Michelle Suskauer: President of The Florida Bar
When something bad happens to your child, there’s nothing worse.
Any parent would agree with that statement, and for Michelle Suskauer — a mother of two who has spent her 26-year career as a criminal defense lawyer representing so many young people in particular — it takes more than empathy to sit with the families who face life-altering events that could impact the rest of a child’s life. Although she holds their hands, comforts them, and calms them during the worst of times, her hat as a lawyer is of a fierce color.
She attacks cases with a ferocity, says her partner Scott Dimond of Dimond Kaplan & Rothstein.
“She keeps more balls in the air at any given time than I ever have,” he said of the multitasking whiz, who operates out of the firm’s West Palm Beach office with only two other lawyers by her side. “It is clear she is at the highest level of professionalism — the smart, aggressive lawyer that is going to do the right thing in the right way for her client.”
The first former public defender to ever lead The Florida Bar, the 51-year-old Suskauer is also the sixth female president among the organization’s preceding 69 presidents. She understands the tough business of law.
“For most of my career, I’ve been in a small firm, just like the majority of lawyers in the state,” says Suskauer. “Every day, I’m in the trenches. I’m working. Keeping the lights on. That’s who I am.”
Despite a frequently intense schedule, Suskauer has made time for bar service since entering the profession over two decades ago.
“If I can help come up with some solutions to make people’s lives just a tiny bit better, and leave my community in a better place than when I found it, then I accomplished something.”
“There is no question in my mind that Michelle Suskauer will go down as one of the greatest Bar presidents we’ve ever had. The Bar could not be in better hands,” said past Bar President Edward Blumberg (1997-1998), adding her eight years on the Board of Governors have prepared her to handle the organization’s many moving parts. “She’s going to be able to hit the ground running and really do a spectacular job. With Michelle Suskauer, the everyday practicing lawyer has a champion.”
Never one to shy away from a challenge, Suskauer won contested elections to become president of the Palm Beach County Bar Association in 2009 and to join The Florida Bar Board of Governors in 2010.
“What’s motivated her to be a lawyer? Helping others. Helping her colleagues,” said her husband, 15th Circuit Judge Scott Suskauer, with whom she practiced law at The Suskauer Law Firm. “She’s a dynamo, which is good for the Bar, to have that type of energetic, inspiring individual who wants to fight for you.”
Although her talents often lead to favorable outcomes for her clients, the media benefits from her expertise when she stands before a camera. Suskauer has appeared on CNN, NBC’s “Today,” “The Dr. Oz Show,” “Nancy Grace,” “The O’Reilly Factor,” and other notable programs. The savvy communicator got her start as a legal analyst more than a decade ago on local West Palm stations WPTV and WFLX, affiliates of NBC and FOX respectively, by providing insight into prominent court cases in her community — and she periodically appears on WFTL 850AM radio.
The ease with which Suskauer can speak extemporaneously doesn’t mean she’s not listening. Fellow Board of Governors members Rene Thompson and Gary Lesser believe all Florida Bar members will be heard.
“Because Florida is such a large state, it’s important to have an effective communicator at the helm,” Thompson explained. “Especially in today’s world where we have information overload.”
“She builds consensus. She talks to people, which is a great skill as a leader,” Lesser noted. “Michelle has a reputation for being a communicator at meetings and on TV, but one of her secret talents is she’s an exceptional listener.”
“She listens to where there are needs,” said friend of 20 years and Bar member Patricia Leonard. “She doesn’t just say, ‘Oh gosh, something needs to be done!’ She says, ‘What can I do to get that need met?’ To me, it’s natural that she would rise to leadership because that’s the way she thinks about things.”
For Suskauer, listening skills developed early as a child, when a Panasonic tape recorder — one of her favorite possessions — came in handy to begin interviewing others for commentary, and to create her very own newscasts and commercials. Always wanting to be a broadcast journalist when she grew up, the gregarious child carried the handheld device around when guests came over to her family’s home on Long Island, New York, prepared with questions that made the adults crack up with laughter. She played “person on the street,” and with a natural curiosity about people, asked what the average citizen was thinking. Small and self-assured, she was going to be on TV one day.
Those childhood pastimes came full circle into adulthood, and Suskauer doesn’t stop thinking about the future. Although being in the courtroom lights her fire, so does broadcasting.
“I’d love to be an anchor or newscaster. It’s a lot of fun,” Suskauer says. The legal talk show of her dreams, she says, would be one that hasn’t been done before, is informative, and “where nobody is screaming at somebody else, but we’re actually learning.”
Suskauer has never been afraid of the limelight, and that quality rubbed off on her children. Her two daughters are musical theater arts majors — one enrolled in, and the other a recent graduate of, Penn State University. When the creative sisters were cast in shows at their performing arts high school, she never missed a performance. A lover of musical theater, the eager mother was consistently spotted in the audience, cheerfully paying attention to the songs — maybe even mouthing the words — and visibly thrilled, with clenched fists, when the girls hit their notes perfectly.
Suskauer’s eyes light up when playing videos of Talia, 21, and Becca, 19, delivering numbers from popular musicals. In one, Becca sings “I’ve Found a New Baby” from Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway . Talia, who performs “Natural Woman” surrounded by classmates gazing in awe, plans to relocate to the Big Apple with her career sights set on Broadway.
“I am incredibly proud of my girls, and they are strong ,” Suskauer says, admitting she herself is no retiring flower. “I am not an easy mom, I am tough, OK? — I would say to them: ‘Don’t ever apologize for who you are or what you want. Don’t wait for someone to give something to you. Ask. What’s the worst thing you’ll hear? It’s no.’ So, whatever they end up doing, they have incredible skills, and they can stand up in front of everyone and say and do anything.”
Aside from taking center stage in the courtroom for nearly three decades, with three years of government work under her belt, Suskauer has several passions, and one is singing. If she rolls down her car windows, you’re likely to hear the Broadway channel on SiriusXM
satellite radio. For Suskauer, the privacy of her car is a safe place for singing.
“I don’t want to hurt anybody’s ears,” she admits. “I do not have the talent that my children do or the training, but I love to sing. It makes me happy, especially Broadway.”
As for her stage skills, in the courtroom and on TV, she gets to speak, perform, and tell stories, according to her eldest daughter, Talia, “She gets to be expressive every single day.” Childhood friend Lisa Jackman, who confirms Suskauer doesn’t suffer from an ounce of shyness, says the courtroom contains its own drama. “She has to command the audience whether that’s judge or jury. It takes a confident person, someone who’s used to being the center of attention, or is comfortable being the center of attention. That is the acting. That’s the performance part.”
Jackman joined her friend in the dressing room of “The Dr. Oz Show” in New York City. “She was talking to the producer, and she was so calm about it, whereas I would have been so nervous,” Jackman explained.
“There are a lot of people who don’t like being the center of attention. I love being the center of attention. Here I am!” Suskauer proclaimed. “And that’s what I’ve always been. I’m a people person. I’m all about connections. I love my friends, and I love my family, and I love being with people.”
Immersed in the Arts
Growing up within reach of Manhattan, just a car-ride from Long Island, the young Michelle Suskauer alongside younger brother, Howard, learned to enjoy performance early in life. Suskauer’s father, Alan Rosenkranz, who passed away five years ago after an 11-year battle with kidney cancer that metastasized, encouraged an appreciation for the arts. Described as a “huge New Yorker,” he and his wife, Rose, treated the children to big-city shows. The devoted father flew the family to London on $99 tickets over long weekends to catch Les Miserables , Phantom of the Opera , or another popular show in the West End. While some children were quizzed on math, at home, the loving father switched on the radio and quizzed Suskauer about song titles and singers. He introduced her to rock n’ roll — early Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Elton John, and The Who. “My dad and I saw everybody. I could list 50 concerts that we went to,” Suskauer says. “My dad loved to dance with me, with anybody he could get a hold of. He loved music of all kinds. He loved to travel. He loved to sing. He had a passion for life.”
Having lived near one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, it is no wonder Suskauer says she enjoys surrounding herself with eclectic, creative types. Suskauer and her husband, with whom she partnered with in private practice for 18 years, designated a playroom in their house filled with constructive materials for their children. In the room, there were instruments, a puppet stage, a karaoke machine, and a dress-up box stuffed with assorted costumes, tutus, and masks.
The husband-and-wife legal team, though they managed a busy practice — juggling crisis after crisis on behalf of clients during the course of their fruitful legal careers — had a playful side. They established a home in which the children tapped into their artistic spirits freely. The girls put on shows in full costume. Suskauer’s adoration for Broadway music eclipsed her husband’s propensity for sports. “I tried getting my kids into softball and tee-ball when they were ages five and 10, but they ended up retiring at 10 to pursue their careers in the arts,” Judge Suskauer joked. “I tried. I coached them. I’ve become immersed in the arts from my children and my wife. But it’s good. It’s been a source of enjoyment. It’s been a big part of our lives.”
“When we were little babies, she would play us Broadway recordings in the car, even if we were too young to understand them. That’s what she loved to listen to,” Talia Suskauer said. “I’m really lucky. I look at some of my friends who don’t come from as supportive a family. It’s hard. The career that we’ve chosen is not an easy one. And a lot of people’s parents are concerned that it’s going to be really hard for them, and they care more about whether they’ll be stable, rather than whether they’ll be pursuing what they want to pursue and their passion. And my parents: I can’t even think of a single time when their support has wavered. My mom is my biggest fan, my biggest advocate. She tells me every single day that she believes in me. I’m so blessed and thankful for that.”
When the girls are home, the supportive mother will wake up at 5 a.m. to let loose the baker in her soul. Next to her Panasonic tape recorder as a child, there was another favorite toy that led her to cultivate a lifelong passion. A Betty Crocker Easy-Bake Oven, which used an ordinary incandescent lightbulb as a heat source, was the first step toward whipping up homemade chocolate cakes, pumpkin bread, cookies, and other delights. Suskauer’s daughters say the blueberry muffins and gooey chocolate killer cake are household favorites. The girls’ father agrees the muffins and the cake are his wife’s best creations. “I’ll never lose weight in my house,” Judge Suskauer said, adding his wife mastered the art of handling delicate Phyllo dough for recipes from his Greek grandmother.
Suskauer’s tendency to share homemade baked goods, however, extends beyond the walls of her home. She has transported her famous blueberry muffins from where she lives in West Palm Beach to the Miami offices of Dimond Kaplan & Rothstein, which could be two-and-a-half hours away depending on traffic. “I suspect that’s not even the record. I’m guessing if you ask around enough, you’ll see some evidence that she’s hauled baked goods halfway across the state,” partner Scott Dimond said.
“I’ve even put them on a plane,” Suskauer confesses. She’s packed away stashes of homemade muffins, cookies, or coffeecake for meetings with The Florida Bar Board of Governors because of her affection for the board members.
“The dedicated men and women that I work with: They don’t just show up, they live this,” Suskauer said emphatically, adding one of the reasons she wanted to become Bar president is her fondness for her fellow board members. “They are my second family. I love these people, and have made lifelong friends. If I didn’t love the people, and the staff, I wouldn’t continue to do it, because of how much time I spend with everyone. It’s a tremendous personal sacrifice — being away from your family and your practice.”
Between Suskauer’s busy schedule as a trial lawyer, a Florida Bar leader who travels the state on a regular basis, a loyal friend who gives advice and often lends a helping hand, a wife, a television news legal analyst, a president of her local legal aid society, an avid baker, and mother who periodically travels up north to watch her daughters perform, one can only ask: Where does all her energy come from?
“It comes from my dad,” she smiled. “I miss him every day. I’m exactly like my dad. He loved a captive audience.”
Suskauer says she adopted a special skill from her father: to listen and learn from people.
“I meet people everywhere,” Suskauer explained. “And sometimes it’s kind of like a compulsion: I have to say something to them!”
Alan Rosenkranz was the type to start long conversations with strangers on airplanes. No matter where he was, he chatted with people. He loved to dance with a partner and sing. Even while battling cancer, the social family man danced to music with his medication and tubes in tow. Within two years of his diagnosis, he took his granddaughter to Broadway shows in New York — to always remember him by. A week before he passed away, he sat in a wheelchair at Talia Suskauer’s opening night performance in Guys and Dolls . Although gravely ill, he wouldn’t miss it.
“Every time I think I have a challenge, I think about what he went through. He never complained, and he never said, ‘poor me’ — ever. It empowers me,” Suskauer says about her father. The new Bar leader says he savored personal attention, much like herself, perhaps due to an early period of abandonment. The youngest of three boys, the two-month-old Alan Rosenkranz was placed in an orphanage when his birthmother passed away. He was returned a year later to his family when a widow, with her own children, married his father. There weren’t a lot of blended families at the time, but she was the only mother he ever knew.
Although Suskauer sees much of her own personality and characteristics in her father, Rose Rosenkranz, her mother, observes a sharp resemblance to the matriarch. “Her grandmother was a very strong person, so she got if from my side,” Rosenkranz says.
Suskauer’s grandmother, Helen Lefkowitz, was a Holocaust survivor described as willful and strong. She was arrested at the border of Poland and Russia while fleeing the Nazis during World War II, only to be sent to a slave-labor camp in Siberia. She met her husband in the camp, also Polish, who was an overseeing supervisor. Eddie and Helen’s romance grew over long hours chopping down Redwood trees. They married, and Suskauer’s mother was born in the camp. Babies almost never survived and most people did not come out of Russian gulags alive. They endured starvation, a lack of clothing and medicine, and subzero Siberian winters.
But the hearty family miraculously braved the harsh conditions of the camp for five years, with Eddie singing in the choir for extra food, and Rosenkranz said she was considered a “miracle baby.”
“The food was so scarce, they would go chopping into the ground to find potatoes, because it was perennial snow,” Rose Rosenkranz said of her parents. “So they would try to dig up potatoes, and the potatoes would last through soups, and soups, and soups, over and over. Life was very difficult and just to persevere…you had to have very strong will and drive, and that’s something that’s innate in a person, and that’s passed on, I believe, to Michelle.”
Rose Rosenkranz is a well-respected Holocaust educator who annually takes children on the March of the Living, which is a week in Poland to see the sights of the Holocaust and a week in Israel. Suskauer’s daughters have participated in the march, which is attended by thousands of students from around the world.
“I have a very strong Jewish identity,” Suskauer said, adding she encountered hurtful anti-Semitism in her younger years. “I didn’t understand why people were saying things about me because I was Jewish, and those are things that always stuck with me, that I will always remember. It was incredibly hurtful. I always made sure that my children — because you can’t shelter your children their whole lives — that they were very confident in who they are, and that they both have strong Jewish identities.”
Suskauer’s maternal grandparents spoke mainly Yiddish, and no English, when they came to the U.S. with only $10. But first, the Holocaust survivors waited three years in an American camp for displaced persons in Backnang, Germany, for immigration visas. Most of their family members perished during the war. Poland remained unsafe after the war, as the Poles had confiscated homes from Jews and intended to kill returning Jews in order to keep their homes, according to Rose Rosenkranz. The only survivors were two brothers on each side of the couple’s families: two fled to Israel, and two went to America. The uncles on the paternal side of the family settled in the Bronx, NY, where Rose Rosenkranz grew up. At 18, she met Suskauer’s father at Hunter College’s night school. They had a lot in common, Suskauer believes, due to their painful life stories.
“Strong” is a word frequently used to describe Michelle Suskauer, but more often is the word, “energy.”
“I’m quite energetic, and she makes me look tired,” Seventh Circuit Judge Sandy Upchurch laughs. When the women traveled to Board of Governors meetings, they often met at the gym at 5 a.m. “Everything she does, she infuses with her high energy. She parents with high energy. She’s a spouse with high energy. She’s a friend with high energy. She’s a mentor with high energy. She’s a litigator with high energy. And I say that in the most positive of lights.
“As a younger lawyer, I had people that I looked up to tell me that I needed to ‘dial it down,’” Upchurch continues. “Now that I am older and wiser, I realize how very, very offensive that is. I think that I saw that energy in her, and I thought, ‘I am not dialing it down.’ We should not have to dial down who we are naturally, and if you don’t like it, take a long walk off a short pier!”
While campaigning for Bar president, Suskauer was hardly ever off her feet during 14 months of nonstop travel — driving to 19 out of 20 circuits between Pensacola and Key West — from one event to the next. She was frequently observed at various functions greeting, speaking, and getting acquainted with diverse groups of legal professionals. “I met her while she was running for the presidency. One of the reasons we supported her was she was very good about getting out and talking to people who were voting,” said law partner Scott Dimond, who was surprised to see her at multiple functions in Miami knowing she lived in West Palm Beach. “That’s just emblematic of her personality. When she decides she’s going to do something, she does it thoroughly and completely, and she does it right.”
“I have friends in every pocket of the state of Florida, and I never would have had that but for the contested election,” said Suskauer. “I can tell you that running contested elections have been some of the most fulfilling experiences of my life, especially the contested election for Bar president. I would do it again in a heartbeat. I loved it. It was frustrating and exhausting and expensive, but exhilarating and exciting.”
The criminal defense lawyer revealed one of her greatest passions is to bring people together.
“Why not? It’s a big world. I am passionate about connecting with my community,” she asserted. “I cannot picture being a lawyer without doing this type of work. It’s just something that’s inherent in who I am.”
With a degree in communications from Boston University, the evidence that getting people together has been a heartfelt mission for Suskauer became clear at American University Washington College of Law in D.C. Jill Halper describes her close friend as front-and-center at social events. Never the wallflower, Suskauer planned the annual black-tie gala, the Barrister’s Ball. “She ran the whole show. She would plan it, organize it, give the welcome speech, greet everybody at the door, take care of all the details. So even then, she was energetic, involved, and active. She was a real people person,” Halper explained.
And as a professional, Suskauer’s past leadership positions have inherently required her to step up to the plate and bring people together, including as president of the Florida Association for Women Lawyer’s Palm Beach County Chapter (2002-2003), where she started a memorable, award-winning program: Breakfast and Books. Detained girls and women lawyers read books and discussed them over the most important meal of the day. These were violent female juvenile offenders serving an average of 18 months in a detention facility. The program helped the girls temper their bad behaviors and get their grades up.
At FAWL luncheons when Suskauer implemented her Adopt-A-Case program, she locked the doors and “wouldn’t let people leave without taking a pro bono case,” said Robert Bertisch, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County. Suskauer has been on the board since 2005 and currently serves as its president. “We love Michelle. She is very, very committed to legal aid. She’s one of our major fundraisers, always going out in the community trying to raise money for us and telling people about our programs,” said Bertisch, confirming Suskauer traveled far and wide to campaign for Bar president. “She really left no stone unturned in getting involved and speaking with all of the lawyers, law firms, government lawyers, everyone.
“One night, she came to the South County Bar installation dinner. She had just been in Miami, then she’d been in Broward. She got to us as people were leaving, but she wanted to be there to say hello to everybody. She’s so energetic! I mean, that may not even be a strong enough word. But that’s what I see. She is really a whirlwind.”
Senior Judge Barry Cohen saw an energetic lawyer in the courtroom when Suskauer entered. “Some people come in and they’re carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders, and they show it. They move slowly. They’re not able to deal with things spontaneously. Michelle comes in with a pile of energy and enthusiasm.”
“I think we’re going to get a leader who has an unlimited amount of energy and time,” says Mariano Garcia, who has served
alongside Suskauer on the legal aid society board. For the last five years, they’ve emceed the annual Pro Bono Recognition Evening gala that is attended by around 700 people. “If we were a comedy duo, Michelle is the one who cracks the jokes, and I’m the straight man, so to speak. We have a lot of fun doing it. It’s for a great cause.”
Garcia said this year, the legal aid society celebrates 30 years as an organization, and the purpose of the gala is to recognize lawyers who have gone above and beyond their duties handling pro bono cases. The legal aid society handles cases that nobody else will handle, and it’s a cause Suskauer is passionate about.
“I always say that we are measured as a community and as individuals by how we treat those who are less fortunate,” Garcia explained. “I think it speaks volumes that Michelle has had such a longstanding commitment to this legal aid organization. It does so much good in our community.”
After law school, Suskauer found herself with two major role models who were paving the way for women in the legal profession: her aunt, Sherry Hyman, and Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente. Hyman and Pariente were among few female lawyers practicing in Palm Beach County. After graduation, Suskauer landed a job as an assistant public defender in the county and found herself summoned toward local bar service by her aunt, who very directly told the young lawyer what to do. Hyman sat Suskauer down and instructed her to channel some of her energies toward FAWL, the Palm Beach County Bar, and the Inns of Court.
“And for me, that was a game changer because it’s very easy to stay in an office, especially as a government lawyer. It’s very expensive. You don’t have the time. You don’t have the perspective to be able to branch out outside of your office and say, ‘Look at this legal community,’” Suskauer said. “And it’s so important to look at your legal community and realize that it’s more than a walk from your office to the courthouse and back. We have an obligation as attorneys to give back and get involved, both in our legal community and our communities at large.”
At Hyman’s home, Pariente, a close friend, was introduced to a young Michelle Suskauer. “I immediately clicked with her because she had gone to Boston University undergraduate, which I had done. And she had gone to law school at American University, and I had gone to law school in Washington at George Washington. And I immediately recognized in Michelle a real passion, energy, and work ethic,” Justice Pariente said. “She is a very powerful presence, and that’s a good thing. It’s an important trait for women lawyers who want to get ahead. You’ve got to be able to advocate for yourself.”
Suskauer, in her first job and on her first day at the public defender’s office in West Palm Beach, met her husband on Dixie Highway right outside the local courthouse. Also a public defender, Scott Suskauer and some colleagues went to lunch. Thinking her beautiful and intelligent, he was interested right away. They began dating a few months later. In 1997, three years after opening The Suskauer Law Firm and after being married for four years, the couple joined up to practice. It was just the two of them, assisted by a paralegal, until Scott Suskauer was appointed to the bench in 2014.
“One of the highlights of my life was working with my wife for so many years,” Judge Suskauer said. “A lot of my colleagues would say they would never work with their spouses. They find that it would be too difficult. We did it very well together. One of the things I really do miss — I mean, I love being a judge — but it is working with Michelle and fighting for our clients.”
Judge Suskauer admits their personalities are notably different, yet complimentary. “I prefer to be under the radar. You know, I’m quiet. She’s more outgoing and enjoys the spotlight, where I kind of shun it.”
“We really , really like each other,” Suskauer said about her life partner. “Of course, we love each other, but we really like each other, and we were really good partners. We tried a lot of cases together.”
The couple was spotted at Florida Bar events, and past Bar President Blumberg made some observations after sitting next to the husband-wife law partners at dinner one evening. “As I was getting ready to leave, I said to Michelle: ‘I know you’re not thinking about this, but I hope you wind up running to be president of The Florida Bar, because you are exactly what The Florida Bar needs.’
“It’s very rare that you ever get to meet somebody who has the combination of being a great lawyer and successful lawyer, and also wanting to take the time to help other lawyers in the system. I saw that at the very beginning, and I said: ‘As your time on the board progresses, keep that in your mind. Keep that in the back of your mind, and I’ll keep reminding you of it.’
“And I followed her career on the Board of Governors, and when I would see her at Bar functions, I always went out of my way to remind her not to forget that, at some point, when the time was right, to take it to the next level. And then she did.”
Suskauer’s going the extra mile with Bar service while in private practice with her spouse made quite an impression on Blumberg. This meant Suskauer was not afraid of hard work.
“To serve on the Board of Governors requires at least 250 hours a year, maybe more, and in a small firm, there’s no backup of lawyers,” Blumberg said, adding the new Bar president is thankful to be a lawyer and views the practice of law as a privilege, not an automatic right.
“She’s one of these rare individuals that comes along every once in a while in life. They just have this great enthusiasm. Boundless energy. A real defined and refined sense of right and wrong.”
With that boundless enthusiasm and energy, Suskauer is ready to lead the 106,000 lawyers of The Florida Bar into the future with the hope of leaving the Bar in a better place.
“Tikkun olam,” she said. “That is to repair the world. And that is our obligation; to make it better. I feel that I have that obligation. I love being a part of something that’s bigger than me — that sense of community. That is what Bar work is for me.”
RAWAN BITAR is an associate editor at The Florida Bar Journal and News
Solo & Small Firms
Suskauer’s background as a longtime small-firm practitioner inspires her to consider how the Bar can assist solos and small firms to become more productive and profitable. For 18 years, she practiced with her husband at The Suskauer Law Firm. Now, she works in a firm with less than 10 lawyers. One of her major initiatives is to find ways for the Bar to help similarly situated lawyers with the business of law and their daily practices.
“I understand what it’s like to struggle, to be in court, to keep the lights on, to manage your practice, balance your family and your bar service, and all the stresses that come along with that. It’s difficult,” Suskauer says. “I feel like I’m balanced if I don’t completely fall apart at the end of the day. It’s a challenge, and I think it’s important for all of our members to know that I get it. I live it. I am that.”
Suskauer says there is a common misconception that all lawyers hail from big corporate law firms, but an overwhelming majority of Florida Bar members are small firm and solo practitioners. In fact, 76 percent of Florida Bar members practicing within the state operate at firms of 10 or less attorneys. It is with these members particularly in mind that the Bar will launch a new online, 24/7 resource portal — LegalFuel – The Practice Resource Center of The Florida Bar — at the 2018 Florida Bar Annual Convention, to help attorneys better manage the business of running a law firm. LegalFuel is an offshoot of the Bar’s former practice help site, the Practice Resource Institute, and offers a place for Florida attorneys and their staff to turn to for the latest news and resources on law office management and technology support for lawyers in real time, with experienced practice management advisors on stand-by to help online, by phone, or via email, free of charge.
LegalFuel will also be continuously updated throughout the year to feature a variety of recorded speaker series for one- to two-hour free CLEs on issues that affect solo and small practices, from using social media to how to bring in business, to learning new marketing tips and strategies.
“Our solo and small law firms are the backbone of the Bar,” Suskauer says. “And I know we can give members more tools to help them with the daily pressures they face in their law practices.”
Criminal Justice Summit
“The time is right for common-sense criminal justice reform,” Suskauer says. “This is something that’s very, very important to me.”
Suskauer says that Florida currently has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country and yet lacks proper funding and staffing resources. The result is a system based on punishment, as opposed to rehabilitation, which does nothing to reduce crime or recidivism.
This year the Bar will hold a Criminal Justice Summit, which will take place on October 16-17 in Tampa, with the goal of proposing legislation that can help bring reform.
A steering committee has already been assembled to formalize the program’s agenda, with members comprised of a wide cross section of experts including from the governor’s office, the legislature, the James Madison Institute, the Florida Public Defender Association, the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the circuit and county judges’ conferences, Right on Crime, and more.
This is the first time the Bar has taken a comprehensive approach to criminal justice reform, and the data shows there’s a lot to do. During the 2018 legislative session, time ran out before criminal justice reforms could be passed. Both progressives and conservatives identified the same issues, and Suskauer hopes the summit will help lawmakers move forward more swiftly during the next session of the Florida Legislature.
“I want to be able to bring stakeholders together that haven’t sat in a room before to be able to make real change. As a criminal defense lawyer, and a former government lawyer, I have worked within the criminal justice system my entire career,” Suskauer says, adding that she talked about possible legislative reforms with numerous attorneys in the criminal justice system during her campaign for Bar president. “I’m intimately aware of all sides of the issues that we face.”
Health & Wellness
Last year, the Special Committee on Mental Health and Wellness of Florida Lawyers was established, and during Suskauer’s term, it will be in its first year as a Florida Bar standing committee.
“A functioning justice system depends on functioning attorneys, which is why health and wellness will remain a top priority under my leadership,” Suskauer says.
The Bar is currently developing programs to prioritize health and wellness, while also destigmatizing the issue so members feel comfortable seeking the help they need.
“We need to continue the conversation so people are more comfortable seeking help,” the new Bar president says.
“This issue is critical to me, as it affects every lawyer, from the managing partner and the government lawyer, to the solo practitioner — no practice and practice area is immune. And it’s all over the state, whether it’s the most rural or the most urban. It’s something we can all relate to, which is why I’m thrilled that we’re going to continue to make mental health and wellness a priority.”
To have a successful work-life balance, the new Bar president long ago gave up the idea of perfection. “I don’t think that there’s any perfect anything. We do the best we can every day, and that needs to be good enough. That’s hard because of the type of people we, as lawyers, intrinsically are. We strive for perfection, and that can lead to a very unsatisfying life. I think we need to give ourselves a break — know that we are not always going to be perfect. We’re going to give it our best, and that has to be okay.”
Suskauer says the Bar will continue developing and investigating potential programs and member benefits, whether it’s wellness apps, wellbeing coaches, virtual counselors, free Bar CLEs or webinars, and a possible mental health crisis hotline. She says The Florida Bar could begin offering health and wellness programs at their meetings, such as yoga, exercise, and healthy food alternatives with the message that health and wellness must be part of our daily routine.
The committee will also continue to identify and address the mental health of Florida lawyers and create “best practices” on how to address those issues, develop new and innovative CLEs, and destigmatize mental illness in the legal community.
“There are lots of ways we can move this ball forward, but it’s not a one-year deal,” Suskauer says. “These issues have to stay at the forefront of our conversation.”
Biography of Michelle Suskauer
Partner at Dimond Kaplan & Rothstein P.A.
Dimond Kaplan & Rothstein P.A. (2018-present)
Suskauer Feuer LLC (2016-2017)
Suskauer Law Firm, P.A. (1997-2016)
Schuler, Wilkerson, Halvorson & Williams, P.A. (1994-1997)
Office of the Public Defender, 15th Judicial Circuit (1991-1994)
Professional and Civic Activities:
The Florida Bar
Board of Governors, 15th Judicial Circuit (2010-2017)
Disciplinary Review Committee, chair (2014-2016)
Communications Committee, chair (2013-2014)
Annual Convention Committee, chair (2012-2013)
Strategic Planning Committee (2013-present); chair (2017-2018)
Criminal Law Certification Committee (2002-2006)
Program Evaluation Committee
Disciplinary Review Committee
UPL Circuit Committee 15A, reviewer
15th Judicial Circuit Grievance Committee “G”
Board of Governors Liaison: Council of Sections, Criminal Law Section, Constitutional Judiciary
Special Committee on the Constitution Revision Commission
Fourth DCA JNC Screening Committee, chair
15th Circuit Nominating Committee, Pro Bono Service Award, chair
Screening Committee for Board of Governors Public Member
Nominating Committee Florida Bar Foundation
Florida Board of Bar Examiners Lawyer Vacancy Screening
Palm Beach County Bar Association
Past Chair Bench Bar Committee
Past Chair Criminal Practice Committee
Florida Association for Women Lawyers
President, Palm Beach County Chapter (2002-2003)
Created Breakfast and Books Mentoring Program for female juvenile offenders
Created “Adopt-A-Case” Program
Craig S. Barnard American Inns of Court
Past Programming chair
Palm Beach Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
Past Board member
American Bar Association
Florida Delegate, ABA House of Delegates (2017-present)
Pro Bono and Community Service:
Legal Aid Society Palm Beach County, president, board of directors
A.W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts Theater Parents Association, past vice president
Bak Middle School of the Arts Foundation, past vice chair
AV-rated by Martindale-Hubbell
2018 Mattie Belle Davis Award, FAWL, Miami-Dade County
2017 Woman of the Year, South Palm Beach County Women Lawyers Association
The Daily Business Review 2017 Top 10 Women in Law
Serving Justice Award, Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County
The Justice Barbara Pariente Award, FAWL, Palm Beach County
Leader in the Law, FAWL, Palm Beach County
2016 Women of Grace Award
Women in Power Award, National Conference of Jewish Women
Character Counts Award, School District, Palm Beach County
Florida Super Lawyers (2009-present)
Florida Legal Elite
Bar Register of Preeminent Women Lawyers
U.S. Supreme Court
Florida Supreme Court
U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida
U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida
U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina
Bachelor of Science, Communications, Boston University (1988)
Juris Doctor, The American University (1991)