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The Wm. Reece Smith, Jr. Leadership Academy: The Florida Bar’s Preeminent Leadership Training Program Marks 10 Years

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The Wm. Reece Smith, Jr. Leadership Academy: The Florida Bar’s Preeminent Leadership Training Program Marks 10 Years

On June 28, 2013, Eugene Pettis became the first African-American president of The Florida Bar. A civil attorney and a co-founding partner of the law firm Haliczer, Pettis, and Schwamm, Pettis was sworn-in during the General Assembly at the 2013 Annual Florida Bar Convention, where the theme was “Inclusion: The Path to Unity.” On that day, Pettis spoke about his own experiences with inclusion, describing himself as a “real-life illustration of the transformative potential of giving people a chance in life.”

Pettis noted that, “An offer of inclusion without more is just an empty gesture. We need inclusion backed with opportunity.” To that end, as one of his top presidential priorities, Pettis launched the Wm. Reece Smith, Jr. Leadership Academy, describing it as a “one-year curriculum that will enhance and develop leadership skills of individuals who will go on to serve as leaders of our Bar, ambassadors of our profession, and servants in our communities across this state. At the heart of this program is the Bar’s belief that inclusion is the pathway to unity.” The inaugural class of the Wm. Reece Smith, Jr. Leadership Academy met for the first time on the day of Pettis’ swearing-in.

Nine years later, on June 25, 2022, Class X met for the first time at the 2022 Annual Florida Bar Convention, marking a significant milestone for the Wm. Reece Smith, Jr. Leadership Academy. To date, more than 350 attorneys have completed the Leadership Academy. Many have gone on to hold leadership positions within The Florida Bar and in their own communities, creating a network of leaders throughout Florida who credit much of their success to their Leadership Academy experience and the connections they formed as a result.

From Vision to Reality

Pettis’ vision for the academy arose out of his belief that to have lasting diversity, inclusion, and equity, The Florida Bar must train a diverse group of people to compete in the legal profession and society as a whole. “If individuals have not been exposed to certain skills such as networking, communication, strategic planning, just to name a few, then chances are they are not going to be as proficient in those areas. From my experience, I believe those skills are essential to a successful career and life,” he says. His goal was to design a program to bring a significantly diverse group of people to “the table of opportunity.”

Pettis spent much of his president-elect year establishing the program he envisioned. He named the program after Wm. Reece Smith, Jr., a prominent attorney with a servant leader’s heart and an impeccable reputation. Smith also served as president of The Florida Bar from 1972-1973, and went on to become the president of the American Bar Association and the International Bar Association.

To make his idea reality, Pettis confided in Renée Thompson, who served with him on The Florida Bar Board of Governors. Thompson was a former Florida Bar Young Lawyers Division president with a track record of getting things done. Pettis credits Thompson with giving his idea “energy and life.” Thompson became the first chair of the Leadership Academy.

Photo of Pettis and Thompson

In 2013, during his year as Florida Bar president, Eugene Pettis founded the Wm. Reece Smith, Jr. Leadership Academy, a “one-year curriculum…to develop leadership skills of individuals who will go on to serve as leaders of our Bar, ambassadors of our profession, and servants in our communities across this state.” Pettis is pictured on the right with Renée Thompson, a former Board of Governors member, president of the Young Lawyers Division, and chair of the inaugural Leadership Academy class.

The staff of the Henry Latimer Center for Professionalism developed the curriculum, which included education about The Florida Bar’s divisions and sections, strategic plan, and history; collaboration with different workplace personalities; balancing personal, volunteer, and work lives; motivating others and delegating; conducting effective meetings; and effective leadership styles and public speaking techniques. “The initial sessions focused on becoming a servant-leader with skills,” says Thompson. Servant-leadership as taught within the Academy is a leadership philosophy that the most effective leaders strive to serve others.

One example of such a servant-leader is Arnell Bryant-Willis, The Florida Bar’s first Diversity Initiatives manager and the Leadership Academy’s staff liaison. She has coordinated The Florida Bar’s involvement with the program for every class so far, earning her the moniker “mother” of the Leadership Academy. “Ms. Arnell,” as she is lovingly called by 10 classes worth of Academy fellows, is synonymous with the Leadership Academy.

Pettis’ vision of a Leadership Academy did not become reality without some challenges. “So often when a new idea is offered, there is resistance from people who believe the status quo is sufficient. It was my belief that we would never make a lasting impact in diversity and inclusion without creating a program to train people how to compete and lead. There are people that develop those skills in their law firms, from family members or other mentors. But the vast majority of people start their careers with no idea how to build a practice through networking and achieve a gold reputation,” Pettis says.

Despite some initial resistance, the vision of the Wm. Reece Smith, Jr. Leadership Academy came to fruition, and Class I commenced in June 2013. The inaugural class was composed of 59 diverse lawyers from locations throughout Florida.

Mission and Goals

The Leadership Academy’s motto is “Training Today. Leading Tomorrow.” It consists of a multi-session training program designed to help a diverse and inclusive group of lawyers become better leaders. Each year, fellows are selected from applications submitted to The Florida Bar.

Academy fellows follow a curriculum tailored to enhance their professional development, knowledge base, and experience, including attending events of The Florida Bar and special educational programs. Fellows are given the opportunity to learn more about the inner workings of the Bar and its role in the legal profession, while enhancing their personal leadership skills. Designed as a one-year program, the anomaly was Class VIII — “the COVID class” — whose Academy fellows were permitted to continue their experience with Class IX so they could partake in the in-person sessions.

The mission of the Leadership Academy is to enhance the skills of a diverse and inclusive group of lawyers selected from across the state to help them to become effective leaders throughout the Bar, legal profession, and community. The stated goals of the Leadership Academy also include enhancing the diversity of leaders within the Bar, building relationships among Bar leaders across disciplines, and raising the level of awareness and engagement among lawyers regarding issues facing the legal profession through the study of ethical, professional, and public service issues.

The Leadership Academy Committee, consisting of selected members of The Florida Bar, oversees the activities of the program.

The Application and Selection Process

The Leadership Academy is open to all Florida Bar members in good standing. Ideal applicants will have “some history of leadership or involvement within The Florida Bar, their community, offices, and/or the legal profession” at the time they apply. To become an Academy fellow, one must apply. The application is found on the Academy’s landing page of The Florida Bar website ( in December of each year, with a deadline for completion in mid-January. The application seeks basic information regarding an applicant’s education, geographic location, practice areas, years of practice, employment history, and leadership and volunteer experience. It also requires essays, responses, references, and at least one letter of recommendation.

Voluntary and specialty bar associations, Florida Bar sections and divisions, members of the judiciary, law firms, and Bar members are also encouraged to recommend lawyers to be Academy fellows. The recommended lawyer must still go through the full application process, but the committee may place some weight on the recommendation. “As a committee member, I value these recommendations since many of these organizations understand service leadership qualities, and the individuals they nominate are usually great candidates,” says Class X Co-Chair Lisa Capote, a Class III alum. “We hope that voluntary and specialty bar associations and Florida Bar sections can help promote the Academy and identify potential fellows,” she says.

Applicants are required to commit to full attendance and participation during the duration of the Leadership Academy program and agree to become involved with The Florida Bar, a local or voluntary bar or other community leadership activity, and/or act as a mentor to future Academy fellows for at least two years after graduation.

Because of the commitment of time and resources, applicants are required to obtain the approval of their employers to participate in the Academy. The Leadership Academy Committee has emphasized that Academy fellows will gain invaluable leadership skills and make connections that will substantially increase business development possibilities and statewide networking opportunities that will benefit employers.

Additionally, fellows are required to pay a tuition fee (currently $500) upon acceptance into the Leadership Academy and are responsible for their travel expenses and accommodations while at meetings (the Leadership Academy Committee estimates that the total cost of travel for the year is around $3,000). Some Academy fellows’ employers cover some or all of the cost of such travel. Aspiring fellows should talk to their supervisors before applying.

The cost of the Academy, however, should not deter qualified applicants. Scholarships for tuition, travel, and accommodations are available to fellows who have a stated financial need. This may be particularly important information for government lawyers or solo practitioners who do not have the personal or employer resources of fellows hailing from firms. The goal of the Academy is to train a diverse group of lawyers to become leaders; an inability to personally pay for the Academy should not deter an applicant. To be considered for a scholarship from The Florida Bar, applicants fill out a Scholarship Assistance Application and Certification within the Academy application. Selection of Academy fellows is determined without consideration of financial need or scholarship interest.

Additionally, some Florida Bar sections and divisions, and other associations will offer scholarships to their members to participate in the Leadership Academy. Persons considering applying for the Academy should talk to their networks to determine what support is available to them.

After the submission deadline, staff members compile all the applications and materials for the Leadership Academy Committee, which then reviews the applications and contacts references. The Leadership Academy Committee then typically meets in person in March to select the incoming class. Diversity quotas are not used to create the Academy classes. Rather, the committee considers all available information regarding the applicants. The committee defines diversity broadly and strives to select applicants from different backgrounds, ages and experience levels, large and small law firms, private and public sectors, practice areas, and geographical areas.

Applicants are notified in April whether they were selected. Applicants who are not selected for the upcoming class are encouraged to apply again in the future. Whether someone has applied to a previous Academy class is considered by the committee, and it is not uncommon for individuals to be selected on the second or third time they apply.

Leadership Academy Programming

Over the course of one year, the Academy fellows meet approximately every other month for a total of six sessions, plus a graduation ceremony. Each class’ year begins and ends at The Florida Bar Annual Convention in June, typically with the new class attending the graduation of the prior class and then attending their first official session the next day. For some participants, their first Leadership Academy session is the first time they have attended a Florida Bar event. Attending the graduation of the prior class is an exciting way for each class to start their Leadership Academy experience. Class V Academy Fellow De’Anne Jackson recalls attending Class IV’s graduation prior to starting the Academy program: “Watching Class IV graduate made our class excited to get started! It was clear they formed a strong bond as I observed how proud they were to complete the program and celebrate each person’s accomplishments. The graduation was a huge, lively celebration,” she says.

Other sessions have included The Florida Bar fall meeting in October and the January meeting of the Board of Governors in Tallahassee. Three additional sessions vary from year to year, hosted in cities throughout the state. Academy sessions are typically held from Friday afternoon through Saturday afternoon, with a line-up of educational programming and networking opportunities.

Presentations have included topics such as, “Lawyers as Leaders, Effective Interaction and Communication as Leaders” and “Guardians of the Legal Profession & Servant Leadership.” Topics range from the powerful (such as “Line of Privilege”) to the practical (such as “Robert’s Rules of Order” and “Technology for Leaders”). Speakers include attorneys with successful careers and histories of leadership and service as well as non-attorney motivational speakers and experts on particular topics. Academy fellows spend time with the current Florida Bar president and other Bar leaders and, in a typical year, during the January session in Tallahassee, meet and hear from Florida Supreme Court justices and/or members of the Legislature. In addition to the educational presentations, each Leadership Academy session provides Academy fellows with significant opportunities to network with each other and with the presenters and other Bar leaders.

“The Leadership Academy was a great experience for me because of the combination of both the educational components as well as the presenters speaking about their perspectives and their experiences, the encouragement, and the relationships, both with the leadership of The Florida Bar, and the leadership of the Leadership Academy,” says Vivian Cortes Hodz, a graduate of Leadership Academy Class II. Cortes Hodz, a family law attorney and the founding partner of Cortes Hodz Family Law and Mediation, P.A., says she went from knowing virtually nothing about The Florida Bar to holding substantial leadership roles, eventually serving as chair of the Annual Convention Committee, chair of the Voluntary Bar Liaison Committee, and sitting in a non-voting seat on the Board of Governors, all within six or seven years of her Academy graduation. She credits the Leadership Academy for opening the door to leadership opportunities within The Florida Bar, as she joined the Voluntary Bar Liaison Committee based on the encouragement of her Leadership Academy chair and then gradually took on additional roles after that.

Cortes Hodz says the Academy offers something for everyone, and each participant will see different value in different elements. “Of the hundreds of lawyers that have now gone through Leadership Academy, probably every single person has a little bit of a different takeaway from the program because you’re going to take away what interests you,” she says.

Although the Academy was designed to provide an in-person experience, the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated many adjustments. Classes VII, VIII, and IX all experienced the impact of the pandemic on the program, adjusting to virtual or even cancelled sessions. In an article for The Florida Bar News, Class VIII alum Leia Leitner remarked on the effect of COVID-19: “While Class VIII’s programming may have been disrupted by the unexpected challenges from the pandemic, we stayed the course by coming together, virtually. We participated in virtual happy hours, book club, and conducted small leadership meetings, including the incredible Clay Shaw of the Bar’s staff, to ensure that our class project podcast, ‘Limited Liability Leadership Academy’ was finished before our year ended. For those reasons, I felt special to be part of Class VIII. Even though it was not a ‘normal year,’ I would not trade this experience for anything as I have met the most amazing people in Class VIII.”

With sessions back to a full in-person format, beginning with Class X, The Florida Bar instituted a revamped curriculum that builds on the most effective and successful topics and sessions from the prior classes’ programs. Capote says that Class X fellows have a lot to look forward to this year. “This year there are new speakers, new session events, and hopefully even more opportunities to connect with classmates.”

Class Projects

As a part of the Leadership Academy curriculum, Academy fellows are tasked with completing a project that relates to the legal profession or community. The class project allows fellows to build skills and assist in helping improve the legal profession for Florida attorneys and citizens.

Most recently, Class IX prepared a Pro Bono Guidebook ( and highlighted the importance of pro bono service in our profession. Class IX committed to dedicating 500 hours to pro bono service, reduced-fee legal work, and general activities that improve Florida’s legal system, profession, and communities. The Pro Bono Guidebook highlighted attorneys who have exemplified pro bono service across the state and listed pro bono opportunities within each judicial circuit for attorneys’ ease of reference.

Photo of Kristina Lee Puente, Jarred Lee Reiling, Onchantho Am, and Harold Ferdandez Pryor, Jr.

Class IV members Kristina Lee Puente, Jarred Lee Reiling, Onchantho Am, and Harold Ferdandez Pryor, Jr., make their way from the Capitol building to the Florida Supreme Court during their February 2017 visit to Tallahassee.

Class IX also formed a public relations committee aimed at publishing articles on various service-related topics to encourage others to engage in pro bono and other service opportunities throughout Florida. Class IX ultimately doubled their group service goal, performing over 1,000 hours of service in a wide-range of areas including, but not limited to, landlord-tenant disputes, probate, guardian ad litem programs, and family law issues.

The prior year, Class VIII’s project was the impressive 14-episode podcast series entitled “Limited Liability Leadership: Raising the Bar in Leading the Bar” ( Available for listening on Spotify and other podcast platforms, episodes include conversations with Pettis and other past Florida Bar Presidents John Stewart and Dori Foster-Morales, as well as topics such as “Committees and Functions of the Bar,” “Financial Literacy,” “Access to Justice for Low Income Communities,” and three episodes regarding the Leadership Academy itself. The success of the project was especially notable given that Class VIII, which took place from 2020-2021 and was dubbed the “COVID Class,” did not meet in person until what would have been the end of their Leadership Academy year in June 2021.

Other class projects have included a mental health toolkit (Class IV) (, legacy book (Class V), and “Inside the Florida Bar Leadership Academy” promotional video (Class VI) (

Why Apply?

Capote’s Class X co-chair, Nicholas Johnson (a Class III alum, like Capote), says when he applied, he knew very little about the “ins and outs” of The Florida Bar: “I wanted to learn more about the different leadership opportunities within the Bar, meet lawyers from across the state in different practice areas, and learn how to become a better leader.” Following graduation, Johnson became a member of the Leadership Academy Committee and eventually became co-chair for Class IX and Class X. He says lawyers should consider participating in the Leadership Academy because of the impact and power of the relationships they can form with classmates and alumni. “None of us can succeed practicing in a bubble, and we can learn so much not only from the speakers at the sessions, but from our fellow classmates and their life and career experiences. I can’t overstate the value of connecting with others on a deeper level,” says Johnson. “The Academy has made a tremendous impact on my professional and personal life. I have formed relationships with some wonderful lawyers who I have the fortune of calling my friends. I don’t think this would have happened if not for my acceptance to Class III.”

Capote says that attorneys should consider participating in the Leadership Academy “for the leadership training, the statewide contacts, the insight into the Bar, and the Academy’s ability to invigorate their passion for service.” Capote applied for the Leadership Academy when she was building a law firm with two associates and five support staff. “I had very little leadership training and saw the advertisement in The Florida Bar News. After speaking with both my partners, they agreed it would be beneficial to apply,” she says. Capote says her experience with the Leadership Academy provided her with the tools to hone her leadership skills. “The Academy also helped me realize that although I give back to my community through other non-profit organizations, I am in a unique position to serve my community because of my law license. The Leadership Academy also taught me all the ways the Bar helps lawyers and the community, and how it provides an avenue for attorneys to be of service,” Capote says.

Jackson, an attorney with the Broward County Attorney’s Office and Class V graduate, describes the Leadership Academy as an “invaluable experience.” “There is a unique camaraderie not only amongst each class, but other graduates of the program. In addition to the social aspect, the programming is focused on personal and professional development. As a result, the experience prepares you to be a better friend, attorney, and servant-leader,” she says.

Camaraderie and Statewide Connections

While alumni of the Leadership Academy agree that the programming and educational component of the program is extremely beneficial, many say that the most valuable elements of the Academy were the connections they made and the opportunities that followed graduation.

When appearing on an episode of Class VIII’s “Limited Liability Leadership” podcast, Leadership Academy alums Alice Sum (Class II), Shenika “Nik” Harris (Class IV), Judge Miesha Darrough (Class VI), and Dale Noll (Class VI), were asked by host Randy Katz (Class VIII) for one or two words they would use to describe their Leadership Academy experience. Sum said “camaraderie and springboard.” Harris said “life-changing,” noting that the Academy fellows feel like “siblings.” Judge Darrough said “family and support system,” and Noll said “opportunity and generosity.”

Judge Darrough, a Miami-Dade County Court judge, shared that she became motivated to seek a judicial appointment after participating in Class VI when she was special counsel to the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida. As an Academy fellow, she heard from judges throughout the state about the importance of diversity and inclusion on the bench and she was encouraged to become a judge herself. She decided to submit her name for a judicial appointment by Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2019. She informed her Academy classmates of her decision and says that without asking, they all asked “what can I do, who can I call, who can I write?” Judge Darrough says Class VI also leapt into action to support other Academy fellows running for office, one for a judgeship and one for state attorney. Fellow classmates wrote letters for Judge Darrough and helped campaign and fundraise for those seeking election. With the support of Academy classmates, Judge Darrough was appointed to the bench in December 2019 and those who ran for office were also successful. The Leadership Academy creates “a great support network,” Judge Darrough says. “It’s definitely an organization that allows you to create some new resources, and those resources work very well.”

Also on the “Limited Liability Leadership” podcast, Shenika “Nik” Harris, a Class IV alum who does advocacy across the state as the LGBTQ Consumer Advocate for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, discussed reliance on Academy connections, noting that the Academy fellows offer a vast network of people who were selected by The Florida Bar based on their diversity. Like other Academy alumni who have sought public office, Harris’ classmate Harold Pryor found support when he ran for state attorney in Broward County. Harris shared that their classmates made calls and volunteered with Pryor’s campaign, helping him to become the first black elected state attorney in Broward County.

Rep. Michele Rayner-Goolsby, a Class VII alum, was a criminal defense and civil rights attorney when she participated in the Academy from 2019-2020. She decided to run for office after visiting Tallahassee with her class in January 2020. “It was at a Leadership Academy meeting where you tour the Capitol and go to the Supreme Court and the Florida House that I thought ‘this is interesting and I think I could do this,’” Rep. Rayner-Goolsby says. When she learned that the Florida House of Representatives seat for her jurisdiction, District 70, would soon be vacated, she decided to file and run. She was elected in 2020, defeating three opponents and becoming one of the first openly LGBTQ women of color elected to the Florida Legislature. Rep. Rayner-Goolsby says that she had “incredible support” from her classmates and that they are all still very close and communicate via group text.

Photo of Arnell Bryant-Wills and Anthony Visone

Diversity Initiatives Manager Arnell Bryant-Willis, left, has coordinated The Florida Bar’s involvement with the program for every class so far, earning her the moniker “mother” of the Leadership Academy. Anthony Visone, right, a graduate of Class II, became a co-chair of Class VI, the first time Academy alumni led the program.

Rep. Rayner-Goolsby says that the networking was the most important thing she gained from the Academy, noting that her classmates have been invaluable to her. Because she participated from 2019-2020, her Leadership Academy year became impacted by the pandemic, and the class was unable to meet in person for the last few months of the program. Rep. Rayner-Goolsby says that Academy Co-Chairs John Howe and Anthony Visone, along with Bryant-Willis, worked extremely hard to keep the program as seamless as possible. Despite the pivot to virtual meetings, Rep. Rayner-Goolsby said that everyone connected with her to share her campaign information and offer encouragement. “We have so many people in our class doing tremendous things, and I’m very grateful to be a part of the Leadership Academy,” she says.

Path to a Dream Job

Chardéa Murray, a Class III graduate, credits the Leadership Academy with helping her land her dream job. When she applied for the Leadership Academy, Murray was a low-income clinic tax director and pro bono coordinator for Three Rivers Legal Services, Inc., in Jacksonville. She believed it would be beneficial for her to participate in the Leadership Academy because she could use the opportunity to meet new attorneys and help get more pro bono hours to meet their pro bono responsibilities. Murray’s employer agreed and signed off on her participation and she was able to get a scholarship to cover the costs. The Leadership Academy exceeded Murray’s expectations and changed her life, mainly because of what she calls the “soft skills” learned at the sessions. “The Leadership Academy changed my career trajectory by introducing me to some incredible people who really helped me understand my potential, and the trainings really helped me understand myself and, since then, it’s opened so many doors,” she says.

Prior to applying to the Academy, Murray had earned her LL.M. in tax and her only experience with The Florida Bar was some limited interaction with the Tax Section. She believed that there was a need for more diversity within the Tax Section, and she hoped the Academy would open the door for her to take on a more significant role, which in turn she hoped would help her tax career. Murray now works as an attorney for the Internal Revenue Service Office of the Chief Counsel, which she calls her “ultimate dream job.” She says the interpersonal skills she learned during her participation in the Leadership Academy impacted her significantly and says she still uses knowledge she gained from the “life-changing” presentations, particularly a presentation on workplace personalities and communication. Murray says she learned her own strengths and weakness and “how to effectively communicate with people when in a leadership position or a teammate position.” Murray also recalls the generosity of the presenters, including one who offered each Academy fellow a free one-on-one coaching session to work on interview skills and preparation for important interviews or meetings. Still figuring out the path to her dream job, Murray took the presenter up on the offer and says the meeting one-on-one session helped her tremendously with future interviews.

Evolution of the Leadership Academy

“The Leadership Academy has evolved organically, maybe better than could have been imagined at the beginning. The first year ‘experiment’ to get younger lawyers involved and learn more about The Florida Bar and more has been a huge success. Year after year, the program is graduating classes of leaders ready to go to that next level of involvement and leadership,” says Florida Bar President Gary Lesser.

As with any long-running successful program, the Leadership Academy has made changes over the years to maximize the experience. For example, Class I was divided by region (North and South) and the fellows attended some sessions within their region. That first year, Thompson was the overall chair, and Juliet Roulhac and Michael Faehner were branch co-chairs.

After Class I, leadership decided to unify the class and no longer divide the group by region. This allowed the class to be together for all the sessions instead of just a few. Noticing how much the fellows enjoyed being together, the committee felt that dividing them in half was weakening the relationship-building and networking opportunities. “The feedback was unanimous that our fellows wanted to meet all together,” says Thompson. Thompson continued as chair of Class II, and all sessions included the full group of Academy fellows from throughout the state. Roulhac became the chair for the next two years, for Classes III and IV. Kevin McNeill, who had been a member of the Leadership Academy Committee since its inception, was the chair of Class V.

In 2018, Howe and Visone became co-chairs of Class VI, the first time Academy alumni led the program (Howe graduated with Class I and Visone graduated with Class II). In a July 2018 Florida Bar News article highlighting their appointment, it was noted that Howe and Visone would be “leading the institution that honed their leadership skills.”

Howe and Visone would go on to be the longest-serving chairs of the Leadership Academy thus far, chairing Classes VI, VII, and VIII together. Johnson and Brittany Maxey-Fisher then became co-chairs of Class IX, and Johnson currently remains co-chair of Class X with Capote.


Another evolution has been the size of the Leadership Academy classes. The Florida Bar has adjusted the number of Academy fellows over the years, generally making the classes progressively smaller. After 59 Academy fellows graduated from Class I, there were 61, 52, and 39 Academy fellows in Classes II, III, and IV, respectively. The Board of Governors decided that beginning with Class V, exactly 30 fellows would make up each class. The class size was limited to 30 based upon the recommendation of the Program Evaluation Committee, which had provided a detailed report and a directive to e

Photo of Class VII in Tallahassee

In January 2020, Class VII joined the Board of Governors at their Tallahassee meeting. Classes frequently meet at The Florida Bar fall meeting in October and the January meeting of the Board of Governors in Tallahassee. Three additional sessions vary from year to year, hosted in cities throughout the state.

valuate the impact of the smaller class size.

Perhaps the greatest evolution of the Academy was its adjustment in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like so many other programs, COVID created many challenges for the Academy, which impacted Classes VII, VIII, and IX in distinct ways. Class VII, which ran from June 2019 through June 2020, was able to complete about three-fourths of its program under normal circumstances before being abruptly affected by the pandemic. As noted above, Class VIII, the COVID Class, completed the Leadership Academy program almost entirely virtually with the Academy fellows not meeting in person until what would have been the end of their Leadership Academy year in June 2021. Instead of graduating in June 2021, Class VIII was given the opportunity to attend future in-person sessions with Class IX and attended a joint in-person graduation ceremony with Class IX in June 2022. With Class IX, beginning in June 2021, some sessions were able to resume in person, but the program was not yet able to return to a fully in-person format. Although the program did not look like its old self during those years, each class was able to establish relationships and gain valuable knowledge despite the inability to meet in person.

David Thompson, a Class VIII alum who described the class’ experience for The Florida Bar News, stated that through the turmoil and uncertainty of the pandemic, Bryant-Willis was the class’ “one guiding light,” describing her as “a calming voice throughout our year.” He recalled how the classmates began to get to know each other through Zoom, noting that “personal chats would occur when we realized we were from the same area or had a friend in common. Our class created a Facebook page and private chat group to keep up with everyone’s accolades and achievements.” His classmate Lyndsey Siara believes their experience increased their leadership skills: “While the pandemic certainly presented challenges for Class VIII, it turned out to be a valuable teaching tool, forcing us to learn how to adjust, think creatively, refocus our goals, and work together under unusual circumstances — all qualities that great leaders must possess. From creating a podcast to adding new elements to the Academy program through our book/podcast club, Class VIII met our pandemic challenges with creativity and innovation. Our circumstances forced us to think outside the box when formulating our class project, and what resulted was something that has the personal stamp of every member of our class. Class VIII is a stronger group of leaders — both individually and as a group — because we were ‘the pandemic class,’ fulfilling the Leadership Academy’s mission of helping us to become better leaders.”

Beginning with Class X, the Leadership Academy returned to its fully in-person programming, hopeful that the days of COVID-19 restrictions are behind us and that the program has survived its biggest challenge so far. Although leadership was concerned that the pandemic may reduce interest in the Academy and result in fewer applications, the number of applications has remained steady, and it is expected that the program will continue going strong.

“The Academy grows every year. It has evolved into a program which attracts the best and brightest from across the state who want to become more involved in their communities and the Bar,” says Thompson.

Legacy and Success

When asked about the legacy and success of the Leadership Academy, Academy leaders emphasize the success of the graduates.

“We have alumni who are now on the Board of Governors and serve as judges, state attorneys, voluntary bar leaders, leaders of non-profits, and partners in law firms,” says Capote. “The accomplishments of the Academy’s alumni speak for themselves. The legal profession in Florida has been directly impacted by the Academy. Although the profession has a long way to go, we are making strides in diversity and inclusion, and the Academy is helping pave the way by teaching a diverse group of attorneys the skills they need to achieve success in their careers and in the community.”

“The Academy now boasts over 300 graduates, has gained tremendous notoriety over the years, and will continue to serve as a springboard for leadership opportunities,” says Johnson.

Bryant-Willis says the biggest successes for the Leadership Academy and its alumni so far is the establishment of a community. “It is a community where everyone wants to build each other up — the support is simply amazing. I don’t think there is an area in the Bar where you will not find a fellow in a leadership role,” she says.

Thompson agrees. “The Alumni are top notch and have created statewide networks,” she says.

“President Pettis, when he created The Florida Bar Leadership Academy had this concept that he wanted to bring new people into leadership in The Florida Bar, and the Leadership Academy has done just that,” says Cortes Hodz.

Importantly, Pettis agrees that the Academy he envisioned has been a “huge success.”

“I think the Academy is changing the face of The Florida Bar for the better. There are interactions and relationships across all boundaries of our demographics, which has never been stronger. Everywhere I travel throughout the state of Florida, I meet someone who has graduated from the Leadership Academy, and they rave about the career-changing experience. I hear from people who are judges on the bench to state legislators tell me they would have never had the confidence to seek such office but for the Leadership Academy. Just recently someone came to me and indicated she started her solo practice because of the confidence and the skills that she learned in the Leadership Academy,” Pettis says.

Lesser says the success of the Academy is due to Pettis’ initial vision, Thompson’s efforts to build the program, and subsequent leaders ensuring the program’s long-term success. “Thompson was very dedicated to the Leadership Academy literally from day one to building and implementing that vision. From there, despite numerous challenges, including COVID-19, leadership has stayed true and consistent with the program’s goals,” he says.

Additionally, the Academy has been successful due to the talents and dedication of its chairs and co-chairs, as well as long-serving members of the committee, including retired Judge Pauline Drake, retired Judge Claudia Rickert Isom, and Judge Gary Flower. And of course, Bryant-Willis has been a constant throughout the life of the Academy.

Pettis notes that the Leadership Academy strives to make good citizens, saying “our vision was not just to create better leaders within our profession but also to train better citizens for the benefit of the entire community. Whether they advance to leadership within our profession or go on a community board, the essential skills that the fellows learn is a difference-maker.”

The Future of the Leadership Academy

When Pettis became Florida Bar president in 2013, he offered inclusion to lawyers willing to get involved by helping them to build leadership skills to use in the Bar and their communities. As Class X of the Leadership Academy is underway, the hundreds of attorneys who have become graduates of the Leadership Academy continue to connect with each other, use the skills they learned through the program, and look forward to continued opportunities to serve and excel within the profession and their communities.

Bryant-Willis says her work with the Leadership Academy has been an “amazing opportunity” and that she can hardly believe that there have been 10 classes. “None of this would have been possible without Eugene Pettis, and I thank him for his vision, passion, and dedication to create a vehicle for others to grow and acquire positions within The Florida Bar,” she says.

Thompson says that the Academy “has evolved into a program which attracts the best and brightest from across the state who want to become more involved in their communities and the Bar. The Academy was the brainchild of President Pettis, and I am so grateful to have played a role in the Academy, helping to bring it to our Bar. It is a shining example of what Bars can do when they invest in teaching their leaders the skills to become the future leaders of tomorrow.”

“I always believed that talking about diversity, inclusion, and equity is important; but until we do something to ensure training and opportunity, such a discussion is just empty words. The Leadership Academy has proven, without a doubt, when the doors are opened to all people and room is made at the table of opportunity, we all rise to greater heights,” Pettis says.


Jill DavisJill Davis is in-house counsel with Orlando Health, where she oversees and manages all aspects of Orlando Health’s employment claims and litigation and advises the organization on employment and labor issues. She is a graduate of Class V of The Florida Bar Leadership Academy.