by Rawan Bitar
“Losing is not an option.”
That dogged philosophy fuels Michael Higer as a trial lawyer in a Miami courtroom, just as it did when he was a boy on the ballfield.
“I never quit, and I never give up,” said Higer, the new president of The Florida Bar, who rose through the ranks after serving eight years on the Board of Governors and chairing all significant Bar committees.
Perseverance only begins to describe Higer during his 32-year career as a complex business litigator. He works quietly toward the greater good without caring to draw attention to himself.
“There are very few people that are so imminently qualified for this position without a hint of reservation,” said former Bar President Greg Coleman, adding Higer could become one of the Bar’s best presidents. “The lawyers of the state of Florida and the citizens of Florida are in great hands.”
Higer once represented the CEO of a multibillion-dollar development company with projects in Los Angeles, New York, and Miami, in a brokerage dispute that lasted more than 10 years. A sales associate alleged the client was personally liable for commissions she claimed. The trial court on multiple occasions denied dispositive relief and a jury ruled against the CEO. Higer didn’t give up. After more than a decade of litigation, the appellate court finally vindicated Higer’s client by reversing and ruling in the CEO’s favor.
In another case that called for Higer to go above and beyond the call of duty, Higer represented a small, Florida-based manufacturer of scientific instruments accused of patent infringement by an industry giant. After losing at trial, but while the case was pending on appeal, Higer began a nationwide investigation, including traveling to various parts of Texas, where he discovered prior art that the court agreed invalidated the patent and entered judgment for his client.
Now a partner with Berger Singerman, Higer’s relentless pursuit of his goals developed early in life, playing outside with friends in a neighborhood in Westchester, South Miami Dade, where everybody knew everybody.
One sunny afternoon, young Higer raced backward to catch a flyball and fell into a bush. A sharp branch deeply pierced his leg. Despite the pain, Higer wanted to keep the ballgame going. As infection festered a year later, bits of wood had to be removed from the baseball lover’s leg.
On yet another occasion, when younger brother Ron sliced his knee open on a sprinkler head during a backyard football game, later needing 15 stitches, Higer escorted his brother indoors, wrapped the laceration in towels, and headed back to the field.
“OK, let’s get back in the game,” Ron Higer remembers his driven brother saying. When their mother, Francine, discovered the pile of bloody towels on the floor, she came out hollering into the yard where the boys were playing, and rushed her youngest son to the emergency room.
Higer was raised by Jewish parents who provided a loving, Zionistic home. The family wasn’t known to sit on the sofa waiting for the world to come to them.
“We went to the world and did what we had to do,” Higer’s mother, Francine, affirmed.
Higer knew if he wanted something, he could walk right out into the world and get it. He walked to public school, and in the afternoons, worked in after-school jobs. He was employed throughout his years at West Miami Junior High and Palmetto Senior High, and the University of Florida, mainly in kitchens washing dishes, bussing tables, and prepping food. The student took up positions as varied as working at a donut factory to a hardware store.
Leaving the house offered more rewards than sitting around, and in college, Higer earned enough money to buy a new sport/economy Plymouth Sapporo.
It was the least expensive car on the floor, but the salesman taught him how to drive the five-speed manual transmission before the college junior proudly drove off the lot in his first major purchase. Higer has been driving a stick shift ever since.
The lawyer enjoys shifting gears, feeling the road in the driver’s seat, and he is just as fully engaged and involved in the law. The decision to become a lawyer came naturally to the new Bar president while growing up in the turbulent 1960s.
“Most people don’t perceive being Jewish today as being a minority, or being someone who needs to be protected. But growing up Jewish in the 1960s, my parents, and certainly I, didn’t feel like we were part of the majority,” Higer said. “It’s not about being high and moral. I’ve always had an affinity for the little guy. I’ve always felt that I’ve wanted to help someone who has been taken advantage of by a bully, or someone whose rights needed to be protected. I tend to take a stand even if I’m the only voice on the other side.”
Higer’s voice was stronger and sterner than his father’s, who spoke in a whisper since age 13, when throat cancer surgery damaged his vocal cords. During his lifetime, Aaron Higer survived five cancers. Visitors seeking his sage advice sat around the family’s close-quartered living room to share quandaries. No matter the softness of the man’s voice, people listened. The hoarseness in his speech did not prevent the hardworking father from communicating displeasure toward misbehavior, and in those moments, the children understood him very clearly.
Aaron wanted to be a lawyer as a child, but was strongly discouraged because of that whisper. Although his boyhood dreams of arguing cases in a courtroom with a resounding voice were dashed by the devastating effects of cancer, his two children — eldest, Michael, and youngest, Pamela — both became lawyers. As president of The Florida Bar, Michael Higer’s voice will now be heard loud and clear by more than 104,000 Bar members.
Much like his father, Higer’s strength as a leader and trial lawyer is to speak without brashness, but rather in a calm and collected manner, to get his point across. “People respect his opinions because of that quiet confidence,” said Morgan Stanley businessman, Eric Hersh. “It’s a trait of good leaders.”
In spite of enduring those malignant diagnoses, Aaron Higer was heavily involved in Everglades research. He enjoyed a rewarding career as a scientist for the federal government well into his 70s. Named the “Father of the Everglades” in a 2014 honorary doctorate from Florida Atlantic University, Aaron was a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, and worked on complex projects, including for NASA. Accolades as a distinguished researcher in his field include the U.S. Department of Interior’s Meritorious Service Award in 1993 and Distinguished Service Award in 2000. He passed away at age 80.
“My dad’s glass was half full. Which is, ‘Yes, I got all these cancers, but I survived all of them,’” Higer said of his beloved father, who he believes had the most beautiful crystal blue eyes on the planet. “My father was an amazing guy.”
Francine views her accomplished husband as “a wonderful role model,” and an intricate part of her eldest son. The homemaker began working when the children were in school as a real estate agent and interior designer.
The fun-loving mother occasionally started playful water fights in the kitchen. Just throwing water. Drying up the tile afterward was no problem. “I was a terrible instigator,” she confesses with laughter, “praying nobody would fall.”
In the 1960s, Miami didn’t have a professional baseball team, but the Los Angeles Dodgers on television provided plenty of excitement — especially when star pitcher Sandy Koufax sat out a 1965 World Series game in observance of Yom Kippur. Being a traditional Jew since childhood has been important to the busy trial lawyer, who honors the Sabbath. His parents accompanied the children a half-mile walking distance to temple on weekends. On Fridays, the rabbi who lived down the street, knocked on the Higer’s door to collect family members for prayer.
There was also plenty of intriguing literature in the home. At night, in peaceful quietude, the children switched on their little flashlights and read books in bed instead of sleeping.
“We all read a tremendous amount,” Francine explained. “We’re all very much into learning. It was just a natural thing in our household that learning wasn’t even — you didn’t think twice about it — you just did it.” Although books packed the shelves in the cozy home, Higer occasionally plopped in front of the television to watch movies — and one in particular inspired his career in the law.
In the 1959 film based on a true story, Compulsion, famous lawyer Clarence Darrow, defended two despicable men who had committed a heinous crime in 1920s Chicago. Leopold and Loeb were rich, privileged, Ivy League-educated young men who murdered a child. The details of the incident were “just horrible,” Higer remembers thinking as a boy, but yet he agreed there should be a fair trial and “each side ought to have someone absolutely fighting as hard as they could for their clients.”
“Darrow, who had a distinguished career at that point in his life, and who could pick and choose his cases, took on that case, and his whole mission was just to save these boys from the electric chair, which he did, and that really appealed to me,” Higer said.
“There was something that resonated with me about defending the defenseless regardless of whether they were rich or poor. Taking on that unpopular case. Taking on those unpopular people. Taking on that situation where all the odds were against you, and helping that person. I think my parents must have, just time and time again, really wondered about their son. I really liked the law.”
It wouldn’t be long before the passionate Dodgers’ fan graduated high school and headed north to Gainesville, where he’d earn a bachelor’s degree in English at UF. Just the first step toward his longtime goal of becoming a lawyer.
Higer took seriously his father’s advice to study accounting at Florida as a fallback in case the legal track didn’t work out. It all ended up making a lot of sense when fate would have him meet the love of his life, Bobbie — a studious accounting major who sat with her friends in class and wound up being escorted by her new admirer — Michael Higer — to her next class.
It was bashert, the Yiddish word for “it’s meant to be. It’s part of your destiny,” that led Higer to cross paths with his brunette soul mate.
“I didn’t know it, but my dad knew to put me into accounting because I had to be in that path so that I could intersect with my wife. I see that all as a blessing,” Higer said. “We’ve been best friends and inseparable since we met.”
The duo had an accounting class on one side of campus, and QMB, quantitative methods of business, pretty far away in a big auditorium.
“He always told the kids that I was the one who was chasing him, but he was following me,” Bobbie recollected of Higer and her at age 19, just at the beginning of junior year. “It started out that he would sit with me and my friends, and then at some point, the two of us split off. That’s how it started. Had we not had those two classes back-to-back, I’m not sure. Who knows? That was the way it was meant to happen.”
Higer proved himself to be the guy for her when one day at the library, the couple waited at an elevator with a mother and an 18-month-old baby in a stroller. Dangling his keys in front of the baby, the 20-year-old made a great Donald Duck impression to the amusement of the child and the adults.
“I thought to myself, ‘this guy’s a keeper,’” Bobbie said bashfully. “He’s got a warm spot in his heart for kids, and he always has, and I just realized then that there’s a lot of depth to him. I saw a person who cared deeply. He wasn’t shallow like a lot of guys were at that age.”
Bobbie supported her then-boyfriend when he switched to a prelaw English major. The Tau Epsilon Phi member balanced schoolwork with earning money in odd jobs, just as in high school, and proposed to his girlfriend over Thanksgiving break in their mutual hometown of Miami. They were 21, and married right after graduation in a Miami wedding planned by their parents.
The newlyweds continued to study together during those good, mutually supportive years. He entered the University of Miami School of Law, and she prepped for the CPA exam while working downtown at the accounting firm of Arthur Anderson. They sometimes worked together late at night at her office and drove home in their first major purchase, a used Honda.
Eventually, two children came along: Samantha, 27, and Adam, 25. Samantha has a master’s degree from Tufts University in mechanical engineering and works at a biomedical technology company in Boston; and Adam is an entrepreneur who deals in high-end real estate sales in Ft. Lauderdale.
Bobbie said the children have always been at the center of Higer’s universe and no matter what was going on in his busy life, he always put her and the two children first.
A combination of pets entertained the children as they grew up, including a bird and lizard (which belonged to Adam), but the Higers now spoil two Havanese dogs, Jackie (named after the Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson) and BB (named after Bobbie and Brandon, her nephew who passed away from neurofibromatosis).
Bobbie stepped back from her career at Arthur Anderson to raise Samantha and Adam, and in 2000, began focusing her energies on volunteer work with the National Jewish Federations System, which provides social services for Jews throughout the world. She was national chair of young leadership beginning in 2006, and the family often traveled to Israel, where Higer leaned his head against the Western Wall in prayer.
“The great thing to me about Judaism, and why being as observant as possible is important to me, is because we have a code, and it’s almost 6,000 years old,” Higer said. “We’ve outlived every oppressor that has sought to persecute the Jews in some way, and we’ve done that by passing down an oral and written tradition that has gone from rabbi to rabbi, from Jew to Jew. It has withstood the test of time.”
In a world full of skepticism about organized religion, Higer chooses to live in a world where there is a higher power — where there is something more (“because you can’t prove there’s not”) — which means we’re not just here on earth and then it’s over.
“On some level, I think that works for me,” Higer said. “To believe that you’re put on this earth for some greater purpose than just earning money. You’re put on this earth for some greater purpose than just survival. You’re put on this earth to do something with your life.”
Thirty-six years into marriage, the couple still walks to synagogue on Saturdays. They do not drive a vehicle or carry money to honor the rules of the Sabbath, but any other day, Bobbie will watch her husband give money out of his pocket to the homeless — some of them known by name — and takes the time to talk to them.
“If he only has a $20 bill in his pocket, he will give the person a $20 bill,” she said. “I’m so proud of the man I married, the man he’s become. This is a person who — the level of his caring — amazes and inspires me every day.”
“A Quintessential Mentsch”
The newly married Higer at the UM School of Law was “never one to wear a fancy watch, drive a fancy car, or wear slick suits, or anything like that regardless of his success,” said classmate and Miami attorney Steve Marks. “He’s more a listener than a talker. He was extraordinarily humble.”
In a study group called the “grasshoppers,” Higer was known as the token ant because there is an Aesop fable about grasshoppers flitting around playfully in summer grass while neighboring ants get busy preparing for winter. When winter arrives, the grasshoppers are out of luck while the ants cozily snuggle in their little shacks.
The orderly student, who served as law review executive editor, was also affectionately nicknamed “Mom.”
“I took it as the highest compliment,” Higer confesses with a smile.
“I couldn’t be happier or prouder that ‘Mom’ is going to be the president of The Florida Bar,” U.S. Magistrate Judge Patrick Hunt, proclaimed. “We still consider each other close friends. He gave me the Bible at my swearing in as a judge. He’s a great guy, and a great lawyer.”
When Higer and Marks, the editor, began working at the Miami Law Review, it was well behind schedule and the two worked tirelessly to make it current. They did such a stellar job that the publication the following year carried a dedication to Higer and Marks for their work.
When he faced difficult circumstances with authors who had challenges with their writing, Higer wouldn’t disparage people. “He’s not that way,” law review buddy, Jay Martus, noted. “People can trust him because he’s someone with tremendous integrity. He has been successful not only because of his intellect and skill, but because of his civility, his professionalism, and his collegiality.”
Third District Court of Appeal Judge Kevin Emas said his friend of 40 years hasn’t changed much.
“He’s always been the kind of quiet, unassuming person who leads by example, which is why I think he’ll be a wonderful leader of The Florida Bar,” Emas said. “He doesn’t do it for the glory. He doesn’t do it for the limelight or for the ego. He does it really out of a true devotion to public service, and he’s been doing that for many years, obviously as a member of the Board of Governors, and as president-elect.
“It surprises me that anybody would choose to be the leader of The Florida Bar, as I think it is not fun. It is an enormous task, and often thankless, but I am grateful that there are people like Michael who are willing to undertake that role notwithstanding its thanklessness, and the difficult uphill battle that most every president faces every single year.”
“He’s a quintessential mentsch,” said Rabbi Schneur Kaplan of the Downtown Jewish Center in Ft. Lauderdale. “He really is just a standup person with an incredible value system. In a very refreshing way, he’s humble and self-effacing. He’s always learning. He’s always questioning. Those are very, very important qualities, especially in terms of leadership — of being humble enough to recognize that there’s still so much to learn.”
The Higers often spend Friday evenings at the rabbi’s house for Sabbath dinner, where the youngest resident, two-year-old Moshe, delights in being entertained by the Miami attorney. To the little boy’s amusement, Higer makes funny faces and crazy little sounds and coos. He will go out in the dark and try to locate the moon with little Moshe, just as he did with his son, Adam, many years ago.
“The minute I walk in the house he runs to me and gives me a big hug and says, ‘See the moon?’” Higer said.
“Little kids are the best judges of character. They just gravitate to him,” the rabbi said.
When the rabbi made a “little deal” about Higer as president-elect of the Bar, he nearly shied away. That shyness reflects a humble person. Someone who appreciates the responsibility and recognizes that it’s a tremendous honor.
Higer takes a break from the hectic workweek to honor the Sabbath, a restful period between Friday night and Saturday night, to cherish time with loved ones. Those strong family values do not strictly belong outside the office. He was very supportive of new mothers as partner at Higer, Lichter & Givner, a small practice he established with friends before joining Berger Singerman.
Associate attorney Valorie Chavin would lay her one-month-old boy in a cozy carrier next to her desk. When the baby woke up from his nap, Higer would scoop him up and carry the little one around the office.
The mother of two sometimes shuffled her two sons into the office on busy weekends, and if Higer was around, the voice of Donald Duck would echo in the halls, along with the sound of laughing children. Her boss stooped down to their level and played ball.
“It was more of a joke, but he would, instead of working, come play with the baby,” Chavin said. “Michael would come and take my son, and he’d be gooing and gaaing, and laughing, and joking with him, and carrying him around the office. I would yell at him: ‘Michael! You need to put my baby down because the other partners are going to see that you’re running around and playing with my baby, and they’re going to say that I can’t bring my baby in the office anymore. You’re going to ruin it for me!’”
But the fun boss still got plenty of work done with an attitude that “losing is not an option.” Loyal clients like Don Peebles of New York said the astute Miami trial lawyer impressed him during cross-examination.
“Very direct, very straightforward, and cutting like a knife, a very sharp one,” Peebles explained. “Not a dull knife. I think aggressiveness is cutting like a dull knife or banging like a hammer.”
Higer’s calm and precise approach in the courtroom comes from being prepared enough to think ahead in case of surprises. He has an unassuming ability to disarm people on the stand or in cross-examination. When he finishes interacting with someone, they do not even realize until afterward he has won the argument with his razor-sharp skills.
“There’s an elegance to it,” said Peebles, whose multibillion-dollar business in real estate development is highly regulated. He admits to dealing with various lawyers for many years.
“I’m certainly an educated consumer,” he said. “Michael has confidence. He knows the law. He knows the case. He is prepared. I’ve never, ever seen him in a deposition, a meeting, or in court, not fully 100 percent prepared.”
Judge Emas explains Higer doesn’t pound the table to show his passion.
“Michael knows that light is more important than heat, whether it’s in the courtroom or out of the courtroom. Michael tends to bring the light rather than the heat. He’s very thoughtful and very deliberate in what he does,” Emas said. “He’s reflective, instead of being reflexive, and I think that’s important. He’s careful in the words that he chooses.”
“Many people burn out so much of their energy with emotions,” Peebles said. “Michael saves his energy for advocacy.”
Higer tends also to invest his energy into compassion, as he fought diligently for a woman who lost a son after 1999 Hurricane Irene. The boy was walking home with goodies in hand from a nearby Cooper City 7-11 store when he brushed against a live electrical wire hanging along the sidewalk and was killed instantly by electrocution. The boy’s mother was too shattered to take action until Higer entered the scene two years later.
“I lived with that case for three or four years,” Higer said, keeping a sporty picture of the boy bent down on one knee with a football helmet.
An amicable resolution was reached in 2005 that helped the hairdresser mom open her own successful business, and sent her youngest son, who witnessed his brother’s death, to college.
Beyond the law, the Bar president has seized opportunities to be caring. When a struggling professional assistant needed help coming out of a dark time, he was a listening ear. Haunted by marital and financial issues, she arrived to work late and performed poorly. Higer invited her into the privacy of his office for a chat.
“Michael did indeed show incredible patience and compassion with her situation,” Third District Court of Appeal Judge Vance Salter, shared. “I learned that she completely turned her life around.”
When Christopher Maranges started his career as an associate at Higer, Lichter & Givner, he received a gift card from Higer to help lighten his load. Showing up to court with a tattered schoolbag and a million and one things in his hands, Maranges naturally attracted the senior attorney’s attention. The young lawyer spent the money on a nice Tumi briefcase that he still carries today.
When Coleman needed petition signatures to run for Bar president in 2013, Higer collected hundreds of signatures while everyone else produced maybe 10 or 12 at most. Coleman almost fell out of his chair when he saw page after page containing nearly 300 signatures. Higer will quietly outwork just about anyone, Coleman said, because if you ask him to do something, he not only does it, he goes above and beyond.
“He has a sense of responsibility to other people,” Rabbi Kaplan confirmed. “Which is: If there’s something I can do to help, I will do it. When you live your life with that moral compass and religious values, you have an inner calm and an inner peace, because you know you’re making your best effort. At the end of the day, there’s a greater power that is in control of everything.”
Spark of God
On a pleasant October afternoon in Nashville, Board of Governors members Michael Higer and Andrew Sasso — who was pushing Annie, his daughter with Down syndrome, in an adult stroller — decided to take a walk with their wives downtown to visit the Tennessee State Museum, just a few blocks from the hotel where the board was holding its 2016 out-of-state meeting.
As they strolled and enjoyed light conversation, Sasso was distracted by all the sights. Along the way, he looked down and noticed Higer holding Annie’s hand as they walked.
“I found that very touching,” Sasso said of the kindness showed toward his 30-year-old daughter, who finds it difficult to walk long distances without the use of her “buggy,” as she calls it. “To me that shows character for somebody to do that. Such love, and affection, and character to do that.”
When Sasso retired in 2016 after 12 years on the board, his final comments were made with Higer in mind.
“I quoted from the Code of Hammurabi, which was written 3,500 years ago: ‘To bring about the rule of righteousness, so that the strong should not harm the weak,’” Sasso said. “I was thinking about Michael and people like Michael on the board when I said that, because I really have been able to witness — through my daughter’s eyes — people of such great character on the board during my service. People that I feel, like Michael, who would continue to bring about the rule of righteousness, so the strong should not harm the weak, which is the primary purpose of the legal system.”
Sasso’s daughter has attended every Board of Governors meeting, except one, with him and his wife all the years he’s been on the board. Annie has become especially close with Bobbie and Michael Higer, with whom she will carry on long conversations.
“Michael is very insightful and caring. I think he’s unique in that when you speak to him, you really feel that he’s listening,” Sasso said. “I think that’s a unique quality that some people have. I’ve witnessed it with Michael since I first met him.”
The friends share an enjoyment of historical nonfiction and biographies, and exchange book recommendations regularly. Higer’s childhood habit of reading stretched well into adulthood. He admits to constantly reading two books at a time on his Kindle, which currently contains 150 titles, when he is not busy. The Torah, the great book of the Jewish people, holds messages that he respects, as Higer’s philosophy is that a divine miracle resulted in our creation — a spark of God is in all of us.
“We’re trying to figure out what our mission is, and how to accomplish our mission,” Higer said. “And how to continue to grow to become better people, and to find and fulfill our purpose in life, and never stop trying to learn, and never stop trying to help others, and never stop trying to make this world a better place.”
Higer’s mission is now to make The Florida Bar an even better place for 104,000 lawyers.
On a 22-below-zero-degree evening in the Colorado mountains, Michael and Bobbie Higer’s 22-year-old nephew, Brandon Merritt, went to sleep and didn’t wake up the next morning. His sister found the life-long neurofibromatosis sufferer peacefully in bed.
Neurofibromatosis is a condition that caused tumors to develop in Brandon’s body, and a surgically removed mass on his spinal cord left him with a limp when he walked. Brandon, who also had learning disabilities, was more comfortable in Colorado, and one summer in the ski slopes of Beaver Creek, not far from Vail, he decided not to return to his Miami hometown. He remained in the mountains and worked at a ski ticket stand in the winter. The tumor disease, which inoperably manifested itself in his heart, shortened his life unexpectedly.
“Michael was very close with Brandon,” father Ralph Merritt, who is married to Bobbie’s sister, said. “It was a very devastating loss for him.”
The grieving family decided to establish “B the Difference,” The Brandon Merritt Charitable Foundation, which has assisted 13 neurofibromatosis sufferers and their families since July 2015. The foundation sends families on all-expense paid, five-day vacations to one of Brandon’s favorite locations — Boston, Colorado, Clearwater, or Miami-Ft. Lauderdale — to forget about stressful bills, doctor’s visits, and medical tests. Twelve families have been accepted between April and August 2017 to go on “B happy trips,” funded by donations of which 98 percent go directly to the cause with very little overhead. Bobbie, who was also very close with Brandon, sits on the foundation’s board of directors.
“Michael’s previous firm (Higer, Lichter & Givner), before he went to Berger Singerman, basically donated all of the copyrighting and trademarking of the logos and registering the foundation,” Merritt said, adding it took two or three years to finalize the logo because the Boston Red Sox filed a petition. The “B” in the foundation’s original logo looked too much like the Boston Red Sox “B,” with little curved tips.
“So we had to change the B, and it took us three years of negotiating with Major League Baseball,” Merritt said. “Michael and a couple of other attorneys at the firm donated all their time.”
Merritt asked his brother-in-law, who was partner at Higer, Lichter & Givner at the time, for a bill. Higer — who donates around 100 hours of pro bono hours per year — turned around and responded, “Are you kidding me? A bill?”
To learn more about the “B the Difference” foundation, visit http://www.bthedifference.org/.
While there are multiple issues that are important to him, Michael Higer said eight years on the Board of Governors has taught him a lot when it comes to setting a limited number of goals. Higer said the direction that Bill Schifino had taken, which is consistent with the strategic objectives of the Bar, is where Higer will be.
“I’ve certainly learned from experience and my predecessors that you can only move this needle so far on any one thing, let alone on multiple things,” he said. “But I’m an optimistic guy. I believe there are 30 hours in every day, and I will try to squeeze every second out of every day, so I will try to keep every plate spinning.”
Yes, Higer said, in any given year, there may be issues that cause the board to deviate; or there might be issues the board needs to give more consideration. However, as Bar president, Higer said there are “certain strategic objectives and certain priorities, and I intend to be true to those.”
Constitution Revision Commission
Once every 20 years, a 37-member Florida Constitution Revision Commission convenes to review the Florida Constitution and propose changes for voter consideration. The last comprehensive review of Florida’s Constitution occurred in 1997-98, and the most recent review began this year.
Schifino serves on the commission that will have hearings, public hearings, to determine what the agenda will be or is likely to be, and meet around the state, Higer said, during the year in which Higer is president.
“In Bill’s year, and now leading into mine, the Constitution Revision Commission is and will be a major focus because the number one issue that will be facing us throughout that process is to protect our branch — the first branch of government — the judicial branch,” Higer explained.
“Any efforts that are made to impinge upon our branch, whether it’s through term limits, reduction of funding, splitting the court, or anything of the sort, which would impair an impartial and an independent judiciary, has to be first and foremost in terms of our mission.
“So, what they come up with, what initiatives, what areas of the Constitution they focus on, what they’ll be debating, and what they will be seeking to put on the ballot as constitutional amendments: That decision-making process will happen during my year. If we’re going to have influence in that process, that’ll be the time to do it. That in and of itself could be a significant undertaking during my year.”
Access to Justice
The Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice was established in November 2014 to study the unmet civil legal needs of disadvantaged, low-income, and moderate-income citizens in Florida. The commission, which was originally due to expire in June 2016, is now permanent, and Higer will participate as Bar president.
Access to justice is a significant issue in Florida and all around the country, Higer explained, and depending on the statistics and reports, there are about 80 percent of citizens entering the legal system who are unrepresented or underrepresented.
“One of the statistics that is most disturbing — because it happens in a lot of areas: landlord-tenant, contract disputes, commercial disputes, and so on — but the one that’s most disturbing for me, at least, is domestic violence. You see women who are overwhelmingly unrepresented and their spouse is represented, and that’s difficult not to have representation, at a difficult time when somebody’s intersecting with our legal system. You want them to have representation and the notion that so many have so few ways to access our system can be confusing and difficult even for the most savvy individual let alone someone who’s in crisis.
“That’s something that we need to address, and it’s not an easy issue,” Higer said, adding it’s an issue of connectivity between people who need legal services and lawyers who need work. “There could be a multitude of reasons for that, but we need to find a way to make that connection.”
The Access to Justice Commission, chaired by Chief Justice Jorge Labarga, is working on technological solutions to try to bridge that connectivity gap, Higer said. But when he travels across the state to stand at the pulpit as Bar president to talk about what is important to the profession he leads, pro bono service will top the list. Even though Bar membership has grown to about 104,000 members, he said, the number of pro bono service hours has dropped over the last three years. Reported pro bono hours have decreased from 1.7 to 1.5 million, he said, and although 1.5 million hours is a significant number, the number is “going in the wrong direction,” while the population is growing.
The Bar offers dozens of different vendor items and services that are helpful to Bar members at a special rate, and Higer wishes to boost those benefits for firms of five lawyers or less.
“I think too often when we think of lawyers, we mistakenly think of the bigger firms, the 100-plus firms, and most of our lawyers don’t practice in those kinds of firms,” Higer explained. “Most of them are small firms or solo practitioners, and these folks need help.”
This year, he said, the Bar has identified various ways to assist lawyers who are coming out of law school, lawyers who have just started, and small firm practitioners at a crossroads. Higer intends to make sure that programs the Bar provides to lawyers are going to help them in their everyday practice, including the Lawyers Assisting Lawyers program, the Practice Resource Institute, and others currently being worked on.
“And it’s really about communication as well,” he continued. “We need to make sure they know about it, and that, I would say, is another aspect of what’s important to me: communication. I perceive that to be the glue of everything that we do.”
Higer said for the most part, most Bar members don’t want to be bothered by information overload, and that’s not a bad thing.
“They just want to go about doing what’s important to them in their practice. But you want to make sure for our Bar members, that when they need us, what are the kinds of things they might need? And make it as simple and easy for them, so when they want to access information, it’s there and available. They know there’s a lifeline for them,” Higer said.
“We have and we need to continue to get out of the business of communicating information to our Bar members that’s not really important to them. I don’t think, in general, that our Bar members want to know how the Bar works, what the Board of Governors does. Essentially, they don’t really want to know all the intricate information about politics or how the sausage is made in Tallahassee.
“They want to know: What are we doing for them? What do you have to offer me? How are you relevant in my life? I’m struggling to manage my caseload. I’m struggling to make a living. I’m struggling to feed my family. How can you, the Bar, this mandatory Bar that I have to belong to, how can you help me to become a better lawyer? To find that work-life balance? Those are issues that I’m facing every day in my practice, and I have to belong to this Bar, and the Bar is sending me emails, and the Bar is posting on Facebook, and crowding my electronic media. What is it they’re telling me that I need to tune into that is going to help me?”
Diversity and Inclusiveness
In February 2017, Higer chaired the Bar’s Special Committee on Gender Bias, a strategic planning committee formed by past President Schifino to discuss gender equality in the profession. The group was established after a 2015 Young Lawyers Division survey on women in the profession revealed 43 percent of 464 female respondents were unfairly treated in the workplace due to gender discrimination.
Higer said the complicated issue falls into two buckets: intentional misconduct and ingrained bias. The intentional misconduct would include “the ‘hey, honeys,’ the ‘hey, sweeties,’ the just bad conduct occurring in our courts, in our communications between opposing counsel, and communications in the office,” Higer said.
The other issue, which is harder to address, is implicit bias, which can be hard-wired into a person, Higer explained, but when we engage in certain implicit biases that adversely impact a particular class of people, that’s something that we need to be aware of and address.
“If you and I were the only two people left on the planet and we just had to figure out how to make you gender neutral in terms of your thinking and me gender neutral, it would be tough enough. Now think: How does The Florida Bar, in terms of an institution, do it? How does The Florida Bar address it? What policies, practices, can we implement? What can we do that will make a difference?”
Biography of Michael J. Higer
Partner at Berger Singerman in Miami
Complex commercial litigation; director/officer and partnership dispute litigation; hospitality and gaming litigation; insurance litigation; real estate litigation
Berger Singerman, LLP, partner (2014-present)
Higer, Lichter & Givner, LLP, partner (2006-2014)
Mintz, Truppman, Clein & Higer, P.A., shareholder (1998-2006)
Coll Davidson Carter Smith Salter & Barkett, P.A., shareholder (1992-1998); associate (1988-1991)
Fine Jacobson Schwartz Nash Block & England, P.A., associate (1985-1988)
Professional and Civic Activities:
The Florida Bar
Florida Bar President (2017-2018)
Board of Governors
Strategic Planning Committee
Program Evaluation Committee, chair (2015-2016)
Budget Committee, chair (2014-2015)
Disciplinary Review Committee, chair (2012-2013)
Disciplinary Procedures Committee
Liaison, Business Law Section
Business Law Section:
Executive Council (1996-present)
Special Committee on Business Courts, co-chair
State Court/Federal Court, co-chair
Legislative Committee, chair
CLE Committee, chair
Business Litigation Committee, chair
Business Litigation Certification, program chair and speaker
Other Bar Service:
The Florida Bar Foundation, Board of Directors
Intellectual Property Newsletter, editor
Special Committee on Proposed Revisions to Florida’s Rules of Professional Conduct
Judicial Nominating Screening Committee, former chair
Judicial Qualifications Screening Committee, former chair
Public Member Screening Committee, former chair
Defense Research Institute, former director
Dade County Trial Lawyer’s Association, former director
Intellectual Property Law Association of Florida, former president
11th Judicial Circuit, Ad Hoc Committee on Business Litigation Division, chair; Business Courts Committee, co-chair
Florida Supreme Court Committee on Standard Jury Instructions, Contract and Business Cases
The Fellows of the American Bar Foundation, life fellow
ABA: House of Delegates; Bar Leaders Conference, Business Law Section; Business Law and Real Property, Probate and Trust Law Sections; Intellectual Property Law Section, Planning Board Federal Practice and Procedure Committee; Loan Practices and Lender Liability Workouts, Enforcement of Creditors’ Rights and Bankruptcy Committees
U.S. District Court, Southern District of Florida: Advisory Committee on Rules & Procedures; Ad Hoc Committee on Attorney Admissions and Attorney Grievance
Dade County Bar Association, Civil Litigation Committee
Florida Justice Association
Federal Bar Association
Association of Trial Lawyers of America
American Intellectual Property Lawyers Association
Greater Miami Jewish Federation
Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce
Downtown Jewish Center, Ft. Lauderdale
University of Miami Law School Alumni Association
Highland Lakes Shul
The Florida Bar, Business Law Section, Outstanding Member of the Year (2005)
Florida Trend’s Elite Lawyers in commercial litigation
Best Lawyers in America in commercial litigation; real estate litigation “Lawyer of the Year” for Miami (2017)
Super Lawyer in commercial litigation
Fellow, The Florida Bar Foundation
Martindale Hubbell, AV-rated; top-rated, intellectual property (2013)
Chambers USA, Florida, Insurance
Bachelor of Arts, University of Florida (1982)
Juris Doctorate, cum laude, University of Miami School of Law (1985); executive editor, University of Miami Law Review