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John M. Stewart: President of The Florida Bar

Associate Editor Featured Article
John M. Stewart: President of The Florida Bar

As it relates to the modern practice of law, technology can be difficult to discuss due to its rapidly changing nature and complexity. But John Stewart, who has been involved in Bar service for two decades, was up for the challenge when he was appointed chair of the Technology Subcommittee by 2013 Bar President Gene Pettis as part of the Vision 2016 Commission — established to study the future of the practice of law in Florida. It was no easy task for the Rossway Swan partner, in Vero Beach, who focuses on probate litigation and mediation work. Curious about gadgets (Stewart carried a savvy Palm Pilot at the time), but with little interest in how they impact the legal profession, Stewart ended up making major changes. A standing Committee on Technology was established, at the same time as a Board of Governors Technology Committee, which he chaired, and The Florida Bar became the first bar in the nation to require a mandatory CLE tech component for its members.

“I’m still amazed with how much we accomplished in that committee,” says Stewart, who was immediately thrown into the spotlight. The tech CLE, approved by the Florida Supreme Court in 2016, was instituted so lawyers remain ahead of the competition and on the cutting edge, he says. “It has all been enormously successful. I’ve never had a complaint from anybody about having to take three hours of a technology CLE.”

Stewart believes technology can play a pivotal role in the delivery of legal services.

“Today, there are still billions of dollars’ worth of unmet legal needs in America,” he says. “Lawyers who have successfully integrated technology into their practices are well positioned to capture a large share of that market.”

A fire still burns bright in the 49-year-old Bar president, who sat on the Florida Supreme Court’s Technology Commission for five years, appointed twice by the chief justice, and regularly speaks about tech developments at venues around the country, including the ABA Tech Show. As a testament to his commitment, in January, Stewart flew to Segovia, Spain, for a global conference, “Law Without Walls,” which involved overseeing international student projects that demanded technological solutions.

“It gives me a great deal of comfort knowing that he’s going to be at the helm,” says 2014 Bar President Greg Coleman, who served with Stewart on the Young Lawyers Division and Board of Governors. They became fast friends back in 1999 and didn’t know what the future held. Stewart would spend the next 20 years involved in Bar service, with no breaks in between years, including as YLD president in 2006. With an expansive knowledge of the inner workings of the Bar, Coleman asserts, Stewart is uniquely prepared to lead. “He served in so many leadership roles before he ran for president that the level of experience he brings to the job is in the upper 10 percent of all Bar presidents.”

Former 2006 Bar President Hank Coxe describes Stewart, who was leading the YLD during the same term, as a rare contemplator in a world full of talkers. A big-picture kind of guy, Stewart doesn’t dwell on the minutiae. Instead, he hangs back to listen to what’s going on beyond the details. “I think he’ll do an excellent job as president because people will listen to what he has to say,” Coxe added. “He has an excellent understanding and appreciation of people.”

Part of that deep understanding relates to Stewart’s widely known talent for making people laugh.

“I can be pretty intense,” says Stewart reflectively. But in a subtle way, the new Bar president can lighten the mood, not only with his wry jokes, but with his footwear. A true Floridian, there’s always an accessible pair of flip flops on hand. “I will change into my flip flops as soon as I can,” he admits, even with formal wear. Coleman laughs when he thinks about his friend’s habit.

“He’s transitioned to socks and shoes,” Coleman chuckles. Lately, Stewart has been collecting novelty socks at tech shows and showing them off underneath his pant legs. A popular pair feature the face of U.S. President George Washington, which Stewart wore to the board’s out-of-state meeting in D.C. The amusing socks might even show up on Stewart’s social media accounts, where on his Twitter bio he describes himself as an “X-Luddite turned LegalTech geek!”

Stewart is a loyal fan of flip flops, but also of socks that make people laugh. George Washington’s face appears on one popular pair.

“I try not to wear ties at all,” Stewart confesses when comparing himself to his father — a lawyer who regularly wears a bow tie. The single father of a 15-year-old daughter, MaryClaire, doesn’t take himself too seriously.

“I’m very casual. But that belies a lot of intensity that I have underneath,” he admits.

Focused and introspective, others wait until the end of debates to hear what Stewart has to say.

“People seek and value his advice,” observes 2010 Bar President Mayanne Downs, who was initially drawn to Stewart’s keen sense of humor. His quiet wit, she says, is a lost art among peers who often take themselves too seriously. “John is a go-to person. It’s an ultimate compliment when people really want your point of view…. John never makes anything about himself. He’s not craving the limelight or attention.”

Twinkle in His Eye

Although colleagues admire Stewart’s reputation for handling any task thrown his way — and his propensity to sit back and reflect on an issue without over-talking — a prominent feature of the new Bar president’s personality is the ability to make fun of himself.

“He has a twinkle in his eye because he knows he’s been funny,” says 2011 Bar President Scott Hawkins, who is so accustomed to Stewart’s sense of humor, he will immediately begin to chuckle in anticipation of witty comments when Stewart stands up to say anything at all.

“He had us in stitches. I think I spilled my drink,” 2005 Bar President Alan Bookman recalled about dinner one evening with his wife, Stewart, and friends. “He’s a good man. He’s funny, he’s bright, he’s articulate, and, most importantly, a lot of fun.”

At the board’s year-end roasts, Stewart employs his unmistakably subtle wit. Exiting board members don’t leave without a proper send-off, which involves bringing the house down with laughter. He and Judge Ed Scales of the Third District Court of Appeal used to write jokes together in preparation for the roasts. Across the board, Stewart is known for breaking the ice. Having that self-deprecating, funny side helps Stewart bring down walls and build avenues of communication with a wide spectrum of personalities on the Board of Governors and beyond. Coleman suggests being naturally funny is wired into his DNA.

“I do have that dry sense of humor,” admits Stewart’s father, William “Bill” Stewart, who may have passed the genes down to his son. Even as a student at Vero Beach High School, John Stewart made light of anything and everything. When a teacher asked the teenager why he’d written a three-page paper instead of a nine-page paper and demanded an expansion on the assignment, Stewart dryly answered: “Well, I do like to leave things to the imagination.”

The 1992 graduate of the College of William & Mary was part of the Sigma Chi fraternity. Stewart (far left with tongue out) earned a dedicated spot in their meeting agenda, dubbed “Stewbiz,”during which he could test his latest material.

In college, Stewart’s fraternity, Sigma Chi, provided a time slot in their meetings for Stewart to present ad lib reports. The fraternity brothers discussed old business, new business, and “Stewbiz” — which made the whole group boom with laughter, recalled fraternity brother Peter Snyder of Virginia. Stewbiz became a regular nickname. Snyder says Stewart is like a quiet sniper in the rafters, and when you get shot, you roll over on the floor laughing.

“I have three children; all three have a sense of humor. When all three of them get together, it’s quite amusing. The middle daughter beats the boys down,” says Bill Stewart, who has worked alongside his son in their hometown of Vero Beach since 1997.

Small-Firm Practitioner

Stewart’s younger siblings, Amanda and Will, did not follow in the same professional footsteps, and no longer reside in Indian River County, which contains a modest population of around 150,000. But Stewart migrated back after law school to practice with his dad. Their firm over the years never boasted more than five or six lawyers. Like most Florida Bar members, Stewart was a small-firm practitioner (less than 10 lawyers), until three years ago when the father-son team merged with Rossway Swan — a firm of 23 lawyers. It is the largest firm the father and son have joined, but that happily frees them from the burden of administrative responsibilities.

Because they practice in different areas of the law, and competition is nonexistent between the two, the Stewart men always worked well together — with the elder primarily focused on real estate and not-for-profits. Stewart tells people his father is the only person who would ever hire him.

“That’s some of his sense of humor coming out,” informs the father.

Stewart grew up with a strong work ethic and says his parents left him accountable for his own decisions. To make payments on a used, dark blue Mustang convertible, the teenager worked as a country club valet. In college, he worked odd jobs — as a part-time ice-cream scooper at Friendly’s and as a St. Edward’s summer camp counselor in Vero, assisting with sailing and waterskiing. He graduated from the College of William & Mary — the second oldest college in America whose graduates include George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Stewart obtained a degree in public policy and spent two years devising strategic plans for an American company in Steinach, Switzerland, which manufactured electrical products for trains and European carmakers like BMW and Mercedes. While there, he noticed the company’s attorneys enjoyed more autonomy than others. The next logical step was to pursue a law degree. He’d already sat for the LSAT back in Virginia. With two-year-old test results under his belt, Stewart attended the Nova Southeastern University Shepard Broad Law School. And with a J.D. in hand, Stewart went home. He grew up in Vero Beach, knew a lot of people there, and had a valuable head start, avoiding much of the speed work involved with generating contacts.

“I was happy to hire him,” says Stewart’s father.

Cozy Seaside Town

Like being funny, it’s quite possible the law can run in a person’s DNA, too. The Bar president is a third-generation lawyer. His maternal grandfather — Charles Armitage Mitchell, who died of a heart attack at age 48 when Stewart’s mother, Mary Jane, was just 7 — was a lawyer and a politician. After Mitchell’s sudden death, a section of South A1A running through Vero Beach was named after him by the Florida Legislature, where Mitchell served as a representative during the 1931 and 1933 sessions. He did not live to witness his son follow in his footsteps to become a lawyer in Vero Beach. Tragically, Stewart’s uncle, John Charles Mitchell, also died young. The Harvard Law graduate was in a local car accident at age 34. John Stewart is named after the departed uncle.

John Stewart has worked alongside his father, Bill (left), since graduating law school in 1997. Stewart jokes that his father is the only person who would ever hire him, giving way to his self-deprecating sense of humor. The pair merged with Rossway Swan in Vero Beach three years ago after maintaining small practices. Bill Stewart focuses on real estate and not-for-profits, and his son focuses on probate litigation and mediation work. Photo by Mark Wallheiser.

“My parents were from Missouri,” says Stewart’s mother, who struggles to remember her long-ago deceased father. She says he had a very good reputation, and ran for a seat on the Florida Senate, albeit unsuccessfully. Her parents ended up on Florida’s east coast after the adventurous Charles Mitchell hopped on a train in 1925 to explore the Sunshine State during the real estate boom. He took the bar exam and brought his bride down to marry him at the Jacksonville justice of the peace. The couple liked Vero Beach and settled in the peaceful little town, where Mitchell practiced alongside his brother at Mitchell & Mitchell. Long after his death, all three of the couple’s children went off to college at William & Mary.

It was at William & Mary that John Stewart’s own parents met and married right after graduation. Bill Stewart joined the military and was stationed for three years in Germany before attending law school at the University of Florida. Mary Jane Stewart completed a master’s degree in education at the university concurrently. The couple moved to Vero Beach after a short period in Coral Gables, where Bill Stewart began his career clerking for a federal judge and where their eldest son was born.

It could also be true that Stewart returned to his hometown of Vero Beach to practice law not only because of a deep-rooted family history, friends, and connections — but for a sheer love of the place.

“He’d be a great diplomat,” says Kent May, a foreign service officer stationed in India, who was Stewart’s college classmate and Sigma Chi brother. May was dazzled by an all-boy’s trip to the cozy seaside town, where just a few steps from Stewart’s childhood home was a charming path that led to the sandy Atlantic shores. May says on the drive down from Virginia that Stewart “seemed to get happier and happier the further into Florida that we got.” Stewart’s comfort level with coastal living was evident. The young man was at ease at the helm of the family boat and took his group of friends on a magical ride in the ocean, proudly showing off the beautiful surroundings to the northerners, who were escaping dismal weather in their own home states. The 19-year-olds ate seafood near the beach at night. Stewart taught them how to waterski and showed them around like he was selling the lifestyle: sunny, casual, overflowing with fun and recreation.

Also captivated by Stewart’s hometown fervor was Administrative Law Judge June McKinney of Tallahassee, who visited Vero Beach on business. Stewart checked in by telephone to welcome the judge. They enjoyed seafood at a restaurant by the water, and Stewart took her around and explained the beaches and the history of the town. He didn’t have to do that, she reflected. “Hospitable” is a word she used to describe her friend.

“We met in 2005. We were both on the Member Outreach Committee of The Florida Bar,” which evolved into the Diversity & Inclusion Committee, says McKinney. “I’m a Bar junkie, just like John is. Bar junkies know each other. Bar junkies watch people come in and out.” Stewart was never at the Bar to jumpstart his career or build his resume, she explains. “That’s not what John is there for. He’s dedicated because he wants the Bar to be successful and inclusive. He’s not the typical Bar junkie. He’s the pure servant leader. He puts the Bar’s needs first.”

“Pure Servant Leader”

Over the last two decades, Stewart was sewn into the fabric of The Florida Bar in various capacities. Gwynne Young, who served as Bar president in 2012, calls Stewart “a person of real character and integrity,” and made him chair of the heavy-hitting Program Evaluation Committee. She gave Stewart a President’s Award of Merit for the committee’s constructive work on the Wm. Reece Smith, Jr., Leadership Academy.

“He put the interests of the Bar first,” Young observed. Creative and thoughtful, Stewart is the kind of person you would want to be president of The Florida Bar, she remarked. “I think it’s good for the Bar to have someone come from a smaller community. Lawyers from smaller firms and smaller communities are a big part of the Bar.”

What does Stewart find most interesting about the practice of law? “Finding out what people’s needs are on both sides.” The Bar president delves into “what sits inside” of his clients in order to put them in a position to make the best decision for themselves. “People seek and value his advice,” observes 2010 Florida Bar President Mayanne Downs. Photo by Mark Wallheiser.

Self-described as humble and cavalier, Stewart’s casual demeanor renders him an approachable Bar president. He can seem relaxed and cool — like a beach-lounger sipping a fruity drink on the soft sands of the Atlantic Coast.

“Make no mistake, John is laid back. But it’s not this fall-asleep-in-the-sand laid back, it’s just a different approach,” Coleman says. “He does something that is a lost art, and that is listening.”

Colleagues agree Stewart’s leadership style won’t cause a bumpy ride this year.

“He’s not going to make waves. He’s going to treat it like a ship and sail it in a smooth direction,” says Vivian Cortes Hodz of Tampa, who notes Stewart supports voluntary bars and shows up to the Tampa Hispanic Bar Association Annual Gala every year. “He has a friend in every room and is a friend in every room that he enters.”

“I think everyone wants to make sure the Titanic doesn’t sink,” Stewart jokes about his coming year as Bar president.

A few goals for 2019-2020: creating more cohesion among board committees, so decisions aren’t made in silos; refining Bar rules he thinks hinder lawyers from obtaining more business, which in turn, negatively impacts access to justice; and discussing how partnering with technology can enhance the practice of law without sacrificing the profession’s traditional values.

“One of our core traditional values, really one of our obligations, that separates us as lawyers from our other competitors in the legal marketplace is our responsibility to keep secrets, to keep client confidences. When you talk to any person on the street, they understand the attorney-client privilege. Yet, in this technological age, attorneys often unintentionally or unknowingly are not keeping client information confidential in routine matters as simple as sending an email. It’s not only our job to use technological advances but to understand them such that we are able to keep the important, traditional core values of our profession intact.”

Stewart admits to having a 10,000-foot view when it comes to the issue of pairing lawyers with people who believe they can’t afford a lawyer. That problem “absolutely needs to be solved,” he insists. He asks, if people need lawyers, and lawyers need work, why are we not making that happen?

“To me, what you have to do is look at the full umbrella of market forces facing The Florida Bar right now, and it’s generally technology driven,” he says.

“People ask me what is my goal for my year? My aspiration for the Bar and the Board of Governors is really to make difficult decisions because we’re ready, because we’re leaders. It’s to getting the board back to being a policy-making body.”

The Counselor

After his term ends, Stewart will continue doing what he loves — practicing law. But to him, it’s important to focus on the “counselor” element of the “attorney and counselor-at-law” equation that he sees as distinct. Growing up around his father’s law office, lessons were learned early that the client’s best interest is the ultimate motivation. And sometimes being a great lawyer means forfeiting a case for the sake of the client’s peace of mind.

Stewart’s proudest moments as a lawyer involve giving clients, particularly the elderly, permission to completely avoid the stress of litigation. Most people are not comfortable in an adversarial process, he says.

“That doesn’t mean you’re not gung-ho for their case, it’s just really giving them an opportunity not to engage in the process. I make less money. I generally find that they appreciate it,” says Stewart. “I’ve never had anyone complain that they didn’t sue somebody.”

What does Stewart find most interesting about the practice of law? “Finding out what people’s needs are on both sides.”

“You have to be able to put your ego aside, because it’s not about winning. There’s not a win per se,” he says. “Part of it is just my personality in being a little bit more casual, a bit more cavalier.”

Stewart and his extended family in Vero Beach celebrating cousin Sayre Roberts’ and Jordan Schwiering’s engagement (front). Pictured from the right is Stewart, his mom Mary Jane Stewart, brother Will Stewart, sister-in law Karolyn Stewart, cousin Mary Laux, Tommy Laux (her husband), aunt Lorne Cassell, and aunt Judy Roberts.

Attorney Randy Brennan of Vero Beach says Stewart handles a broad range of cases — big and small. “You take everything in a small town. You cover the waterfront when it comes to cases,” he says.

Brennan describes the beach-side community as a wonderful place to live and to practice law. “We have one circuit civil judge, so you better get along with the judge and your fellow practitioners,” he says. “The nice thing about practicing here is you know who everyone is. You get along on a hand shake. There’s a high degree of trust in fellow practitioners here. If you’re in the larger counties, you may never have another case with the person you’re involved in.”

The area, however, offers its share of legal matters that demand sophisticated, high-level thinking. Hawkins, a Palm Beach attorney, gives a lot of credit to Stewart for bringing one of the most complex cases of his entire career to a resolution. After finishing his term as 2011 Bar president, Hawkins got involved in an extremely complicated securities case in Vero Beach, which had been pending for a substantial period of time and involved a lot of investors, assertions from various parties, and multiple jurisdictions.

“It was a very delicate situation,” Hawkins recalled. But Stewart diffused tension among clients and judges with his calm demeanor, he says, and the court was pleased in the end. “Everybody was a gentleman and courteous, but it was fought hard,” Hawkins added.

Will Murphy of Vero Beach was also involved in the difficult case. He describes Stewart as “always the brightest guy in the room.”

“That’s the best way I can put it. His word’s his bond….He’s going to be deferential and come up with a thoughtful analysis. I’ve never seen him winging it. He never goes in unprepared,” says Murphy, adding the Bar president’s disarming personality and sense of humor are major positives. “He’s not the gloater. He’s not on the rooftop, saying, ‘look at my accomplishments.’ He’s not the one hiring the plane to fly around the beach.”

According to Stewart, what makes a good lawyer?

“You need life experience. You have to have had a child. You have to have lost a loved one. You have to be able to identify with your clients, and maybe what their needs are, and what they’re thinking and feeling. A part of that comes from just living life,” says Stewart, adding all that comes from a little bit of age and experience.

Sailing Into the Sunset

For Stewart, part of life’s challenges included raising a daughter as a single dad for more than a decade. MaryClaire spends summers in Boston with her mom, but the rest of the year with her dad. She and Stewart participated in the YMCA father-daughter program, Indian Princess, for 10 years. The program is a series of activities over several months that culminates with an annual campout at a dude ranch in Lake Wales where they fish and canoe. MaryClaire “keeps me busy, keeps me honest,” he says.

Stewart’s mother, Mary Jane, observed the happiest she’s ever seen her son was when his daughter, MaryClaire (left), was born. Stewart says his only child, who he’s raised as a single dad for more than 10 years, keeps him honest and busy. Photo by Mark Wallheiser.

“I think that John looks at the world a little bit differently because of that gift,” observes technology consultant Adriana Linares, who assisted Stewart with the tech CLEs and considers herself a close friend within a large group of Stewart’s female supporters who encourage the devoted father in the upbringing of MaryClaire. “Not to sound cheesy, but I really think John is trying to make the world a better place for his daughter.”

For this traditional Florida lawyer, with the law and humor embedded in his DNA, longtime Bar friends will miss him after he’s gone. Like all Bar presidents, Linares laments, he will “sail off into the sunset.”

“I’m going to be sad to see him go,” she says. “That makes me cry, because he really cares. He makes those decisions that are impactful in the long-term.”

What will come after the presidency, and the end of two decades of Bar service?

“I’m coming from a place where I know we are in the early stages of a long-term evolution of our profession,” Stewart notes, adding he’s been fortunate to gain the knowledge and opportunities imparted by the Bar to ensure the Bar moves in a direction that benefits its members, the profession, and the public.

“While much will be accomplished when my term ends in 2020, much yet will still need to be done. I’ll also look forward to getting back to Vero Beach and back to my practice, hoping I get some business because I am losing all of my clients right now,” Stewart laughs. “I’ll continue to dedicate myself to seeing the profession through these changes in some way. I am excited for this year and for what the future holds for the Bar and for myself.”

Stewart relaxes and hits golf balls with his daughter, MaryClaire, her friends, Grace Wilson and Mary Catherine Amos, and Jen and Schuyler Amos (Mary Catherine’s parents) at Bigshots Golf in Vero Beach. Photo by Mark Wallheiser.

Indeed, Stewart plans to remain in his beloved hometown — historically known for its rich production of citrus — and where the soft sounds of the ocean reach his home near the Indian River. Likely, too, Stewart will live by a closely held belief that “you have to live well to give well.” Ready to lead the 106,000 members of The Florida Bar, the “pure servant leader” can pass on words of wisdom to the next generation. When mentoring young lawyers, he warns against overextending oneself because some law school graduates have a social worker spirit, he explains.

“It’s important to give back, but if you try to give back too much, too soon, you’ll never get to the point where you can really leverage what you could do for people,” Stewart explains. “It doesn’t mean you don’t care, but sometimes saying no is the best thing you can do.”

Although he represents the historic, small-town Florida lawyer, Stewart blends well with the modern professional who is ready for change in a world full of technological advances. He’s a big believer in putting in at least 10,000 hours of work to become an expert in the field.

“That’s true for anything. When you have that comfort level with your craft, then it gives you the freedom to give back. When you’re comfortable, you can do way more than if you take on too much early,” he says.

Working in Switzerland, serving the third-largest Bar in the country for two decades, rising to the helm, building a fruitful career, and raising a daughter, Stewart isn’t going to be popping champagne anytime soon, even when friends in his circle advise him to do so. Humility sits in his veins. Giving back to the profession has long been important, and although he’s made it this far, at heart, he’s simply a small-town lawyer.

“Which is true, by the way. I’m just a little lawyer in a little town,” says Stewart.

RAWAN BITAR is an associate editor at The Florida Bar Journal and News.


Biography of John M. Stewart

Partner at Rossway Swan, Vero Beach

Photo by Mark Wallheiser

PRACTICE AREAS:
Alternative dispute resolution and mediation; civil and commercial litigation, focusing on real estate, construction, and insurance disputes; probate and trust litigation

LEGAL EXPERIENCE:
• Rossway Swan (2016-present)
• Stewart Evans Stewart & Emmons (1997-2016)

PROFESSIONAL AND CIVIC ACTIVITIES:
The Florida Bar
• President (2019-2020)
• President-elect (2018-2019)
• Board of Governors, 19th Judicial Circuit (2007-present), Executive Committee (2013-present)
• Vision 2016 Technology Subcommittee, chair (2013-2016)
• Technology Committee, chair (2018-2020)
• Special Committee on Gender Bias and Diversity in the Profession (2016-2018)
• Communications Committee, chair (2014-2015)
• Program Evaluation Committee, chair (2015-2017)
• Young Lawyers Division Board of Governors, 19th Judicial Circuit (1999-2007), president (2006-2007)
• Alternative Dispute Resolution Section, Executive Committee (2011-2017)
• The Florida Bar Journal Special Issue on Legal Technology, guest editor (2016)
• 19th Circuit Grievance Committee (2003-2005), vice chair (2005)
• 19th Circuit Pro Bono Committee (2007-2018)

Florida Supreme Court
• Florida Courts Technology Commission (2014-2019)

American Bar Association
• ABA Techshow, speaker (2016-2017)
• ABA House of Delegates (2018-present)

National Conference of Bar Presidents
• 21st Century Lawyer Committee, member
• Programs Committee, member

Indian River County Bar Association

Martin County Bar Association

PROFESSIONAL RECOGNITION:
• The Florida Bar President’s Award of Merit (2013)
• Fastcase 50 (2016)
• The Solo & Small Firm Section Judge Walter S. Crumbley Award (2018)
• Florida Trend’s Legal Elite (2019)

BAR ADMISSIONS:
• Florida
• U.S. Supreme Court
• U.S. District Courts of Florida, Southern District and Middle District

EDUCATION:
• B.A., Public Policy, College of William & Mary (1992)
• Juris Doctor, Nova Southeastern University, Shepard Broad Law Center (1997)