Michael G. Tanner: President of The Florida Bar
Michael G. Tanner was a young Midwestern boy, riding in the back of an unairconditioned Chevy, when he first saw Florida.
The year was 1960. Tanner’s family was moving from Flint, Michigan, and scouting locations for his father’s dental practice.
At the dawn of the Space Age, Florida — population 5 million — was a place blessed with broad beaches, living reefs, and miles of fragrant citrus groves, and to the Tanners, a welcome change from the snow of Michigan.
Tanner’s first impression remains vivid.
“Florida then was a very different place from what it is today; it was pristine, sparsely populated,” he said. “I remember there was open land between Miami and Coral Gables.”
Sixty years later, it’s the impression that Tanner has made on Florida that has propelled the 67-year-old Jacksonville civil trial lawyer and Gunster shareholder to the presidency of the 109,000-member Bar.
“I think if you ask a random selection of trial lawyers around North Florida who they would call about a question on ethics and professionalism, Mike would be at the top of that list,” says Tom Bishop, a close friend and former law partner.
Colleagues say Tanner is every inch the formidable litigator his resume suggests.
Board certified in both civil trial and business litigation, and “AV-Preeminent”-rated by Martindale-Hubbell, Tanner has served as president of the Jacksonville chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates, and in 2012, was inducted into the invitation-only American College of Trial Lawyers.
In addition to co-founding Tanner Bishop, a litigation boutique, Tanner has worked for two nationally preeminent firms, Gunster and Holland & Knight.
“Mike Tanner is one of the most well-respected, accomplished lawyers in the state of Florida; he truly is, there’s no question about it,” says Tampa lawyer William “Bill” Schifino, who served as Bar president in 2016.
Tanner’s quiet, friendly demeanor also masks an adventurous side.
Several times in the 1990s and 2000s, he served as a Christian missionary in former Soviet bloc countries.
Second District Court of Appeal Chief Judge Nelly Khouzam served with Tanner on the Advanced Trial Advocacy Program faculty, a Trial Lawyers Section showcase at which Tanner taught for many years. She says the Bar is fortunate that he is willing to serve.
“I was so grateful when I heard that he was running,” she said. “The best way to describe Mike is that he is a lawyer’s lawyer, a true gentleman. When we talk about professionalism, Mike exemplifies what a true professional is.”
Those who know him best say service dominates Tanner’s DNA. In late 2019, in the midst of a statewide Bar campaign, Tanner couldn’t turn down a request by Chief U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan, of the Middle District of Florida, to take on a chore to assist the court.
Chief Judge Corrigan needed a special master to help untangle a series of discovery disputes in a large case, a process over several months that tested Tanner’s significant legal and diplomatic skills.
“He jumped in with both feet, even though he had a lot going on with his Bar activities at the time,” Judge Corrigan said. “That required somebody who had the respect of both sides, and who they knew they were going to get a straight shot from, and who was also skilled at navigating the shoals of complex commercial litigation, and Mike did a, pardon the pun, masterful job.”
A New Start in Jacksonville
The Tanner family search for a new home ended in Jacksonville, where a maternal uncle had already established himself as an oral surgeon.
Tanner’s parents met as undergraduates at the University of Michigan and married shortly after their graduation. After graduating dental school, his father moved the family to Flint to pursue a job opportunity.
They moved South several years later to escape Michigan’s harsh winters.
“My mother had some health issues, and her doctors told her that a warmer climate would help her,” Tanner said.
The family thrived in Jacksonville, Tanner said. One of his younger brothers grew up to become a real estate broker, the other, a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service.
The Tanner family tree is laden with professionals, including one grandfather who worked as a chemist and another as an engineer for General Motors, but, “I’m the only lawyer in the family until my generation, as far as I know,” Tanner said. “My niece Mallory Thomas, my youngest brother’s daughter, and her husband Ben Thomas, are outstanding young lawyers; Mallory with Phelps Dunbar in Tampa and Ben with Martinez Denbo in St. Pete.”
Tanner fondly recalls a Jacksonville childhood spent playing with neighbors, joining the Boy Scouts, and living within walking distance from Venetia Elementary School, where he befriended a classmate who would also pursue a legal career, Fourth Circuit Judge Waddell “Del” Wallace III.
Judge Wallace remembers serving with Tanner on the school patrol.
“He was always friendly, engaging with people, a good friend, popular, knew everybody, and showed leadership qualities from the very beginning, if you think about it,” Judge Wallace said.
The two lost touch when Tanner went to a parochial high school that the Episcopal Diocese had just opened. They reunited in law school.
Tanner gravitated to history and literature and credits the brilliance of the Founders, and a famous English play, with igniting his interest in becoming a lawyer.
“You know the passage from Shakespeare, ‘the first thing we do is kill all the lawyers?’” he said. “I didn’t understand at first that it was actually a high compliment to the profession. And when I did understand that, I found it intriguing.”
In the 1960s, Tanner’s parents befriended a neighbor who, at the time, was a circuit judge in Jacksonville. Today, retired Florida Supreme Court Justice Major Harding remembers the Tanner family warmly and following Michael Tanner’s legal career.
Justice Harding said he was always impressed by Tanner’s sense of duty and honor.
“I think he has exhibited a determination for the good of the order,” Justice Harding said. “These opportunities that he has sought out and been given, have been for the benefit of the good of the Bar, for the good of order.”
Justice Harding acknowledges, with a smile, that he couldn’t have predicted that young Michael Tanner would grow up to become president of The Florida Bar.
“Maybe I should say, I didn’t see anything that would prevent him from becoming a Bar president.”
Tanner went on to Davidson College where he studied economics, German, and Norwegian, edited the student newspaper, played soccer, joined a fraternity, and didn’t forget to have fun.
“It was a good time. I studied hard, but you know, we did college stuff, too; drank a lot more beer than I should have,” he said. “When I look back on all we did, I think, oh my gosh, the Lord was looking over me.”
After completing his freshman year, a favorite professor arranged for Tanner to spend a summer with a farm family in Norway. Scandinavia was suffering a farm labor shortage at the time, Tanner says, and he was eager to see the world.
“I was 18 years old, and my folks put me on a plane, and I flew alone to Kennedy Airport, and then to Norway, and then I hitchhiked from Oslo to the farm, which was near the Norwegian-Swedish border,” he said. “I spent that summer harvesting wheat and vegetables, cabbage primarily. It was back-breaking work.”
A Popular Classmate with a Promising Future
After graduating Davidson, Tanner entered the University of Florida College of Law, where he excelled academically, served as the executive editor of the Florida Law Review (while his friend Del Wallace served as editor-in-chief), and became interested in both tax and labor law.
Tanner liked the “rule-bound” nature of tax law, and it came easily to him. He also found labor law’s colorful history to be fascinating.
“I liked the coming of age of justice in the workplace in the United States through the organized labor movement, the history of the organized labor movement, the roots back to the 19th century.”
Tanner quickly realized that he wouldn’t be happy with a transactional practice and that labor law might provide an opening where he could quickly gain experience.
“At that point, I was pretty convinced that I did not want an office practice. I didn’t think I was suited to do tax planning. I wanted to get out of the office,” he said. “I latched on to labor law because of my interest and because there weren’t really a lot of people doing it.”
His UF Law contemporaries say Tanner was a popular student, bright, but never overbearing. Judge Wallace said Tanner “was not the type” to always raise his hand in class, but he was clearly in his element.
“You could easily identify him as someone who was going to be successful in the profession,” Judge Wallace said.
Veteran West Palm Beach criminal defense attorney Scott Richardson, another UF Law classmate, says it was clear Tanner had a promising future.
“He was very, very smart, very serious, but also with a very good sense of humor,” Richardson said.
Richardson and Tanner took the same tax class, but unlike Tanner, Richardson had little interest. When the final exam scores were posted, Richardson was astonished to learn that he had won the “Book Award” as top student in the class.
Richardson was discussing his unlikely triumph with a few friends, when Tanner approached, not looking his usual happy self.
“I was standing up on the second floor of the law school, talking with a couple of buddies, and Mike comes walking up to us very, very quickly, and says, ‘You so and so! You stole my thunder!’”
Tanner was joking, Richardson says, but he relishes being one of the few people to ever glimpse Tanner wrath, however feigned.
The two remained friends, and many years later, when Richardson was inducted into the American College of Trial Attorneys, vetted Tanner’s nomination.
“I had the pleasure of calling him after he was formally notified to welcome him,” Richardson said. “It was a great conversation. He was so humbled by that. It further solidified my realization that he was perfect for the College.”
From Labor Lawyer to Holland & Knight and Tanner Bishop
Tanner’s instinct about labor law proved correct.
After law school, he joined Hamilton Bowden, a small, highly respected Jacksonville labor firm with blue chip corporate clients up and down the east coast.
“I argued a case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit as a second-year lawyer. I was up to it but doubt that was something I would ever have been able to do if I had gone to a bigger firm,” Tanner said.
Tanner left Hamilton & Bowden after a few years and joined the litigation department in the Jacksonville office of Mahoney Hadlow & Adams in order to get more trial experience. Eventually, he would land at a mid-sized firm that would join forces with Holland & Knight, where he met Bishop, his eventual partner.
Tanner’s reputation preceded him, Bishop said.
“I had heard he was one of the best lawyers in North Florida in the areas of commercial litigation and complex civil trial, and it was obvious to me that was true,” Bishop said. “We started doing cases together.”
In 2006, they left Holland & Knight on good terms to start their own firm. The partnership lasted 13 years and also ended on good terms. Bishop recalls the years wistfully, saying they were some of the best of his career.
It’s nearly impossible to ruffle Tanner’s feathers, Bishop says.
“He is very measured and so thoughtful,” Bishop said. “He doesn’t speak lightly or rashly. I’ve seen him at all kinds of moments, hard moments, and he doesn’t lose his cool.”
And Tanner “cares deeply about the right way to do things,” Bishop says.
“The standards of professionalism, the traditions of our profession, how we treat one another, the sense of fair play, how we make sure that we are candid and fair to the court, that we are candid and fair with adversaries; I think that has been probably the central theme of his career.”
And few lawyers are as meticulous, Bishop says with a smile.
Tanner kept ruled college notebooks with cardboard covers for every case, Bishop says. They were dubbed “the Books of Truth.”
“Mike would say, did we send out those third-party subpoenas? And I would say, I don’t remember talking about third-party subpoenas. And he would turn to the page in his book and say, well, three weeks ago…,” Bishop laughs. “We were like an old married couple.”
Erica Baines, now a shareholder with Dentons in Naples, was recruited by Tanner Bishop when the firm needed an experienced, but not necessarily senior, attorney. Baines was an eight-year veteran at the time.
Tanner was a talented teacher, always respectful, who knew how to inspire subordinates to do their best work, Baines said, not like “some partners who just give you a list of tasks to accomplish.”
“He would give other members of the firm experience in writing, and in client meetings, and in mediation settings, where it was clear that he was the one running the ship, but we were allowed to have a speaking role,” she said. “He leads by example, he challenged me, and he challenged other people in the firm to think outside of the box. Sometimes you learn by stepping outside of your comfort zone, and he encouraged you to step outside of your comfort zone.”
Baines said she still calls Tanner to seek his professional advice.
Professional Service and the ‘Bar World’
Tanner’s years of Bar service run the gamut from grievance committee, Trial Lawyers Section executive council member and eventual chair, to Board of Legal Specialization and Education chair.
Early in his career, Tanner says, a friend and mentor, former Bar President John DeVault, appointed him to a grievance committee in Jacksonville.
“The Florida Bar was just always kind of an unknown quantity to me. It was where you sent your money once a year and where you knew something bad could happen if you didn’t follow their rules,” Tanner said. “The grievance committee was a wonderful education in terms of the ethics rules, to start with, and it was a good introduction to the Bar world. It gave me the appetite to continue with Bar service.” His next big involvement in Bar service came when Howard Coker, who also later became a president of the Bar, asked him to join the executive council of The Trial Lawyers Section.
In 2011, Tanner was elected to represent the Fourth Judicial Circuit on the Board of Governors and has chaired numerous board committees.
But running for president-elect and serving as president was never part of Tanner’s plan and recruiting him wasn’t easy. Tanner prefers keeping a low profile, says Miami attorney Michael Higer, who served as Bar president in 2017.
“From all of our interactions with Mike, we knew, we absolutely knew, that Mike would be a great leader for The Florida Bar, and we knew that we would have to twist his arm,” Higer said. “He’s not the kind of person who seeks the spotlight. He’s calm, collected, very level-headed. He has no personal or political agenda, he’s beyond reproach ethically. He only does things for the right reason.”
Committed to Service at Home and Abroad
For Tanner, doing the right thing means that when he is not serving clients or his profession, he is serving his community and promoting his faith.
That calling has led Tanner to become involved with the Jacksonville Youth Crisis Center, including serving on and chairing its operating board in the 2000s, and continuing to serve on its properties board.
Every first Saturday of the month for the past decade, Tanner has headed to the Sulzbacher Center to cook hot meals and serve them to the center’s homeless clients.
Earl Benton, president and CEO of Champion Brands, Inc., a Jacksonville beer distributor, is Tanner’s serving partner and friend, who says he has seen Tanner at some of his happiest moments.
The ritual begins when Benton and Tanner alternate months buying the food for approximately 450 first Saturday lunches. Then, they work together stirring gravy mix, fresh peppers, rice, onions, garlic, and water into an industrial-sized cooker. The final step involves adding 10 wholesale boxes of meatballs.
The menu also includes green beans, apple sauce, and iced tea.
“We haven’t bothered to change the recipe because it’s good, and if it isn’t broke, there’s no need to fix it,” Benton said.
Seeing smiles of gratitude erupt on the faces of homeless men, women, and children, is its own reward, Benton said.
“You see some real sad sights out there. None of those children came into the world looking to be homeless,” Benton said. “But it really is a lot of fun, the interaction that you have with friends, and at the end of the day, you feel good about what you did.”
Tanner thoroughly enjoys the work, Benton said.
“He has a smile that just lights up the room, and it’s clear there isn’t anything he wouldn’t do for them,” he said. “It’s an honor to call him my friend.”
Tanner’s meticulous nature is evident even in his food service, Benton smiles.
“He’s a neatnik I can tell you that. If anything’s spilled on a table, he’s the first person there with a rag to wipe it off. If something spills on the floor, he’s the first with a mop to clean it up. He’s a real go getter.”
An elder in the Presbyterian Church, Tanner’s dedication to his Christian faith extends beyond his local community — far beyond.
Tanner began traveling to former Soviet bloc counties — Russia, Belarus, and Estonia — in the mid-1990s as a Christian missionary with East-West Ministries, which does humanitarian work and evangelism in 50 countries.
“Immediately after the Soviet Union collapsed, there was a real thirst for that kind of knowledge,” Tanner said. “And the [Boris] Yeltsin government that existed for much of the 1990s was quite tolerant of our work. In those days, we could do things in Russia that we couldn’t do here in the U.S.; we could go into the schools and talk about Christianity, which obviously, we couldn’t do here.”
But after 70 years of Soviet rule, working in Russia still had its risks. Local authorities in Russia were then well known for surveilling foreign visitors. International travelers were required to surrender their passports at hotel check-in and, in small towns, often required to report their presence to the police.
On a mission trip in 1997 to a small town outside of Moscow, Tanner and his companions were detained for questioning by local authorities. They were released a few hours later, but only after agreeing to sign a confession — in Russian — that they had failed to obtain the necessary permit for their activities.
The chief of the police detail and her subordinates were straight out of central casting, Tanner says.
“She wore her hair pulled straight back and a trench coat that she never unbuttoned. The two officers with her wore black leather jackets and were built like refrigerators.”
The incident has become lore among East-West members, Tanner says.
“People will still say, ‘Oh, you were on that trip,’” Tanner says. “We all laugh about it now, but it was tense at the time.”
East-West Ministries President and CEO Kurt Nelson says Tanner’s contributions to the ministry go beyond just financial support. On one mission, Nelson recalls, Tanner left his shoes as an anonymous gift for one of their local hosts who needed a new pair.
“I was blessed to serve in the field with him on mission trips,” Rev. Nelson says. “The Lord has gifted Mike to be a very talented and gifted teacher, and his training on discipleship is amazing! Mike is an inherently generous person.”
The trips also inspired Tanner’s creative side.
His novel, Nikolai Returns, inspired by a veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan whom Tanner met on one of his trips, is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
A Pastural Escape
When he’s not serving clients, the Bar, or his community, Tanner can be found at Blue Bear Farm and Cattle Co., north of Tallahassee, which he co-owns with his wife, Dawna Bicknell Tanner, the manager of the operation.
“Not only are we interested in producing good-quality, healthy beef, we want to treat our animals humanely. That’s very important,” Tanner says. “We have a very good pastural environment for them out here, not under any stress. They’re raised 100% on grass in the pasture, and that’s how they live their lives.”
Tanner says the spread is now home to about 40 head of Red Devon cattle, a small garden, and some chickens. The operation, which began in January 2018 with eight animals, is beginning to gain momentum, Tanner said, thanks to Dawna’s careful oversight. Dawna spent part of her childhood on a family farm and manages everything from the animals to the website, Tanner says.
The setting has been a stress reliever during the pandemic, Tanner said.
“When we go to cattle shows and cattle breeder conventions, that’s a completely different world from the Bar, and it’s a refreshing thing to do. When I’m out here on the tractor, that’s a good break from the practice of law.”
Schifino, the former Bar president, confirms that Tanner is a different person when he’s on the farm. Schifino recalls taking his daughter and her boyfriend to visit the ranch, and at first, the contrast was a little startling, Schifino says with a smile.
“When I first knew him, he was always this guy in Jacksonville in a suit and a tie,” Schifino said. “And here we are, we were driving up this road, it’s in the middle of nowhere, and here comes Mike walking up in jeans and a cowboy hat, and I said, ‘Who is this guy?’”
Leading the Bar: A Post-Pandemic Focus
Tanner finds himself taking the helm of the Bar after a year in which the COVID-19 pandemic has claimed more than 36,000 Florida lives, slowed trial dockets to a crawl, and accelerated by a decade the legal profession’s adoption of remote technology.
As president-elect, Tanner has spent the past year meeting the pandemic head on. Last year, President Dori Foster-Morales appointed Tanner to chair the Bar’s COVID-19 Pandemic Recovery Task Force.
Among its many projects, the task force developed the Bar’s COVID-19 Information and Resources webpage and oversaw the Bar’s financial accommodations to help members stay afloat.
“You know, the old Chinese proverb, may you live in interesting times, and we certainly are,” Tanner said. “I’m very aware of the pain and loss that many people have suffered, and I regret that very much. But in terms of managing the Bar, I think we have to look at this past year as an opportunity.”
Now that vaccines are becoming widely available, Tanner expects to focus his presidency on professionalism, access-to-justice issues, and opportunity issues for young lawyers, but it’s too early to discuss specifics.
The data, Tanner says, suggest that Americans are suffering more and more from their unmet legal needs.
“They’re either trying to address their legal needs themselves, or they’re doing it with materials they get from online service providers,” he said. “I think in the long-run, it’s very detrimental to the profession and to the branch for the public to become disconnected from us. We’ve got to find a way to deal with that, and I think new technology must be part of our plan.”