Jesse H. Diner, President of The Florida Bar
When Jesse Diner was seven years old, he and his parents boarded a train to travel from their Hollywood home to visit relatives in New York City.
His frugal folks noticed children six and younger rode free, so they coached little Jesse to say he was six.
Small and skinny, Jesse looked the part.
When the conductor came through the train car checking tickets, he casually asked Jesse: “And how old are you, little fellow?”
Jesse replied: “I am six now, but when I get off the train I will be seven again.”
The amused conductor patted Jesse on the head and moved on. But Jesse’s parents, blanched with embarrassment, vowed never again to ask their only child to tell a fib.
That favorite family story shows being a straight shooter comes naturally to Jesse Diner and he learned early it always pays to tell the truth.
Honesty and skills as a good listener and consensus-builder, while serving on the Board of Governors and chairing its budget committee three times, helped elevate 62-year-old Diner to president of The Florida Bar unchallenged.
Integrity as a premier commercial litigator earns him respect at Atkinson, Diner, Stone, Mankuta & Ploucha.
Like a tight-knit family, the 15-lawyer firm is the only firm Diner has ever practiced with, first at its location in Hollywood and now in Ft. Lauderdale.
Adele Stone is both Diner’s wife and law partner specializing in commercial real estate and general business law.
Sean Firley, Diner’s step-son from a previous marriage, is also a commercial litigator at the firm who helps on Diner’s cases.
Both say learning from Diner has made them better lawyers.
“One of the things I’ve really learned from him is how to deal with clients in a way that is not just making them happy, but being upfront with them,” said Firley, who watches in awe as Diner artfully and compassionately levels with clients when their case is bad.
“Frankly, I wish everyone loved the law as much as he does,” Firley said, of the father figure who came into his life when he was seven.
“He really cares about his clients and he is really fascinated about the law, loves the profession, and that’s why he got involved with Bar activities.”
In 1978, Diner was in the interview room when Stone, fresh out of the University of Miami law school, would soon land a job at the firm.
“Our firm occupies the entire floor of the building. She’s in the southeast corner and I’m in the northwest corner. It all works out,” Diner says of their unique marriage and legal partnership, where Stone jokingly reminds her husband that his name may come first on the firm’s letterhead, but she signs his paychecks.
Since she was a young practitioner, Stone said, she has consistently witnessed Diner’s tenacity and dedication to his clients.
“He does not stop researching and reading the files and transcripts until the last stone is turned. He is tireless in those efforts. He never stops until he finds the answer. There are no shortcuts for him,” said Stone, president of The Florida Bar Foundation.
“When he sits at a table — whether at the head of the table or at a roundtable discussion — Jesse’s is a voice everyone listens to. He’s very measured in his approach, very credible, well-reasoned, and logical. That not only bodes well for his clients at trial, but for his partners, and for the people he will work for at the Bar. He is a clear-born leader,” said Stone.
Tom Tatum, of Ft. Lauderdale, has known Diner since they were young lawyers more than three decades ago.
A couple of years ago, they handled pro bono one of the first mortgage scam cases for Broward Lawyers Care. Their clients’ house was being foreclosed and they were tricked into selling their property and leasing it back. Tatum said they achieved “an outstanding result.”
“When I think about Jesse and how he lives his life as a person and as a lawyer, it is consistent with the letter and spirit of the oath we take when we are admitted to The Florida Bar,” said Tatum.
“Jesse is a professional in all respects. His strategy is always supported by the law. He involves the client in the development of the strategy and keeps the client involved. I have never seen him treat an adversary, regardless of the circumstances, with anything less than respect and appropriate behavior. Finally, he is a really good listener. I think that’s what makes him a great lawyer.”
Diner’s legal assistant, Jocelyn Smith, said she’s worked for many lawyers during her long career, and Diner stands shoulders above.
“Jesse embodies what I thought all attorneys would be when I started working for them 33 years ago. I’ve never seen a more hardworking, ethical man, who genuinely wants to help everyone who approaches him, his community, and The Florida Bar,” Smith said.
“He is unafraid to champion a worthy cause and gives very freely of his time. It is an honor to work for a man at the pinnacle of his career, to know that I am working for one of the ‘good guys.’”
Rescuing a Friend from Despair
Diner is one of the best guys in the world, if you ask South Miami lawyer John Sutton, who first met Diner when they were swimmers on the Gettysburg College Bullets team.
Tragedy struck Sutton on August 22, 2004, during a brutal burglary at his Coral Gables home.
Sutton was shot six times with a 9 mm Glock, twice in the head, leaving him blind and nearly dead.
Sutton’s wife, Susan, was shot and killed while she talked on the phone.
Compounding the catastrophe was that the Suttons’ son, Christopher, stands accused of first-degree murder and attempted murder. Christopher Sutton has pled not guilty and his trial is set for August 3.
“My son is not the shooter, but put the shooter up to it for inheritance money,” John Sutton said.
Losing seven units of blood and enduring 14 hours of surgery “to put my head back together,” Sutton said his life was saved by doctors.
But his friend Diner saved his legal career and gave him reason to live.
Ten days after the shooting, Sutton was released from the hospital and back at his Coconut Grove townhouse, when Diner paid him a crucial visit.
“Jesse asked me all kinds of questions, about swim meets and service of process and the law and specific statutes. I was answering all his questions,” Sutton said.
“And then Jesse said to me, ‘I’m satisfied. You are completely competent to practice law.’
“I said, ‘But I can’t walk.’
“Jesse said, ‘Your body will heal. You will get better. And you will practice law.’”
Rather than wallow in grief and self-pity, Sutton said, Diner’s words jolted him with encouragement he needed “to turn me on the right road at that time and keep things moving for me.”
He kept on practicing law successfully. Now brimming with hope he will get his eyesight back, Sutton is participating in cutting-edge cell gene modification research and serves on the board of directors of the Schepens Eye Research Institute in Boston, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School.
“What all this says about Jesse is that he is good about evaluating human situations,” Sutton said.
“The Florida Bar is an organization like a licensing board that occasionally has to deal with special issues of lawyers with alcoholism, drug addictions, and mental health issues.
“It’s a good thing to have someone in place as president of the Bar who can deal effectively with people having difficulties.”
Fred Anthony, another college swim team friend and a partner at a Fifth Avenue firm in the Rolex Building in New York, said: “Jesse has been instrumental in John’s recovery and in John’s desire to continue practicing law. John has told me several times that he does not know if he would have been able to go on if not for Jesse’s assistance and friendship.
“Jesse is a special person. He is a good lawyer, and, more importantly, he is a good man.”
Jesse the Kid
This good man had a happy childhood.
Frisking with beloved dog Streak.
Playfully punching his dad, who tried to teach him duets on an accordion too unwieldy for a skinny kid to hold.
Chopping firewood at their rustic family summer place on Lake Memphremagog (“body of beautiful water”) in Vermont, still Diner’s summer sanctuary where he chugs along in a 14-foot aluminum boat powered by a ’58 three-horsepower Johnson.
Fishing with his dad, who let him skip school so they could take the boat out of Everglades City, and motor about two hours out into the Gulf of Mexico to catch grouper.
Clearing away the empty plates of the New York Giants, when he and his cousin had summer jobs bussing tables at the Fairfield, Connecticut, Howard Johnson’s.
That cousin, Jeff Blank, born six weeks before Diner, is more like a brother. Now a psychologist and counselor in Connecticut, Blank says Diner’s greatest assets are his generosity, how comfortable he is in his own skin, and his fun-loving good nature.
“Jesse was a kid when he was a kid, and he hasn’t changed a bit,” said Blank.
“We have three kids. When they were little kids, we would have to kind of put a hold on Jesse so he didn’t make our kids too kid-like. Whenever we went somewhere, we had four kids. And the worst one was Jesse. Always a teenager!”
Diner doesn’t disagree.
“Some people who know me pretty well will tell you I never grew up. I don’t want to be stuffy, no matter how old I am. I had a very happy childhood and I loved having fun. I think I have a sense of humor about myself,” Diner said.
Good thing. His friends love to razz him, and the feeling is mutual.
Diner met his friend Steve Potter, a backup linebacker for the Miami Dolphins in 1981-82, about 18 years ago on a Miami Dolphins ski trip, and has appointed him to the Unlicensed Practice of Law Committee as a citizen member.
They played together on a softball team that Diner coached. When they won a softball tournament, Diner threw a big party and handed out gifts to everyone.
“He comes to me and says, ‘Steve, I was able to retrieve all of the highlights of your professional football career.’ He gives me a blank VCR, still in the wrapper! In front of everybody!”
So Potter got him back at Diner’s 60th birthday party, when he put together a slide show of “Jesse, the Competitive Athlete.”
“I superimposed Jesse’s face on every sports blooper I could find, like a jockey falling off his horse and the streaker running across the stadium,” Potter says, laughing. “I love him like a brother.”
Diner’s take on all of this: “Steve tried to get even with me, but it wasn’t close. Like spitballs off a battleship!”
Hollywood, Here We Come!
Jesse was the only child of Murray and Rosalie “Sis” Diner.
“Opposite ends of the spectrum,” says cousin Blank. “His dad kept him in line and kept him humble. His mother was loving and protective.”
Blank remembered Aunt Sis explaining why she only had one child.
“When you do it perfect the first time, why would you need another one?”
“And I used to say to her, ‘Aunt Sis, when you have one like him, why would you want another one?’”
When Diner reflects on how his parents, both deceased, raised him, he smiles and says it was all good.
“I was very lucky to have these two people as parents, because they left me with a lot of values, a lot of insight, and a lot of understanding. I think they grounded me fairly well,” Diner said.
Murray and Rosalie worked so hard as dentist and dental hygienist at their busy Queens practice, working from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., that their nanny and maid saw more of their son his first three years of life than they did.
All that changed in 1950.
Only 38, Murray Diner decided to chuck the profession that made him the first dental intern at Coney Island Hospital, then sent him off filling teeth for the Army attached to a M.A.S.H. unit traveling all over the Philippines with Gen. Douglas MacArthur during World War II.
Needing a break from their demanding dental practice, the Diners packed up their three-year-old son and headed to Hollywood, Florida, population 7,000, still such a small town, Diner said, they had to wait a year to get a telephone.
The plan was they’d take a year off and relax and return to Connecticut to open a dental office.
One year in Florida turned into the rest of their lives.
“My father worked harder at retirement than most people work at work,” Diner said.
Reading a book a day, spending a few hours a day on his investments and real estate holdings, fishing, and golfing, Murray Diner was always nearby in his son’s life.
Murray Diner, who died in 1987, was a product of the Depression, the oldest of five children of Russian immigrants with no formal education who owned grocery stores in Brooklyn.
At age 12, Murray did all of the ordering at the store, graduated from high school at 15, from college at 18, and from dental school from the University of Pennsylvania at 22.
“My grandmother was a very bright lady and really was most clearly the matriarch of the family,” Diner said. “She wanted to see that her sons were educated. She scrimped and saved for him to go through dental school. The stories were that she didn’t even have a checking account per se, but there was a supplier for the grocery store, and she’d say, ‘I know your checks are good and I’ll give you the money and you send the checks to dental school.’ My dad worked his way through dental school waiting on tables.”
All this helps explain what Diner said he most learned from his father: Education is the greatest gift you can give a child. And get a profession where you can be your own boss and control your destiny, but it will require hard work and self-discipline.
“Even though we were financially pretty well off, my father didn’t want me treated differently than anyone else. I needed to learn the value of a dollar, and learn what hard work was. My dad didn’t believe I should sit around and take it easy,” said Diner, who was 14 when he got his first summer job.
Later, earning his own way as a lawyer, Diner said: “I forget how old I was, but I always wanted a Corvette, so I bought a Corvette.
“My dad had been harping on me what a waste it was to drive fancy cars, so I called him up and said, ‘Dad, I took your advice. I got a two-door black Chevy with black wall tires.’
“And he said to me, ‘Well, it’s about time! Finally, you listened to me!’
“Everything was fine until I drove in the driveway with that Corvette. He stood there and shook his head, a you-just-don’t-get-it type thing. He never said a word. He just threw his hands in the air.”
Mother Rosalie, who died in 2007, was a bogie golfer who was “deadly around the greens” and played with the guys, and she wrapped Jesse in nurturing love and support.
“My mother made me breakfast every morning and the dog always got breakfast, because I wasn’t much of an eater in the morning,” Diner recalls with a laugh.
“She would send me off to school every day with one mantra: ‘Do your best. I don’t care if your best is a C or whatever else, just do your best every day.’”
Leaving His Mark at Gettysburg
“Brainy, popular, and a competitive swimmer,” is how South Broward High School swim teammate Larry Korda remembers Diner.
“And he had his own car,” added Korda, now a mediator after serving 29 1/2 years on the bench.
Diner’s dad gave him a red and white ’55 Olds hardtop to drive to high school, but Diner had to pay for his own gas.
The car was big enough for Diner to drive four or five friends to school, and they each paid him $1 a week for gas money.
“Larry never paid on time,” Diner recalls. “Finally, he got I don’t know how many weeks behind and I said, ‘You’re not getting in the car until you pay.’”
Diner rolled the window down a crack just big enough for Korda to slip in his dollar. Only then would the door unlock and Korda was allowed into the back seat.
“If you didn’t slip your money in the cracked open window by Friday, he always threatened to drive away. Maybe it helps him now charging his fees,” wisecracked Korda.
Korda remembered going with Diner to college dances, hoping to meet girls who didn’t realize Korda and Diner were faking being college age and were really still in high school.
As fresh law graduates, they took the bar exam together at the Diplomat Hotel. Korda remembers feeling relieved when they compared their answers for an essay question, because if that’s what Jesse wrote, it must be right. Diner had already passed the New York bar exam, graduating from St. John’s Law School in New York City.
“Jesse got away from his Hollywood homeboy influences,” Korda said.
When it came time to choose an undergraduate college, Diner’s dad said he could go anywhere, and he chose Gettysburg College, in Pennsylvania, founded in 1832 by an anti-slavery theologian and ranked among the best liberal arts colleges in the country.
Thirty miles up the road was cousin Jeff Blank, attending Dickinson College.
Diner graduated from Gettysburg, but he never left the college.
After serving as president of the Gettysburg Alumni Association, Diner is now on the board of trustees at Gettysburg, where he chaired the governance committee.
As a memorial to his parents and testament to their valuing his education, Diner created a scholarship in his father’s and mother’s names.
Serving with Diner on the board of trustees is Jim Chemel, a college swim teammate and certified public account in Pittsburgh, who said: “Jesse is an excellent listener. And I think he tries, after gathering information as a listener, to create a consensus without a decree.”
Jim Weaver, Gettysburg chairman of the board and an economist in an investment benefits business, said though he can’t go into detail because the matters are “confidential and ongoing,” the years 2006, 2007, and 2008 were very challenging times for the college.
“Jesse was a very key contributor to the discussions and debates,” Weaver said.
“Ethically, Jesse is right at the very top. He does his homework and doesn’t shoot from the hip.
“He’s very able to assess situations and reach the right conclusions in a fairly rapid way. He’s a good listener and inclusive. And if someone is out of the mainstream and having a problem, Jesse reaches out privately,” Weaver said.
“As I’ve told Jesse on many occasions, he is my No. 1 man on the board. I couldn’t do it without him.”
The Lure of the Law
After graduating Gettysburg with a bachelor’s in political science, with minors in history and economics, Diner gravitated to law school.
“I’d eliminated the medical profession because I had spent one semester as a biology premed student.
“I was in the labs looking through microscopes and everybody else was out having a good time. I realized that there was no way that was going to go on for eight years,” Diner said.
He was accepted at law schools at the University of Florida, Stetson University, and the University of Miami. But he decided to return to his earliest roots in New York City, and attend law school at St. John’s University because, as Diner explains, “I was dating someone at the time.”
He quickly adds: “The major reason was that I really thought that I was not going to come back and live in Florida. I’d been away four years in college, and I thought I was going to live in the Northeast.”
At St. John’s, Diner was notes and comments editor of the Law Review, and proud to receive a one-third scholarship his second year and a full scholarship his third year.
After passing the written New York bar exam, Diner went through the second phase of a required interview with a member of the bar character committee, who had only one question for Diner:
“You’re not a very good driver, are you?”
Diner answered: “What are you talking about?”
“Well, you’ve had three tickets.”
And 26-year-old Diner responded: “I’ve been driving since I was 14! Three tickets in 12 years? Yeah, I think I’m a good driver!”
“That was the only question,” Diner recalls with a laugh. “Bizarre!”
Fresh out of law school in 1972, while the Watergate scandal charged the political climate in an interesting time in American history, Diner went to work for the Regional Counsel’s Office for the Small Business Administration, at 26 Federal Plaza at Foley Square, the civic area in lower Manhattan dominated by the federal courthouse colonnades.
“Because I had a really nice boss, I got an opportunity to work on the biggest loan at that time that the agency had ever closed,” Diner said.
“It was a disaster loan for Ingersol Rand,” now a global company with more than 450 locations in 42 countries.
It wasn’t a small business back in 1972, either, but Hurricane Agnes had wiped out its industrial equipment plant in Elmira, New York.
“In those days, the program was that the first $5,000 of a disaster loan was forgiven. That was before they had flood insurance. It was one of the things that led to the creation of requiring flood insurance and the National Flood Insurance Program,” Diner said.
After having to dig his car out of the snow in New York a few times too many, South Florida’s fabulous weather lured Diner back home to Hollywood.
“Jesse and I met each other in the early ’70s and started a practice in what was then the small community of Hollywood,” recalled Wilson Atkinson.
“Jesse has always approached the practice of law with thoroughness, intellect, integrity, and kindness, and it has been my pleasure to call him a friend and a partner throughout these many years,” Atkinson said.
“As you can imagine, his trial practice started small, but today he is one of the top litigators in the state, and some of our clients would even say in the whole United States.”
Diner’s Time to Serve
After her husband died, Diner’s mother still lived in his childhood Hollywood home, with the swimming pool in back.
During Rosalie’s valiant eight-year fight against lung cancer, there came a time when she had to move into the Hyatt Assisted Living Facility.
She struck a bargain with her son: They would keep the family house just as it was, and Vanessa, her aide, would take Rosalie home to get the mail and let her spend time at her own beloved house every day.
“I learned how strong a person she was after my dad passed away. I learned that she had an incredible internal strength that I never realized,” Diner said, marveling at how his mother, always deferential to her husband, rose to the occasion to handle her own investments and continued summering in Vermont to keep her spirit up.
When the cancer metastasized to the brain and her time was nearing an end, Rosalie didn’t want any heroics. One day, she said, “It’s time to start with hospice. I have no quality of life. It’s just time.”
Before she slipped peacefully away on December 3, 2007, Diner said, “She was in control and we conversed right up until the last day. I remember saying to her, ‘Mom, I’ve got the requisite signatures to qualify for election to president of The Florida Bar. And there appears to be no opposition, so I am elected.’
“She was extremely proud about that. Typical to the end, my mom said, ‘Now, Jesse, I don’t want you to be disappointed if it doesn’t work out.’”
It worked out just fine.
Three former Bar presidents have great faith in their new successor.
Terry Russell (2001): Diner “served on as many committees as I could get him on, and was my communications chair and a really solid board member. He has a good instinct for it, and is not afraid to ask for and take advice. He’s got all the tools to be a very fine Bar president.”
Alan Bookman (2005): “In my opinion, Jesse is among the most qualified people to ever assume the presidency of The Florida Bar. He has skillfully chaired all of the Board of Governors’ major committees, has been repeatedly elected to serve on the Executive Committee, and fully understands the budgetary process. Before he speaks, he studies the issues and has always been a respected and listened-to voice of reason. He is personable, has a great sense of humor, and does not take himself too seriously.”
Hank Coxe (2006): “My close friendship with Jesse Diner is independent of the enormous personal respect I have for him: an individual who enjoys an uncanny ability to balance the best interests of the public with the best interests of the legal profession. The cornerstone of his presidency will be the judgment he exercises on issues of critical importance to The Florida Bar and the judiciary.”
Goals: Advancing the Bar’s Strategic Plan
Jesse Diner has never been afraid to tackle the tough jobs.
In 2000, as chair of the Budget Committee, Diner saw the looming $2 million projected deficit for the coming fiscal year, and he recommended the only responsible thing to do was raise annual membership dues from $190 to $265, the first hike in a dozen years. Diner helped successfully argue the matter before the Florida Supreme Court.
In 2005, Diner helped broker a compromise deal on how The Florida Bar and its sections split revenues from continuing legal education seminars.
Now Diner takes the helm of the Bar when it faces its first deficit, a small amount that doesn’t worry him and will not result in a dues increase this year. (The 2009-10 budget will spend almost $38.3 million, compared with $39 million this year; and revenues are projected at $38 million, down from $38.8 expected for 2008-09).
His biggest worry is a perennial concern and will be his No. 1 goal: Sufficient funding for the judicial branch, which goes hand in hand with a fair and impartial judiciary, and ensuring citizens’ access to courts.
“We have an opportunity to have a judicial branch treated as an equal branch of government, not as a street urchin with its hand out begging for a few crumbs,” Diner said, of the struggling courts that make up just seven-tenths of one percent of the entire state budget.
“I will do whatever I can, whenever I can, in whatever way I can to assist in this — whether it takes walking the halls of the Capitol, making calls on legislators, or marshalling our members and any other people who may be similarly interested. The business community recognizes that without adequate funding they cannot resolve their differences.”
When Diner goes to court, he sees firsthand Florida’s 338,000 civil case backlog. Even if no new cases were filed, according to a study by Coral Gables economist Tony Villamil, it would take 13 months to absorb that backlog. The Villamil study also found that civil case delays caused by the court funding crisis are resulting in $17.4 billion lost in Florida’s economic output each year.
“I was in court the other day on a motion calendar. You used to give three business days notice and you could get on the calendar and advance a matter. But the judge’s motion calendar was full for seven weeks.
“If you can’t even make the calendar for a month and a half or more, what does that tell you about our civil cases that are being clogged up in the courts?” Diner asks.
“It’s a serious problem. It’s not whimsical. It’s not about just trying to get money for the judicial branch. It’s so it can function the right way. We’re at the nub right now. It can’t stand any more cuts. Access to the courts is too important for our citizens, whether it’s the poorest person to the biggest business. If you don’t have an adequate court system in a civil society, it is chaos. How else can people solve their disputes?”
Funding the courts sufficiently will be a continuing challenge.
“I don’t think we’ll be that fortunate to solve it all in one year. I hope the year I’m president we can move the ball further up the hill. And if we can get it across the finish line, that’s wonderful. If we don’t, then we advance it enough so that (President-elect) Mayanne Downs can pick the ball up and run with it from there.”
It’s all part of advancing specific goals adopted in the Bar’s strategic plan.
“I believe in that because you set a course, and the course remains consistent from president to president,” Diner said. “It’s critical for the resources for the Bar, and it’s really critical if you want to make a difference. It’s very hard to make a difference in one year.”
Diner’s experience as Budget Committee chair three times helps him put the current deficit of the Bar budget in proper perspective.
“The Bar is fiscally sound, fiscally strong, and has been fiscally responsible. There’s no shame in this economy to be running a slight deficit. I’m not ashamed that we are running at a deficit, even though it’s the first year in the history of the Bar,” Diner said.
“You call it the way it is. Does that mean push the panic button? No. If investments should turn around sometime in the ensuing year, then I would see there is no need for a dues increase the following year. If the investments continue to be major losses, then it’s something that will have to be addressed in the near future. Otherwise, I would hope it would be three or four years before there would be a dues increase.”
As for the sometime rancorous dealings about how sections divvy up CLE revenues with the Bar, Diner said, “I was on the cause. I think it trains you for the bigger job. Communication is the most important thing. I think there was some shortage of communication for a while. We also delayed the process a little bit to get further answers.
“In the end, what we told all the sections, we meant it. We gave them our word, and I think we’ve kept our word. I think the sections overall have fared pretty well with it. Is it perfect? Probably not. Can it always be fixed or have to be tweaked? I think the answer is yes. It’s a work in progress.”
Jay Cohen, a member of the Bar Board of Governors who practiced law with Diner for 14 years, worked on one of the first lender liability cases in Broward County in 1990 with Diner that resulted in a $27 million jury verdict.
“Back then, Jesse demonstrated his ability at planning, mapping strategy, and dotting all i’s and crossing all t’s,” Cohen said.
As Bar president, Cohen said: “I can’t think of a better mind when it comes to analysis of issues, and policymaking with respect to those issues, and then implementation of that policy, than Jesse Diner’s.
“I certainly have seen it in my short term so far on the Board of Governors. I’ve seen it with his heart-felt method that he takes in addressing so many issues. He makes sure he has all the facts. This comes from his nature and his training as an excellent lawyer.”
Expect Diner to be a straight shooter as Bar president, just as he is in his law practice.
“I believe you look someone in the eye and tell it straight. I always tell my clients: ‘I’m not going to tell you what you want to hear. I’m going to tell you what you need to hear.’ Because I don’t like surprises. If you sweet-talk people and don’t tell it to them straight, there will be a surprise at the end of the day.”
Every president he has served under has taught him a lot, Diner said.
“I’ve learned” that the job takes dedication. I’ve been given the opportunity and responsibility to have my hand on the tiller for a year, and it is something to be taken very seriously, because nobody wants to do something detrimental to the Bar. You want to leave it better than when you found it, which has always been my mantra.
“I really welcome the opportunity — and I consider it an opportunity — to help and serve the lawyers of Florida.”
Fast (and Lazy) Freestyle Swimmer
For Jesse Diner’s 60th birthday, his college swimming teammates and coach donned Gettysburg College Bullet bathing caps and skimpy Speedos and serenaded the swimmer once nicknamed “Ironman.”
It was the perfect surprise gift to remember the good old days when Diner was the winning sprinter who showed up for meets, but never wanted to show up for practices.
When Diner arrived at Gettysburg College, a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, he had hoped to avoid competitive swimming, burnt out by three years on the South Broward High School Team, where the coach taught the three stages of improvement: “Hurt, pain, and agony.”
One day at Gettysburg, Diner swam in a fraternity meet and caught the eye of swim coach Bob Smith, known to most as Smitty, but Diner nicknamed him “Buffalo Bob,” after the host of The Howdy Doody Show.
Smith liked Diner’s style and kept pestering him to join the team. “He was strong and skinny and fast and from South Florida, and put it all together and the coach is thinking, ‘This is a good move,’” remembers fellow swimmer John Sutton, now a lawyer in South Miami.
Diner kept saying no; he just wanted an education.
One day, Diner said, “I don’t know why, but I said, ‘Yes.’”
There was only one problem: Diner didn’t like to practice.
In the gray northern, indoor pool, the water was too cold. Wet hair turned to ice as soon as you stepped outside. Those were Diner’s excuses.
“Would it help if I sprinkled sand on the deck and threw in a few potted palms?” Buffalo Bob asked.
And so their playful banter went.
“I liked the race. I liked the competition, but I hated to practice,” agreed Diner.
It all started at his South Broward High team, where he swam with a “bunch of All-Americans and the fastest guy in the country,” Diner said.
Practices were exhausting and tedious.
Diner would beg his high school coach not to make him do long-distance races, just leave him alone to sprint. But the high school coach refused.
“There was a meet at the end of the season, and he put me in the 400, and I had had enough. That race didn’t matter, because we had a good team and we won a lot of meets. I was on the 15th lap of a 16-lap race, and I climbed out of the pool on the 15th lap,” Diner recounted.
“Coach said, ‘Why’d you do it?’
“I said: ‘I want to sprint. And you won’t listen to me.’
“So the next year, he let me sprint.”
At college, Diner’s new swim coach, Buffalo Bob, used a gentler psychology to persuade Diner to join the team, the pair engaging in good-natured cajoling and sassing that has forged a friendship still going strong.
“None of us recognized how smart Jesse was in college. He was in a rowdy fraternity group,” recalled Smith, whose routine was to show up at the frat house where Diner lived and nudge him out of nap time to swim laps.
“Buffalo Bob would be standing at the front door in his overcoat and grey T-shirt and coaching pants, and he’d look at me and never say a word. And I’d say, ‘OK, I’ll be there in about 10 minutes,’” Diner recalled.
Not only did Diner hate to practice, he preferred the shortest race in college competition: the 50-yard freestyle sprint.
At meets, Diner would swim the 50-yard free, the 100-yard free, and 100 yards of free on one of the relays, for a total of 250 yards total.
“This earned him the affectionate nickname ‘Ironman,’” said Fred Anthony, a teammate and partner in a law firm housed in the Rolex Building in New York City.
“For most of the rest of us, 100 yards was the shortest race we swam, and almost everyone swam two or more races of 200 yards or more. The coach tried to convince Jesse that he could be really good at the 200 free,” Anthony continued.
“Jesse’s response was an early indicator of the skills that have made him a successful lawyer. In response to the coach’s request, Jesse asked, ‘Coach, how many points do you get for winning the 50?’
Coach: “Five points.”
Diner: “Coach, how many points do you get for winning a 200?”
Coach: “Five points.”
“Jesse’s conclusion: ‘Why would I ever want to swim a 200 if I can get the same result for the team swimming a 50?’”
With a laugh, Anthony sums up Diner’s early promise for his future legal career: “Jesse had immediately identified the issue and found the logical conclusion. Case closed.”
As teammate Dan Hely, now an orthopedic surgeon in Pennsylvania, said: “Jesse’s abysmal (as in immeasurably wretched) work ethic as a college kid was only surpassed by a total inability to pass up anything that might pass as a good time.
“Proof that our attempts to predict success later in life are generally inept. Fortunately, Jesse came from a good bloodline, and true character overcame all attempts to underachieve.”
Jim Chemel, a teammate who is now a certified public accountant in Pittsburgh, remembers: “We were kind of a rag-tag outfit, pieced together from various sources on campus. One thing I remember clearly, I very rarely saw Jesse practice.
“I thought maybe there were two levels of teams: guys who muck it out two hours a day — and an elite team that Jesse was on that practices on its own.”
A consummate negotiator even back then, Diner “wrote his own ticket: ‘I’ll swim, but I’m not going to do any swimming laps at practice.’ He was the mystery man,” Chemel said.
Indeed, Diner had cut a deal with Buffalo Bob that he didn’t have to practice his freshman year, but the coach persisted dragging him to practice the next three years.
Diner had graduated a year before the 1969-70 Gettysburg Bullets went from “Bad News Bears-status” to conference champs.
“It’s not coincidental that after Diner left, we won a championship,” Chemel good-naturedly jabs.
“They called us back to campus to honor us and Diner was there. From that moment forward, we rekindled our friendship.”
These swim teammates and their coach have forged lasting bonds. And Anthony, the New York lawyer, thinks it’s more than coincidence that these fellow swim teammates became successful professionals.
“I think that the discipline required in competitive swimming is certainly an asset in business and in life. Bob Smith, our college coach, motivated us and helped make us better people.”
Smith treasures the camaraderie of this “special group.”
“One thing I have always said: ‘You can’t hide people who have intellect.’ These are people who had good intellect, good principles, and good values. I tried to instill values about honesty.”
Smith says his children tease him and calls them ‘Bobisms.’
Bobism 1: “If you are honest, you don’t have to remember what you said. If you lie, you have to cover up.”
Bobism 2: “As you climb the ladder of success, be kind to the people you pass, because you may meet them on the way down.”
Diner says he has taken what he learned from Buffalo Bob and athletics and uses them in the practice of law. He plays by the rules, but tries to win.
“It helps me work the long hours I need to work, to dig, to find the right answers. All those miles I swam! You learn the discipline not to quit and to finish the job,” Diner said.
A bonus is hearty laughter between old friends who don’t forget.
When Diner finally said he’d join the swim team as a 19-year-old freshman, it was the day before Gettysburg took on the University of Delaware.
On the way to the race, Smith announced: “Anybody who wins a race gets a steak dinner.”
That night, Diner won the 50-yard, the 100-yard, and anchored a winning relay.
After the meet at the restaurant, the coach said to Diner, “You get a steak dinner.”
Diner flung back: “No, I get three.”
Coach ended the discussion with: “No, you get one.”
Three decades later, Diner and Sutton emceed a retirement party for Smith. Diner seized the opportunity to remind Buffalo Bob that he still owes him two steaks.
A month later, Diner’s doorbell rings.
A package arrived from Omaha Steaks with this note: “Debt cancelled 30 years later. Coach.”
Biography of Jesse H. Diner
Name Shareholder at Atkinson, Diner, Stone, Mankuta & Ploucha in Ft. Lauderdale
Areas of Practice:
•Commercial and construction litigation
• Arbitrator for the American Arbitration Association in complex business/litigation/construction matters
•Bachelor of Arts, Gettysburg College, 1969
•Juris Doctorate, St. John’s University Law School, 1972, where he served as Editor of Notes and Comments for the St. John’s University Law Review. He authored the note “Procedural Due Process in Peno-Correctional Institutions: Profession and Regression,” St. John’s University Law Review (1971).
Admitted to Practice:
•New York and Florida state courts, since 1973 •United States District Court for the Southern and Middle Districts of Florida •United States District Courts of Appeal in the Fifth and 11th circuits •United States Tax Court • United States Supreme Court
•President, Broward County Bar Association, 1995-96 •President, Legal Aid Service of Broward County, Inc., 1992 •Board of Trustees, City of Miami Fire Fighters and Police Pension Board for more than 20 years • Chair, Committee on Trustees, Board of Trustees, Gettysburg College •Lecturer, construction law litigation seminars
The Florida Bar Activities:
•Chair, Florida Bar Grievance Committee, District 17D, 1982-84.
•Board of Governors, since 1996 • Board of Governors Executive Committee
•Chair, Budget Committee (three times) • Chair, Legislation Committee (twice) • Chair, Committee on Judicial Independence • Chair, Communications Committee • Chair, Member Benefits Committee • Chair, Investment Committee
•Board Liaison, Professional Ethics Committee
•Member, Real Property, Probate and Trust Law Section • Member, Trial Lawyer Section
Jan Pudlow is senior editor for The Florida Bar News.