Mayanne Downs: President of The Florida Bar
Deep i n a coma, Mayanne Downs teetered on the brink of death in an Orlando hospital.
Eighty-five miles away in Tampa, her colleagues on The Florida Bar Board of Governors gathered for dinner with their spouses.
Quietly pulling out a bundle of blue yarn, Robyn Sasso, wife of governor Andy Sasso of Clearwater, explained she was making a prayer shawl for her friend, Mayanne. Passing knitting needles to those at the dinner table, she gave quick instructions on how to take some stitches while praying for their colleague’s recovery.
When Downs was finally released from Florida Hospital on April 1, 2007, after 17 days in the Intensive Care Unit, she drew that shawl around her shoulders and wouldn’t take it off, so comforted by its warmth.
“It was special. It emanated something. It was just the physical representation of the support and love that this group extended to my family,” Downs recalls.
“Keep in mind, I was asleep. None of this bothered me, because I didn’t know anything about it. But for my family and my friends, it was a really hard, hard time.”
To tell Downs’ zesty life story — mother of two teenagers; world traveler who can’t wait to get home; dinner party hostess so witty her guests’ cheeks hurt from laughing; go-getter shareholder at King, Blackwell, Downs & Zehnder; City Attorney of Orlando, her birthplace and hometown; and Board of Governors member elevated unchallenged to president of The Florida Bar — requires describing her brush with death.
Three years ago, a stuck kidney stone caused sepsis, a severe bacterial infection spreading through her bloodstream. Downs’ digestive system and lungs had shut down. Hooking her up to a respirator, doctors gave her a 25 percent chance of survival.
To save her life, doctors put her in a medically induced coma.
“She died twice. Well, she was hanging on by one thread. There was a point where I had made peace and had to face that I might not see my mom again,” says her 19-year-old son Barry Rigby, a bass guitarist and student at Berklee College of Music in Boston.
While Downs lay unconscious in the ICU, a who’s who list of Orlando’s notables milled in the hallway.
At first, a few friends kept round-the-clock vigil in a tiny space they called “the closet.” When so many people showed up to rally for Downs’ recovery, they’d commandeered a conference room.
“It became the most extraordinary, temporary social network of the most diverse people you could imagine,” describes friend and mentor Fifth District Court of Appeal Judge Jackie Griffin.
“I think every possible spiritual voice — from evangelicals to Episcopal, from Jewish Kabbalah and spiritual healers — was in the room.”
Even a Reiki master laid on healing hands.
Neighborhood friend Judy Doyle will never forget witnessing this bedside scene: Cathy Downs-Phoenix was afraid her sister wouldn’t make it through the night. Downs-Phoenix, a nurse, grasped the gravity of the situation, and with tears in her eyes, gathered friends in a circle around Downs’ bed.
One by one, she asked them to say a faith prayer or something spiritual, and pointed to Anne Conway, chief judge of the U.S. District Court, Middle District of Florida, to go first.
“Go Gators!” bellows Conway.
“That’s not spiritual,” Downs-Phoenix jokes, between tears and laughter.
“To Mayanne and me it is!” Conway retorts.
When Downs finally awoke from her coma to the sound of her daughter’s voice, her first words were: “Did the Gators win?”
She’d been watching the Gators play basketball during March Madness, and that was the last thing she remembered before dropping into an eerie deep sleep where time stood still.
The Gators did win the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Championship for the second time in two years.
And Downs triumphed in her recovery.
Ninth Circuit Judge Alice Blackwell said of her friend’s illness: “While it might have made others more timid or insular, within four or five weeks, Mayanne’s attitude was: ‘I’m ready to roll!’ She was back at life full speed.”
When 53-year-old Downs talks about her near-death experience, she says: “Anything you say about this sounds hackneyed and everybody has said it: ‘Life is fleeting. Make every moment count.’ But the reason those phrases are said a lot is because they are very true, and we don’t have a better way to say it.
“Yes, there was a lot of realizing I wanted to do what was important to me and make decisions recognizing the fleeting nature of the good fortune we have — our health.
“There was another issue, and that is the amount of support I received from The Florida Bar in general, lawyers from all across the state, but the Board of Governors in particular.
“The way everybody pulled together meant so much to me that it just underscored for me how important this profession is. I wanted to have an opportunity to serve it, and be somebody whose name would always be listed in this august body of people fortunate enough to act as leaders, however temporary, of this great profession and this great Florida Bar.”
While Downs had wanted to be Bar president for years, there was a sense of urgency that now is her time, and no one ran against her.
& #x201c;On a big scale or small scale, lawyers make people’s lives different. Not everything we do can be seen by the eye of man. But what we do is of critical importance, because without this ability to resolve disputes peaceably, you can’t have a democracy; you can’t have a government. If disputes can’t be resolved in a reasonably peaceable fashion, the fabric of society breaks apart. And that’s what being a lawyer is about to me. It is my gift and my passion. I feel so grateful every day that I can make my living and support my family like this.”
Prevailing Attorney in the ‘Divorce from Hell’
Asked to describe Downs in three words, Judge Griffin answers: “Steadfast, smart, and more fun than a barrel of monkeys. That’s one word right?”
Laughing, Griffin continues: “She’s got a wonderful sense of humor, and she’s so inventive and creative and communicates so well. She’s very persuasive on her feet. She’s pretty much fearless.”
Says Judge Conway: “She doesn’t bully people. She’s forceful, but with a kind shove, without a kick in the pants, so to speak.”
Former Bar President and Jacksonville criminal defense attorney Hank Coxe says: “Mayanne spots the good in people quicker than anybody I know. She also spots the people who are pretentious, and she’s just intolerant of that.”
Biff Marshall, president and managing director of GrayRobinson, who knew Downs before law school and has hired her to represent his firm, says: “She is the combination of intelligence, tenacity, and willingness to get things done, unlike anyone I’ve ever known.”
And Michael Marder, opposing lawyer on many cases, says Downs “is and always was very professional and accommodating. But she is also very tough.”
All those qualities were put to the test in a decade-long divorce battle against timeshare tycoon David Siegel, owner of Orlando-based Westgate Resorts, with 28 resorts and 10,000 units in 10 states.
Downs represented wife Bettie Siegel, helping her win perhaps the biggest divorce settlement in U.S. history: cash and real estate valued at $237 million tax-free, including the 65,000-square-foot mansion in Windermere. On top of that, Siegel had to pay Downs’ law firm $1.7 million in prevailing attorneys’ fees.
Jim Leusner, a former Orlando Sentinel investigative reporter and now a private investigator, went through about 20 volumes of files to chronicle that “divorce from hell.”
“I got to see Mayanne up close working on the David Siegel story, and it crystallized everything I had heard about her and seen about her,” Leusner said. “I would call her a force of nature.. . .
“The remarkable thing about that case is that after being in hand-to-hand combat with Siegel and his lawyers — plural — for nine years, when that case ended, David Siegel had so much respect and admiration for Mayanne that he and his lawyers refer business to her today.”
Downs describes how they had negotiated a deal and were going to close in two weeks. But at the last minute, David Siegel wanted a few things out of the house he no longer lived in:
The certificate for the star that was named after him by his wife, worth $100.
Artwork “so hideous that if you had a match and a can of gasoline you’d think it was a public service to burn it.”
And his rollerblades.
“One time during a break in a deposition, he said, ‘I want my rollerblades.’
“And I said, ‘You know what, Mr. Siegel, I’m keeping those rollerblades away from you out of personal concern for your dignity.’”
That’s classic Downs: wit delivered with a gracious smile to disarm her foes.
David King worked with Downs on that mammoth divorce case, a partner who has known her since 1989, a year after she was admitted to the Bar. He’s watched her practice grow in the areas of civil, trial, appellate, and high-net-worth domestic relations, calling her “the salt of our firm.”
“Mayanne really has a brilliant intellect that drives her in everything she does. She couples that with tenacity and a passion for the law and a desire to succeed on behalf of her clients that is really quite unparalleled,” King says.
“And there’s a great life force in Mayanne. So she is always somebody you’d like to share time with and go to lunch with and enjoy.”
Partner meetings are often held over lunch, and Downs attributes much of her success to King, Bruce Blackwell, and Thomas Zehnder, who she calls “among my closest friends.”
“I learned to practice law at the feet of a master trial lawyer, David King, winner of our local bar association’s very first professionalism award,” Downs says.
As Downs prepares to lead Florida’s nearly 90,000 lawyers, King says “her heart is in the right place, and she comes out of a firm with a strong disposition for Bar service. We know that The Florida Bar is one of the outstanding bar associations in the country,” King said. “As a firm, we’re honored, and we’re proud to send Mayanne up for president of The Florida Bar.”
Ex-husband Barry Rigby, a sole practitioner in Orlando, calls Downs “one of the most generous, least-selfish persons you will ever meet. Even though she’s very ambitious, she’s not in it for her. Her nature is to excel at whatever she does. It’s not an ego-driven thing.”
Downs’ Bar leadership, he said, is another function of her nature to excel and serve.
Negotiating a Billion-dollar Deal for the City of Orlando
There wasn’t nearly as much money involved in Orlando dentist Heather Childers’ divorce as in the notorious Siegel case. But as far as she’s concerned, her case was just as monumental, and Downs will always be her hero.
“She’s brilliant, intuitive, and went above and beyond the call of duty,” Dr. Childers said, describing how she was frantic to get out of an abusive marriage.
“I was desperate. Mayanne was my third attorney. I could not get it done with the others. The others dragged their feet.”
Within three months, the case went to mediation, and the divorce was final.
“Her demeanor was very professional. She’s a very strong woman, but with empathy and kindness. I would not cross her. I would always want her to be on my side,” Dr. Childers said.
When Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer needed a city attorney and top advisor in 2007, the mayor chose Downs, his friend since law school. And he’s glad he did.
Downs “has been integral to the process” of negotiating the $1.1 billion Community Venues project, that includes the Amway Center, the new home of NBA’s Orlando Magic opening this fall; the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts; and renovations to the Florida Citrus Bowl stadium.
“You have the Magic; you have the performing arts groups, Florida Citrus Sports, and the biggest part were discussions and negotiations with Orange County regarding the usage of the tourist tax dollars,” Dyer said. “Mayanne is one of the best negotiators I have ever seen. She was able to put people at ease with her knowledge and expertise and take command of a situation to get things done — and in a responsible and reasonable manner.”
Rebecca Sutton, Orlando’s chief financial officer, was impressed with Downs from the first moment she walked into the mayor’s conference room.
“Her electric energy just filled up the room,” Sutton recalls.
the time Downs joined Dyer’s top advisors, Sutton had already been through about a year and a half of negotiations on what she calls “the whole enchilada,” of the Community Venues.
“The people negotiating with the county did not necessarily embrace our objectives. When Mayanne came on the scene, she came into a very acrimonious environment. She was so nice that nobody knew their knees got cut out from under them until it was over. That is a rare talent,” Sutton said. “She is a fierce negotiator without being fierce. And she has tremendous integrity.”
Orlando Deputy City Attorney Jody Litchford, who has worked for the city for 29 years, watched Downs hit the ground running, a quick study on public financing using tourist tax dollars, while negotiating three multi-million-dollar projects at once.
Most impressive, she said, was Downs’ ability to “get everyone around the table feeling good about her,” Litchford said.
“She was raised by a gracious Southern woman and she is a gracious Southern woman. Despite that, she can be every bit as tough as a Mack truck when she has to be, and she doesn’t need to be a Mack truck very often,” Litchford said.
Downs calls the Community Venues deal one of her proudest accomplishments, saying: “My reward was helping fulfill the vision of my boss and my friend. It’s his leadership that made the concept come together and be approved by the leaders of the community.
“This is paid for mostly by people who come here and go to Disney, and not by local taxpayers. What an opportunity! Even so, there are people who are against it today. It’s a magnificently beautiful facility.”
Byron Brooks, the city’s chief administrative officer, not only loves Downs’ “enthusiasm, knowledge, wisdom, and wit,” he is “blown away by how smart she is” and how fun she is to be around.
He’ll never forget when pro basketball great Shaquille O’Neal, now playing with the Cleveland Cavaliers, stopped by for an impromptu visit to chat about development opportunities in Orlando.
“We went around the table and said our names and our role at the city. And when it came to Mayanne, she immediately started reciting some of Shaq’s rap lyrics from his rap career,” Brooks recalls. “Right off the top of her head, she just recited lines from his one big hit. He was just shocked and laughed, like, ‘Wow!’”
A Brainiac with Perfect Pitch
Music filled the world of young Mayanne Downs, the oldest of four children, growing up on 14 acres of citrus groves in southern downtown Orlando, surrounded by the city. The family home was a renovated 200-year-old structure that used to be a mill, then a general store.
Her mother’s mother was minister of music at two downtown churches, directing the choir, playing the piano, and teaching music.
Downs’ aunt was head of music education for Orange County for years and had the first public TV show on music.
“I was the only person I knew who sang in the teen choir and the adult choir with all these old lady warblers. But I loved it!” Downs recalls.
Perfect pitch and a beautiful alto voice blessed his oldest daughter and left Earl Downs with this enduring memory:
Earl Downs — a contractor who bought a county park in Sanlando Spring in Seminole County and developed a planned golf course community of more than 500 acres called The Springs — recalls the time he had business friends visiting from Indiana and invited them to dinner at the Downs’ home.
“Mayanne, I guess, was 15 or 16, and she played her guitar and sang. It was out around the pool by candlelight. She entertained us with her wonderful voice, serenading us. That really impressed my business friends,” remembers Earl Downs, now living in Portland, Oregon.
Youngest sister Julie Goodnight — an internationally respected horse trainer and clinician in Poncha Springs, Colorado, with her own weekly TV show: “Horse Master with Julie Goodnight” — laughs about the time seven-year-old Mayanne boldly got the idea to carve her initials in the family piano.
“The piano was a sacred place in our home. Mayanne got about two-thirds of the way through the ‘M’ and realized she was going to get busted. So she scratched through that and put my sister Cathy’s initials, ‘CD.’ You might say that was the beginning of her legal mind,” Goodnight tells with a laugh.
“The thing they always said about me was I didn’t even talk until I was four years old. That’s because I couldn’t get a word in edgewise! Mayanne started practicing her debating skills early.”
Cathy Downs-Phoenix, a registered nurse who manages an orthopedic trauma service in surgery at Florida Hospital, was born one year and one week after Mayanne.
“We had a very competitive and adventurous childhood,” Downs-Phoenix remarks. “While we are very different — she is dark-haired with dark eyes, and I am light-haired with light eyes, and we tend to like different things — we are very close. Mayanne is a perfect blend of two remarkable parents, and is the unofficial head/go-to person, and best friend for all of us. I love her deeply, and we never cease to amaze each other.”
The youngest in the family, Wallace Downs, is an instructor with the International Police Mountain Bike Association, an officer with the Las Cruces, New Mexico, Police Department, and a part-time federal marshal.
“Mayanne was the brainiac of the family. She was always there to help tutor me, when I was having problems with math or my English class,” Wallace Downs says. “She’s a real good person to go to if you need someone to talk to. She’s the stable, strong person in our family.”
Savannah Rigby, 17, a senior at William Boone High School in the fall, loves how her mom gets up with her at 6 a.m. to make her breakfast.
“She babies me. It doesn’t seem like her life turns around her work, like other parents. If I need help with homework or I’m hungry, she drops everything. I am her world,” Savannah says.
A favorite time spent with her mom was when they went to Atlanta, just the two of them, and stayed in a hotel by a mall, shopped, and then cheered the Gators on to victory.
Often, the Downs house on Lake Lancaster, across the street from Boone High School, is filled with people.
“My mom is a great entertainer. Last night, she hosted her book club. All I heard the entire time was people laughing hysterically. She is a very funny person,” Savannah says.
Says Barry, her son: “If she walks into a party, she will take the spotlight. It’s amazing how she is two people rolled into one: This incredible, powerful, bold businesswoman, and then this sweet, gracious, kind, hardworking, homey kind of mom. She cooks these incredible cinnamon rolls.”
The Downs house became the after-school hangout.
“Our house was the place. It was me and a big group of teenage boys eating all the food, sleeping downstairs, and watching loud movies. She tolerated it and would wake up and cook us breakfast. She just emotes love and good energy,” Barry says.
Raised by Parents Devoted to Civil Rights
Downs, who loves to throw a dinner party and serve wine she’s sampled in Napa Valley on one of her 58-hour total quickie trips so she can be a homebody again, inherited her social graces from her mother.
Sally Downs, born in Orlando in 1930, laughs when she talks about being Little Miss Orlando when she was five, wearing a Shirley Temple dress on stage, while her uncle led the brass band and beauty contest judges placed a loving cup in her tiny hands.
“Mayanne is everything a daughter should be and more. All daughters should be as loving and kind and generous. My hope is that I’ve taught my children to be kind,” said Sally Downs, who has a degree in political science and economics from the University of Florida. She admits she always wanted to be a lawyer, but says she didn’t have the courage to be one of the few women who ventured into legal careers in the ’40s.
She admires her daughter for getting her law degree, saying even as a little girl Mayanne “knew what she was about and what she was doing.”
What Mayanne Downs inherited from her father is boundless energy, business sense, and an analytical mind poised to challenge assumptions.
She was in the sixth grade when her Presbyterian Sunday school teacher introduced the concept of hell, explaining that everyone who is not a Christian would go to hell, including the Jews, who had had their chance, but rejected Jesus.
“And I said, ‘Wait a minute! Jesus was a Jew! And all the disciples were Jews. And the word ‘rabbi’ means teacher,’” Downs recalls.
“So I started skipping Sunday school, and I was reading in the library instead. After a while, I noticed my dad wasn’t going to church. He had been an elder and a deacon in that church, and they spent time talking about how to keep blacks out. So he just quietly stopped going.”
She admires her dad, originally from Birmingham, Alabama, the son of the sheriff of Jefferson County defeated by Bull Connor, for taking a stand against racial injustice in Orlando in 1960.
“My father got this deal together and he pre-leased all this space to doctors’ offices. They do the plans and the city comes and inspects the foundation and all that stuff,” Downs says.
“They come at a stage when it becomes evident that there aren’t ‘colored’ waiting rooms that were required by law. The inspector says, ‘You don’t have separate waiting rooms.’
“Now, my father has put everything into this project and his personal guarantee, and he says, ‘We’re not doing that. It’s not right.’
“So for two days, my parents sweat that out, while the red tag stays on the site. Nobody can work on it. My parents are facing losing everything, but it wasn’t right, and the doctors didn’t think it was right either. The city came back and took that tag off and approved it, and away it went.”
Downs said both parents were “very devoted to civil rights. My father was devoted to prisoners’ rights. He hired probationers and parolees.”
When Orlando’s public schools integrated, Downs was entering the seventh grade.
“You talk about white flight! There’s a prominent successful private school in Orlando that got its start because of segregation. My parents said, ‘Oh, no, you’re not going there.’
“When I was in the seventh grade, my public school closed 37 days early to riots. Kids came to school with knives. It was a dangerous, scary time. But my parents said, ‘You’re going to that school because it’s the right thing to do.’”
A “fabulous teacher” named Mrs. Duncan picked Mayanne for a group of three black students and three white students to hold “rap” sessions in various classrooms.
“We sat up there and we engaged the kids in the class about fighting, asking what was everybody afraid of? The white kids said: ‘We’re afraid of you guys. You’re scary. You’re weird looking. You’re creepy looking.’ And the black kids said: ‘How do you think we feel? This is your turf.’ Everybody talked it through. And the kids made it.
“The other reason we made it was sports. When you start cheering for the black dude running down the field, it’s hard to be mad.”
Though Downs can well afford sending her own kids to private school, she is proud her children are the products of public schools.
“Being a parent is a tough thing and not every kid can have the same experience, so I don’t say this with criticism,” Downs said. “But for me, I wanted my kids to live in the real world. I wanted them to be self-sufficient. I wanted them to have an honest and regular relationship with people from every different walk of life — including tough people and mean people and grouchy people — because that’s what the world is made up of. If you can’t learn to navigate through that, how are you going to navigate through life?”
Law School Star
With her swath of bright pink hair, irreverent jokes, and brilliant mind, Downs was hard to miss at the University of Florida College of Law.
But it would take a detour to get her there.
After receiving her undergraduate degree in history (Roman and Medieval history her specialty) from UF in 1979, Downs worked in her father’s real estate business during a recession, as the broker of record.
A knock on the door brought a bad feeling. On the other side stood a sheriff’s deputy holding a sheaf of papers that said, “Complaint and Summons.”
Downs called her real estate lawyer, who said, “with an air of distain: ‘Oh, you need a litigator.’ I had never heard that word. And I didn’t know what it meant, but I knew it wasn’t good.”
As it turned out, being served with a federal antitrust lawsuit was good news for Downs, because that’s how she met Jackie Griffin, a litigator who opened her eyes to the possibilities of a legal career.
“She just dazzled the socks off of me,” Downs recalls with vivid detail. “She looked nothing like the lawyers on TV. She had a dress on and no jacket, and it had squares of all different colors. It was so luminous. I thought of lawyers as very staid and male. She was bright and vivacious.”
Griffin was hired, filed the motion to dismiss, and let Downs pay the $5,823 bill over three months. When the judge recused himself because his wife was a real estate broker, Downs’ interest in the law intensified.
“I must have read the motion to dismiss and the memo five times. I read it in the morning. I read it at night. It started becoming clear to me,” Downs says.
After working with Griffin on the case, it was clear Downs wanted to become a lawyer, too. Downs took the LSAT; Griffin wrote a letter of recommendation; and the rest is history: graduating in the top five percent of her class, selected outstanding editor of the Florida Law Review, served as chancellor of the student honor court, and honored by the Order of the Coif.
More than two decades after Downs graduated from law school in 1987, her civil procedure professor, Don Peters, remembers Downs well.
“Always prepared and never shy about speaking, Mayanne often enlivened class discussions with provocative questions, thoughtful comments, and clever arguments. More than most, she engaged with civil procedure quickly, and grasped fully its importance to competent client service and effective dispute resolution before and at trial,” Peters, a UF law professor emeritus, wrote in an e-mail.
“Her leadership talents were readily apparent as she headed a group of female classmates who engaged me in classroom, office, and courtyard discussions, dialogues, and debates, and enhanced one of my best experiences in more than 20 years of cajoling first-year students to learn civil procedure.”
One of Downs’ female classmates was Pat Mitchell, senior counsel for Thomson Reuters Healthcare in Denver.
Meeting the first week of law school, they had so much in common they were “fused at the hip for the rest of law school,” Mitchell says, calling Downs “a soul mate and sister I chose.”
Sitting outside the library at a concrete picnic bench between classes, Mitchell said they were always cutting up. One day, they starting singing Madonna’s “Material World,” soon substituting law-related lyrics.
Mitchell starts singing what she can remember of the lyrics:
“I’ll defend your friv’lous lawsuit, that’s all right with me.
’Cause I will file for sum’ry judgment, just you wait and see.
’Cause there’s no genuine issue of material fact, the evidence is plain to see.
No genuine issue of material fact,
And ya knew it when you lied to me.”
Downs’ former husband, Barry Rigby — a year ahead in law school, friends before they dated, married for 16 years until they divorced in 2004, and now friends again — first met Downs as members of the John Marshall Bar Association.
“We were among the two most irreverent, outspoken, disruptive people,” Rigby recalls with a laugh.
“She absolutely appeared to be noncomformist, outside the mainstream. She had her hair dyed pink, a vestige of quasi punk rock.
“What I really did not know for quite a while was she was very bright. She was so fun and irreverent that she didn’t come off that way. The first time I realized she was getting book awards, my jaw dropped. She wasn’t so full of herself.”
Atlanta or Orlando?
Professor Peters’ wife, Marty, was a psychologist who had an experiment administering Myers Briggs tests to law students at the beginning, middle, and end of their law school experience.
Torn between getting her first job at a big national firm in Atlanta (where she had gone to Emory for two years before UF), or going back home to Orlando, Downs consulted Marty.
“I had all these elaborate arguments. In our second session, about halfway through, she said, ‘You know what? You’ve got all this rationalized to a T. You’ve got 18 factors over here for con and 18 for pro. And you’ve got them all weighted. But let me tell you something: When you talk about Atlanta, you become very logical and rational. When you talk about Orlando, you smile and you laugh and your soul wants to go home.’
“The minute she said it, I thought, ‘Damn! You are right.’
“I think I was meant to come back to my hometown. And through the years, I’ve become very emotionally attached to this city. I’ve watched it grow. And it’s become very important to me,” Downs says.
“My practice would have been different in some ways, maybe more urbane and sophisticated. But I am very happy with the way things turned out.”
“A star from day one at law school,” is how Judge Conway remembers Downs.
Conway was a lawyer at Carlton Fields and Downs was still in law school when they were first introduced at a recruiting dinner held at Conway’s home.
“My first impression of Mayanne is that everybody wanted to hire her,” Conway says.
Instead, Downs was lured to practice with her mentor, Jackie Griffin.
“For obvious reasons, I wanted her to come practice with us,” Griffin said of the small firm where she served as head of litigation.
Representing a bank out of Indiana, Downs reaped the good experience of hands-on litigation right out of law school.
At the end of 1989, when Griffin was appointed to the bench, the banking client was nervous to continue with the firm with the head of litigation gone. So the decision was made to move the case to the King and Blackwell firm. Downs moved to that law firm, too, where she has remained ever since.
When Downs was a law student, and showed Griffin her grades, her mentor would point to an A-minus or B-plus, challenging, “What went wrong here? You can do better.”
That Downs has been elevated to lead Florida’s lawyers, Griffin says: “I am proud, but not surprised. I would have expected nothing less of Mayanne. I told her from the beginning: ‘If you’re going to be a lawyer, you’ve got to be a great lawyer. No half measures.’”
Now that Downs is president of The Florida Bar, she’ll have to go down in history as one of the great ones. Judge Griffin and a whole lot of other fans of Mayanne Downs fully expect she will.
Jan Pudlow is senior editor for The Florida Bar News.
Close University of Florida law school friends gathered on Mayanne Downs’ back porch during a graduation party in 1987. They had just finished singing “We Are the Boys” for their parents. From left to right: Susan Henderson, Jennifer Grandoff Cooper, Tom Zutell, Mayanne Downs, Pat Mitchell, and Denise Vaughan Alexander.
While in law school, Downs bought a small house three blocks from the stadium that served as a refuge, gathering spot, pre-game party place, and study hall around her kitchen table, where Downs had typed transcripts of class lectures she’d taped. Studying and multi-tasking, they did their manicures, baked cookies, and made cassette tapes of their favorite music to share with their sisters.
Downs’ house was also a money-making venture.
Mitchell can still hear Downs collecting money for parking cars in her yard before football games, directing traffic, and cautioning people, like the good lawyer she would become, that they parked there at their own risk, and there was no guarantee they wouldn’t be blocked in for hours after the game.
When both Mitchell and Downs were invited onto Law Review, Downs could not repress her irreverent sense of humor.
“We go back into the Law Review offices as honored invitees, and Mayanne looks around and says, ‘First thing we have to do is redecorate. We have to get rid of all these books!’” Mitchell recalls.
Star of the Downs Family Farm Menagerie
The four Downs children grew up on an idyllic 14-acre farm-like setting on the south side of Orlando, perfumed by orange trees and scattered with chickens.Their palomino and quarter horse swam in a nearby lake. One cow swam in the swimming pool and was smart enough to climb up the steps.
When their father, Earl Downs, had to chop down trees for his construction projects, he’d bring home baby squirrels that the kids would feed Carnation milk with eye droppers until they were old enough to turn loose.
When Dad came home, he had a distinctive whistle for feeding the horses, and the squirrels descended from the trees with great chattering as he sprinkled feed on the ground for them, too.
Shining a flashlight under her blanket at night, little Mayanne paused from voraciously reading books to make bread cubes so she could go fish for bream with a bobber in a lake in the morning.
Two matching Shetland ponies pulled Mayanne and her sister Cathy in a stagecoach handcrafted by their dad.
But the show-stopping addition to the critter menagerie happened when Earl Downs announced a new animal was going to be delivered. He’d always wanted a pet deer, and he’d often scour petting zoos for one to take home, but was never successful.
One day, he met a great salesman.
Here’s how Mayanne remembers the day Dad picked the kids up at school, because there was a big surprise waiting at home.
“We drive up the low entrance over the cattle gap, and as we drive up, we see this commotion. Now my father had called our housekeeper who raised me and my brother and sisters, and raised my children, too: Carrie Johnson.
“He had called Carrie earlier and said, ‘Carrie, the delivery men are going to drop off the new animal. They’re going to drop off a llama this afternoon.’
“She said, ‘Say what?’
“And he said, ‘A llama.’
“And she said, ‘Say what?’
“So we drive in and its starts to clarify as we get closer and closer. We see the back door to the house is wide open and there’s this beast. And there’s Carrie with a broom and she’s defending the homestead. And she’s screaming! As we approach, she looks over at the car and screams: ‘This ain’t no long-necked pony, Mr. Downs!’
“They had put the llama in the pasture, but he had jumped right over the fence and started toward the house, and he was eating Mom’s roses. Carrie was beating him with a broom and he was spitting at her. Horrible animals! We had that llama two or three years.”
Mom Sally Downs says once the llama jumped the fence and sat on her baby son, it was time for the llama to go live at the zoo.
And Mayanne laughs heartily when she remembers the name chosen for the llama: Dolly, of course.
Downs’ Presidential Goals
Quick to embrace new technology, Mayanne Downs launched her own website to express herself and to explore the ways her teenage children get their information about the world.
She quickly disabled her blog, after a disbarred lawyer made her nervous by mentioning her children and personal information in an e-mail.
“It’s been a sadness to me that I no longer have this outlet for writing,” Downs said.
As Bar president, Downs will continue a strong focus on technology to help lawyers in their daily lives practicing law.
“I want to be sure The Florida Bar is on the cutting edge in communicating with its members and making technological advances,” Downs said.
Technology presents continuing challenges with evolving lawyer advertising.
When lawyer advertising regulations were first written, Yellow Pages and television were the options. Now lawyers have gone high-tech, using Web pages, e-mails, text messages, Facebook, and Twitter.
“We’re going to have to find a way to fit the advertising regulatory framework into the world of modern communications,” she said.
Another of Downs’ goals is “to continue to find ways to help our profession. Critical to the profession’s future is the health of our legal system, and so adequate judicial funding is Job One.”
Downs also wants to “improve the profession’s perception in the world, improve its perception to consumers, and improve its perception within the profession.”
Downs has created a new Committee to Study the Decline in Jury Trials, to determine whether it’s a good thing for the public’s faith in the justice system. Approved by The Florida Bar Board of Governors, the panel’s co-chairs are Jay Cohen and David Rothman.
Her interest was piqued after hearing a conversation among Board of Governors member Rothman, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and Federal Southern District Court Judge Stanley Marcus at an 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judicial Conference.
“I was very intrigued by the conversation because there is a dramatic decline in civil and criminal trials,” she said. “You can say on the surface, ‘Great, more cases are being resolved.’ But the impact is more than just cases being resolved.”
Law develops through jury trials, Downs explains, and also fewer trials mean reduced opportunities for women and minority lawyers, and could raise questions about the fundamental right to jury trials in criminal cases.
“Maybe we will look at it and conclude that nothing can be done or should be done, but there’s a big impact happening out there,” Downs said. “It seems to me we should take a good hard look at it so we’re not surprised if impacts and ramifications occur over time. I want us to be able to say, yes, we saw it coming.”
Mayanne Downs’ Rules for Life
• When you realize you’ve made a mistake, take immediate steps to correct it.
• Never underestimate the power of a simple, “I’m sorry,” and be sure to look the person in the eye when you say it.
• Talk slowly but think quickly.
• Always remember the three R’s: Respect for self; respect for others; responsibility for all of your actions.
• Smile when you pick up the phone. The caller will hear it in your voice.
• Spend time alone — without time alone, how will you reflect upon who you are and what you should be?
• Remember that silence is sometimes the best answer.
• Read more books and newspapers and watch less TV.
• Read between the lines in conversations in the office, the courtroom, and at home.
• Remember that NOT getting what you want is sometimes a great gift.
• Learn the rules, and follow them.
• Remember that your character is your destiny. . . and your legacy.
• Develop guiding principles for life, and check them frequently.
• Become indispensable, in every part of your life.
• When you get mad, figure out why. Anger is your psyche’s clue to self-awareness.
Biography of Mayanne Downs
Partner and Shareholder at King, Blackwell, Downs & Zehnder, P.A., in Orlando
Areas of Practice:
• City Attorney, City of Orlando, 2007 – present • Civil Litigation • Trial Practice • Appellate Practice • Legal Malpractice • Marital and Family
• Florida, 1988 • U.S. District Court Middle District of Florida • U.S. Court of Appeals, 11th Circuit • U.S. Supreme Court
• University of Florida College of Law, J.D., 1987, High Honors
Honors: • Chancellor, UF Student Honor Court, 1987-88 • UF Law Review, Executive Editor, 1986; Articles Editor, 1987 • Order of the Coif
• University of Florida, B.A., History, 1979
Honors: UF Hall of Fame • Florida Blue Key
• Orange County Bar Association, President, 1997-98 • Orange County Bar Association Executive Council, 1992-98 • American Bar Association • Central Florida Association for Women Lawyers, President, 1991-92 • Fifth District Court of Appeal, Nominee, 1999 • The Legal Aid Society of The Orange County Bar Association, President, 1995-96 • Local Rules for the Middle District, Advisory Committee, 1998-2001 • Florida Supreme Court Technology Commission, 1998-2000 • Senior Judge Review Commission, Fifth District, 2004-2008
The Florida Bar Activities:
• Board of Governors, 2002-2010 • Budget Chair, 2005-07 • Florida Lawyers Assistance, Inc., Liaison • Council of Sections, Liaison • Executive Committee, 2005-present
• Member of the following sections: Appellate Practice; Business Law; Family Law; Out-of-State Division; Public Interest Law; Real Property, Probate and Trust Law; Trial Lawyers; Tax