West Palm Beach lawyer Michelle Suskauer was selected Wednesday to lead the Florida Bar as president starting in June 2018.
She won 12,993 votes to opponent Lansing Scriven’s 10,188 votes.
“It was a very tough race,” Suskauer said. “Lanse was a great competitor, and we both worked very, very hard. But it was an incredible journey because of the opportunity to meet so many lawyers in almost every single circuit, [including] solo practitioners, government lawyers, large firms, public interest lawyers. I know that will really help me be a much more effective leader.”
Suskauer is a small-firm criminal defense attorney, a rarity among Florida Bar presidents. Only one criminal trial lawyer, Hank Coxe of Jacksonville, has ever served as president of the bar, and it has been 15 years since a bar president came from a one- or two-person firm — even though 70 percent of Florida lawyers work in firms of five lawyers or fewer. The 50-year-old New York native is one of two lawyers at Suskauer Feuer and has served on the bar’s board of governors since 2010.
In a previous interview, Suskauer said one of the bar’s top priorities should be addressing attorney quality of life and mental health issues.
“We’re really connected 24/7,” she said. “There’s no downtime. Lawyers are probably more dissatisfied with the practice than ever before.”
Her other priorities include helping law firms keep up with technological advances, supporting young lawyers struggling to repay student loan debt and monitoring the progress of Florida’s just-convened Constitution Revision Commission. Funding for the judiciary is also a key issue for Suskauer.
“That is always important because it’s not just a lawyer problem,” she said. “It affects businesses and it affects every citizen when we don’t have a properly funded third branch of government.”
Gary Lesser, a West Palm Beach attorney and board of governors member who has known Suskauer for 20 years, said she is a great listener, a hard worker and a skilled resolver of disputes, traits he believes will serve the bar well.
“Especially when we are looking at legislative attempts to impose term limits on our judiciary for a second year in a row in Tallahassee, it’s going to be very important to have dynamic leadership and consensus-building, not only for the legal profession, but to be able to communicate the importance of an independent judiciary to everybody in Florida,” Lesser said.
The election was the first contested race for Florida Bar president in five years. Former Florida Bar President Steve Zack, who backed Suskauer but said Scriven was a strong candidate, remembered that he ran a contested race for the 1989 presidency and it pushed him to travel around the state and listen to lawyers discuss the challenges they face.
“I think the fact that it was a contested race was a positive for the bar,” he said. “It’s too bad anyone has to lose.”
Among Suskauer’s supporters were 13 total past Florida Bar presidents, including Tod Aronovitz, Herman Russomanno, Edith Osman, Howard Coker and Gerald Richman. She drew some backers for her early stand against reciprocity, a controversial issue her opponent was tasked with presenting to the board of governors. Both Scriven and Suskauer later joined the rest of the board in voting against the proposal, which would have allowed out-of-state lawyers to practice in Florida in exchange for the same privilege for Florida lawyers.
Suskauer has held leadership roles in the Palm Beach County Bar Association, the Legal Aid Society and the Florida Association for Women Lawyers, where one of her proudest accomplishments was a mentoring program that matched attorneys with girls in prison. (The program was replicated elsewhere and recognized by Gov. Rick Scott for its success in reducing violence and boosting the girls’ grades.)
“Michelle has just exhibited this intense devotion and sacrifice over the years to bar work,” said Miami lawyer and board of governors member Jack Hickey, who said he has the utmost respect for both candidates. “With all the other characteristics and certainly her early, clear and strong stance against reciprocity, that really turned the tide for me.”
Suskauer launched her own firm in 1997, a few years after starting her career as a Palm Beach County public defender. She earned her law degree from American University and an undergraduate communications degree from Boston University.
Suskauer said she knows the challenges of juggling trials, law-firm management, volunteer work and a family. She and her husband, Palm Beach Circuit Judge Scott Suskauer, have two daughters, 20-year-old Talia and 18-year-old Rebecca.
“It’s a constant balance every day to get up and make it work … but I think it’s an important perspective to bring to the leadership of the bar because I really understand what goes into the practice on a daily basis,” she said.
The bar has elected mostly South Florida presidents in recent years. Current president Bill Schifino is a Tampa attorney, but his successor Michael Higer and predecessors Ramon Abadin, Gregory Coleman and Eugene Pettis are from the tri-county area.
Scriven is a Tampa commercial litigator with Trenam who has also been on the board of governors since 2010. He did not respond to a request for comment.
Suskauer will become president-elect in June at the Florida Bar convention in Boca Raton. Her term as president will begin the following summer.