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Florida Bar Leadership Academy Class VIII: The Experience of the ‘Pandemic Class’

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Florida Bar Leadership Academy Class VIII: The Experience of the ‘Pandemic Class’

'It was a challenging year, but Class VIII rose to the challenge in the most appropriate pandemic way and created podcasts that have informed and educated individuals worldwide about pressing legal issues'

The Florida Bar Leadership Academy is composed of some of the brightest leaders around the state who go through a rigorous vetting process. Those selected become part of a class focused on enhancing the skills of a diverse and inclusive group of lawyers to help them become effective leaders throughout the Bar, our profession, and the greater community.

I recall learning I was accepted into this prestigious group. I knew people who had gone through the program before who spoke about their experiences in such high regard. I was thrilled at the opportunity to join like-minded people from across the state to become better leaders. Thoughts rushed through my head about meeting in different cities, bonding with my new classmates, and seeing what The Florida Bar had to offer to help us reach our leadership goals.

And then the pandemic happened. Was there going to be a Class VIII? How would we meet? So many questions up in the air. However, through all the turmoil and uncertainty there was always one guiding light, Arnell Bryant-Willis, the Bar’s staff liaison to the Leadership Academy. “Ms. Arnell,” as she is affectionately known, was a calming voice throughout our year. As a class, many of us made the decision to stay on, knowing our experience would be virtual and be different.

I recall our ice-breaker meeting. Instead of meeting in the warm Tampa weather, boarding a pirate ship and sailing around the Bay getting to meet each other and create those bonds that we had all heard about from prior classes, we met on a screen. A checkerboard of leaders sharing little facts about themselves in an effort to try and forge those bonds we had anticipated. Month after month we met on that screen. The programs were well thought out with shifting from in-person to Zoom meetings. We had the benefit of hearing from amazing Bar leaders from across the state, including Dori Foster-Morales, Mike Tanner, the Judge Mary Scriven, Lance Scriven, Nick Shannin, and the justices of the Florida Supreme Court.

Limited Liability LeadershipWith each meeting we began to see our classmates’ personalities come through the screen. Personal chats would occur when we realized we were from the same area or had a friend in common. Our class created a Facebook Page and private chat group to keep up with everyone’s accolades and achievements. As Wilson Elser commercial litigator Leia Leitner puts it, “While Class VIII’s programming may have been disrupted by the unexpected challenges from the pandemic, we stayed the course by coming together, virtually.  We participated in virtual happy hours, book club, and conducted small leadership meetings, including the incredible Clay Shaw of the Bar’s staff, to ensure that our class project podcast, “Limited Liability Leadership Academy” was finished before our year ended. For those reasons, I felt special to be part of Class VIII.  Even though it was not a “normal year,” I would not trade this experience for anything as I have met the most amazing people in Class VIII.”

Our Class Project was our crowning achievement. It consisted of creating and recording a Podcast from start to finish, which helped to bring everyone’s ideas and talents together. As 13th Circuit Senior Staff Attorney Lyndsey Siara stated, “While the pandemic certainly presented challenges for Class VIII, it turned out to be a valuable teaching tool, forcing us to learn how to adjust, think creatively, refocus our goals, and work together under unusual circumstances — all qualities that great leaders must possess. From creating a podcast to adding new elements to the LA program through our book/podcast club, Class VIII met our pandemic challenges with creativity and innovation. Our circumstances forced us to think outside the box when formulating our class project, and what resulted was something that has the personal stamp of every member of our class. Class VIII is a stronger group of leaders — both individually and as a group — because we were ‘the pandemic class,’ fulfilling the Leadership Academy’s mission of helping us to become better leaders.”

Even though we all came together and created an amazing podcast, we still wondered if we would ever get the opportunity to meet face-to-face. Fortunately, that time finally came during last year’s Annual Bar Convention.  Even though we had seen each other all those times on the screen, we were finally going to meet each other in person. It felt like the first day of school after summer break. I recall meeting all my classmates and picking up as if we had known each other for years. Through Zoom, Facebook, and our Class Project we had genuinely created amazing bonds with each other. However, the physical interaction and in-person conversation was something we all enjoyed and needed.

I think Assistant U.S. Attorney Randy Katz puts it great, “It was a challenging year, but Class VIII rose to the challenge in the most appropriate pandemic way and created podcasts that have informed and educated individuals worldwide about pressing legal issues.  I am proud to be part of such an amazing group of people. We were able to come together and make the most of the experience. To me, that is what leadership is about — doing the best with the resources you have.”

David Thompson is a trial attorney with Coker Law in Jacksonville.

(Editor’s Note: The deadline to apply for the 2022-2023 Wm. Reece Smith, Jr., Leadership Academy Class X has been extended to February 11. The Leadership Academy is open to all Florida Bar members who are in good standing. In an effort to achieve diversity among the participants, qualified individuals will be sought from different backgrounds, large and small law firms, the private and public sectors, different practice areas, and different geographical areas of the state.)

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