First Coast Success: Giselle Carson runs on passion, stresses the value of exercise for body and mind

Giselle Carson is president of The Jacksonville Bar Association and a shareholder at Marks Gray.
Giselle Carson is president of The Jacksonville Bar Association and a shareholder at Marks Gray.
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Giselle Carson is always on the run — whether as a lawyer and shareholder at the Marks Gray firm, as president of The Jacksonville Bar Association or as a marathon runner.

Carson, 48, was born in Cuba. Her international experience is put to use in her legal career focusing on business immigration, sports immigration and I-9 compliance and litigation.

A former physical therapist, she also is very active, having completed triathlons as well as marathons on six of the seven continents. And she’s an Ironman athlete.

Talk about growing up.

I’m a two-time immigrant, an only child and a self-reinventor.

I was born in Cuba, immigrated to Canada when I was 15 with my parents and then later to the United States.

I am an only child, which made it a little easier to escape from the Castro regime, but I have never felt that I was an only child. I have a very extended family. My grandparents helped raise me.

I reinvented or transformed my career from a physical therapist to a business immigration attorney; and as initially a cyclist to a runner to a triathlete; and in life restarting my life in Cuba to Canada to the United States.

When and why did you move to Canada?

I moved to Canada in 1983. It wasn’t a choice. My parents did not tell me about the plan, and if they would have told me, I probably would still be in Cuba right now. At the time, I was, let’s say, brainwashed.

I lived and grew up under the Castro regime and being outside of Cuba was not something that a child wanted to do, because anything that we heard through the news was negative.

When we landed in Canada, my parents, the first day, said to me, “We have a problem with our passports. We have to stay here for a little while.”

Even at that time they were not willing to tell me, “We’re staying, this is our plan.”

Gradually I acclimated and I’m happy that that happened.

What was your path from there?

I met my amazing husband when I was going to school in Canada. I obtained my bachelor’s degree from McGill University. Jeff and I met when we were there together, married and later planned to move to the United States.

Initially we’d vacation in Florida every opportunity we had. We thought, what if we flipped that around, if we live in Florida and vacation in Canada? That has worked out better. We moved in 1990.

You’re a physical therapist. Why did you change that into a law career?

I believe that we should do work that we’re passionate about. When you’re passionate, you do very well at what you do.

I am passionate about health, I’m passionate about helping others, I’m passionate about making a difference.

Patients came to me after a total hip replacement, after a stroke. We sat down, developed a plan and when they were discharged, they had achieved their goals.

They were either able to go back and play golf or they were able to walk, run, whatever they wanted to do. And that’s powerful.

When I became a lawyer, a business immigration attorney, I wanted to do the same. I wanted to use my interests and experience in immigration to help businesses and immigrants come to the United States and make a difference in their life.

I am very proud to be able to say that I’ve helped hundreds of employers and immigrants to develop a plan, decide what visa is best and make that plan become reality.

You’re also very focused on fitness and wellness. Why is that so important?

I believe that exercise is the best medicine around and I really, really wish that more people would take that pill.

Our bodies are designed to move. Our current lifestyle does not lend itself to moving a lot, unless we purposely make it a focus, such as we commute to work on a bike or we take breaks and go for a walk.

Regular exercise is not only good for our physical fitness — strength and stamina — it is extremely important for our minds.

Research shows if you exercise on a regular basis, you have a better mood, you can deal with the stress better, you are more creative.

There’s nothing not to like, so we all should be doing it.

How do you get that message out?

Like many other things, you have to try it. You have to push yourself to do it. I’ve always been interested in fitness. I’ve always been involved, but it really wasn’t until my late 30s that I did my first organized race.

I ran the Gate River Run for the first time in 2004 and I’ve been doing it ever since. You get hooked, you see the impact, not just crossing the finish line, but the process to get there.

It’s so powerful that you just don’t look back. For people that hesitate, just do it.

You’ve run marathons on almost every continent, you’re an Ironman. You must train a lot.

Probably not as much as I should, but I do as much as I can.

I don’t believe that that level of exercise is needed for us to really live a healthy life and be the best we can be, but for me and my husband, it is a part of our life.

I’ve completed three Ironmans — full Ironman or 140.6 miles — swim, bike and run. I will train for my fourth Ironman in Chattanooga in September.

So 10 full marathons, an ultramarathon, several amazing one-day hikes.

I’m thrilled to do them, but again, crossing that finish line, it’s the process of getting there that I am most thankful for.

The determination, the passion, the overcoming challenges, the relationships that you create over the months of training.

That is what carries on. That is what you take from endurance training and you can use in your regular life. I can use that habit or those skills to get me over whatever the next challenge is.

You are president of The Jacksonville Bar Association and you’ve held other leadership roles in the community. Describe your leadership style.

I have been called a transformational leader. What that means is a leader that is able to inspire and encourage others to do better, do more, achieve more, transform themselves. I think that’s a good thing.

At The Jacksonville Bar Association, we have an amazing staff led by terrific committee leaders that are supportive. You have to have a strong team behind you.

Two transformational events are the Yoga for Legal Warriors and the Tuesday Walk and Talks.

When I polled the people that were participating, more than 50 percent had never done yoga before. It was difficult for them to get there, because it’s that voice that says, “Really? Am I going to lie on the lawn of the courthouse doing yoga?”

But they were there, they did it and they were thrilled. That’s the kind of thing that I think hopefully a transformational leader can help do.

The Tuesday Walk and Talks are, again, an opportunity for attorneys to go out and do true multitasking, so they can walk and also develop relationships with the people that are walking.

Is it easy to lead a group of lawyers?

No. Most of our members — 2,000 of them — have Type A personalities.

We are trained to think, we’re trained to debate, we’re trained to argue, we’re trained to analyze.

But in order to move from an idea to action, it takes time, it takes patience, it takes discussion. It’s been challenging, but with every challenge comes growth.

I’ve learned a lot from being the president of The Jacksonville Bar Association and I’m proud to say we have accomplished a lot after many meetings and many discussions. It’s all good.

What are your views of Jacksonville, and specifically, what would you like to see in the city’s future?

We hear it is a great place to live, work and play, and I truly believe it is true. The city has a lot of opportunities.

I am a fan of Mayor (Lenny) Curry’s initiatives.

I see things moving forward and I am passionate about his new health initiative, “Journey to One,” an initiative to get Duval County and our citizens to be No. 1 in the state in terms of health and fitness.

Part of the initiative is a marathon, which is to walk, run, jog 26.2 miles in a month and then continue that challenge.

I really, really hope that our citizens embrace that challenge, because it’s not only physical health, but we’ll elevate the level of things that we can do in Jacksonville.

What was your greatest challenge and how did you overcome it?

One challenge is that internal voice that says, “No, you can’t. You’re not ready. What are people going to think? You don’t have enough time.”

That’s what freezes us from doing things that we should be doing. Overcoming that voice is critical and I’ll give you an example. My first Ironman, Panama City 2009.

An Ironman is 2,500 adrenaline-driven athletes.

It begins at 7 so this would have been 6:50 in the morning — lined up, just waiting for the gun to go off, to run into the water all together at the same time.

There I was, gun goes off, run into the water. I was waist deep and I froze.

Everybody was just running everywhere. And I literally turned around and walked back.

There was chaos everywhere. That internal voice kept on saying, “You can’t do this. You’re going to die out there.”

I took a deep breath and I said, “No, you signed up for this a year ago. You’ve thought about it, you’ve trained for a year. You are ready. You have to do this.”

I gradually walked back into the ocean, started swimming. Eleven-or-so hours later, I crossed the finish line.

Every time another big challenge comes into my life I say, “I was able to overcome that. You can do this again.”

The more we do that, the stronger we become by being able to overcome that “no” in your brain.

What is your biggest success and how did you achieve that?

Success again is relative. At Marks Gray, whenever we get an approval for an H-1B (visa), an O-1 (visa), I run out of my office with the approval in hand, or the email, cheering and I high-five my staff.

Those little successes are impactful for our team, they’re impactful for our clients. I celebrate that just as much as crossing the finish line in an Ironman.

That’s how I deal with successes — one at a time, celebrate all. Life is short.


Name, age: Giselle Carson, 48

Hometown: La Havana, Cuba

Hobbies/avocations: Triathlons, six world marathon majors finisher

Education: McGill University, Montreal, B.S. in physical therapy, 1989, and Florida Coastal School of Law, J.D. with high honors, 2001

Position: Shareholder, Marks Gray. Practice focuses in business immigration, sports immigration and I-9 compliance and litigation

Goals: A few more Ironmans, a marathon in each continent

Family: Spouse, Jeff, married since 1989. He is a physical therapist, marathoner and triathlete. We met in P.T. school.

Community positions: The Jacksonville Bar Association president, 2015-16; Jacksonville Aviation Authority board, 2014-17; JaxSports Council; Jacksonville University Public Policy Institute advisory council; JAX Chamber Government Affairs Committee; Generation W Steering Committee; Leadership Florida, 2013; Leadership Jacksonville, 2005; and First Coast Hispanic Chamber of Commerce president, 2008-09

If you could have made one decision you didn’t, what would that be?

I would have been a little braver, taken more risks. Structure and dependability are comfortable.

But I know that to grow, experience and give back the best life has to offer, I need to take more risks.

I need to remember — “I’m capable of much more than I think” (and) “I can do this.”

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

Do not wait for retirement, the perfect time or the perfect situation. … Just do it.

What has been the biggest surprise in your career?

Being a smart, competent and hard-working lawyer is not enough. To be a happy and successful lawyer, we must understand legal marketing and business development and cultivate relationships and leadership skills.

What wisdom would you share with young people in your profession?

Get out of the office. Expand your interests and involvement. Take leadership roles and excel at them.

Take care of your health and body. It is very difficult to be successful and enjoy the things that you’re passionate about if you don’t have your health.

If you could take back one decision in your life, what would that be?

I would plan to spend more time outside — it stimulates brain functions, reduces stress, lifts our mood, improves eye health and sleep, and much more.


First Coast Success: Giselle Carson

The Daily Record interviewed Carson for “First Coast Success,” a regular segment on the award-winning 89.9 FM flagship First Coast Connect program, hosted by Melissa Ross. These are edited excerpts from the interview.

The interview was scheduled for broadcast this morning and will replay at 8 p.m. on the WJCT Arts Channel or at


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