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Jax Daily Record Monday, Jun. 25, 201805:20 AM EST

The Florida Bar’s new president: ‘We’re bringing in the big guns’

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Michelle Suskauer planning a criminal justice reform summit and more.
by: Max Marbut Associate Editor

Michelle Suskauer, the new president of The Florida Bar, practices criminal defense law in West Palm Beach, but she has close ties to Jacksonville’s legal community.

Florida Bar President Michelle Suskauer

In a telephone interview a few days before being sworn in, Suskauer said she visited Jacksonville several times while campaigning to become the state Bar group’s president-elect.

“I have so many friends there and it’s a wonderful legal community,” said Suskauer, who joined the Jacksonville Bar Association in April 2016.

“You have a very special legal community in Jacksonville … so much that I joined.”

She’s calling on Jacksonville attorneys for leadership positions during her year as president.

Suskauer is planning a criminal justice reform summit in October.

 It will gather state attorneys, public defenders, judges and other stakeholders to explore possible changes in how criminal cases are conducted, from bail through sentencing.

It will be led by Jacksonville criminal defense lawyer Hank Coxe, a partner in the Bedell Firm, a member of the recently adjourned Florida Constitution Revision Commission and a past president of The Florida Bar.

“We’re bringing in the big guns,” said Suskauer. “Now that he’s pretty much done with his work on the constitution revision commission, we’ve given him another job to do.”

The summit’s goal is to explore issues such as parity in setting bail and sentencing and to identify substantive policy changes that can be put before state lawmakers at their next session.

Suskauer said Michael Tanner, partner at Tanner Bishop in Jacksonville, will chair the Bar’s Legislation Committee.

“We are perfectly poised to present some proposed legislation that hopefully will have a very good chance at passing,” she said.

The Bar also will focus on mental health in the legal community.

“The legal profession is certainly not immune to mental health issues,” Suskauer said. “As attorneys, we are in a high-pressure, competitive environment. There is a misperception that if you are struggling with depression or stress or addiction, that it’s a sign of weakness.”

The Bar’s focus on eliminating gender bias will continue with the implementation of initiatives developed by the Special Committee on Gender Bias, which Suskauer chaired during her year as president-elect.

“We’ll be rolling out a gender bias toolkit,” she said. “If we don’t make change now, I don’t know when we would do it. This is the right time.”

Another issue Suskauer plans to address is improving the range of services The Florida Bar offers its members, particularly attorneys who are solo practitioners or who work in small firms, about three-fourths of the membership.

In addition, the Bar’s Practice Resource Institute is being rebranded as “Lawyer Fuel” and will offer a series of free CLEs on video that will help lawyers be more productive and profitable, said Suskauer.

“We have an obligation to take care of all of our lawyers, from the baby lawyer graduating with crushing debt, no job and no mentor, to the lawyer who is aging out of the practice and everyone in between,” she said.

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