if she wanted him to talk to the magistrate. She said no.
Ultimately, Suskauer decided to call the chief judge herself who asked, “Do you want me to fire him?” Suskauer said, “No, I want you to counsel him. I don’t want him to do this to anyone else. I don’t want anyone ever to go through this.”
Even as she replays the experience in our interview, I can tell she remains conflicted. She asks, “Was that the right thing to do? I don’t know. I wish I was prepared with something.”
That questioning of our own behavior, looking for a “right response” or wishing we’d said something different is a pattern I’ve heard from countless attorneys. It’s hard enough when a fellow attorney behaves inappropriately, but when the offending individual has control over your client’s future – whether as a magistrate or as a judge – the situation becomes significantly more complex.
The Florida Bar’s Plan
On this and many other issues facing female attorneys, The Florida Bar is poised to take action under Suskauer’s leadership. She is quick to point out that The Florida Bar has been studying gender inequality for years.
Recently, Suskauer participated in and later led a gender bias committee. It brought together the heads of three of Florida’s largest law firms, national experts, and women from across the profession to evaluate what The Florida Bar could do to address the issue.
“Women are leaving the profession at all-time highs,” but it’s not when you’d expect, she says, “They’re leaving when they should be making the most money.” There are a lot of reasons for that, and Florida Bar is ready to address some of the underlying issues.
The committee came up with 12 recommendations. Suskauer stressed three of them in our conversation and in her acceptance speech when she became president.
1. Provide transparency and clarity about The Florida Bar’s existing rules regarding bias and discrimination
Suskauer says, “We can and will do a better job implementing the rules we already have.” She hopes people will be more comfortable coming forward if they understand precisely how to report and the pipeline of what happens from reporting to discipline.
2. Develop Blue Ribbon designations for entities that prioritize hiring, promoting and retaining female lawyers
This designation will be very difficult to achieve but will celebrate organizations, firms, and corporations that are invested in gender equity – and encourage others to make the same investment.
3. Encourage more women to run for leadership positions within the Florida Bar
While the gender bias committee’s recommendations include efforts to spotlight successful women and to recruit women for leadership roles, Suskauer takes this one personally. She sees her tenure as president as an opportunity to open doors and inspire women to move into leadership positions.
Suskauer is fired up. She says, “If we’re going to make significant change, this is the time to do it. These are the ways to do it,” she says. “I have an opportunity, as a woman who is currently in the seat and speaks for The Florida Bar, to be the driving force for this change.”
People across Florida have taken notice.
Florida Bar member Leslie Kroeger, notes, “[Suskauer’s] commitment to the legal profession and her desire to improve it are remarkable.” Kroeger herself will be the 2nd female president of The Florida Justice Association – the state’s professional association for trial lawyers. Remarking on Suskauer’s role as the 6th female Florida Bar President, Kroeger describes Suskauer as “a true inspiration”.
As Florida plaintiffs’ lawyer and Florida Bar Member Brenda Fulmer says, “[Suskauer] is incredibly tenacious. I have never seen a woman work so hard for a volunteer job, and we are all better for it.”