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Leadership Academy turns out ‘All-Star’ lawyers

Senior Editor Regular News

When Eugene Pettis became The Florida Bar’s first African-American president in 2013, he offered the promise of inclusion to lawyers willing to meet him halfway. Instead of sitting on the sidelines, lawyers who asked to become involved would receive help building leadership skills to use in the Bar and in their communities.

His brainchild was called the Wm. Reece Smith, Jr. Leadership Academy, named after the late chair emeritus of Carlton Fields, and its aim is to train future leaders of the Bar and the profession, with the motto: “Training Today, Leading Tomorrow.”

In December, it will be time to apply to be part of Class VI, and information is available at

 Wm. Reece Smith, Jr. Leadership Academy Currently, 30 fellows make up Class V, and they recently met at the Renaissance Orlando at SeaWorld, learning everything from Roberts Rules of Order to the DiSC assessment of personality traits.
They join the stellar ranks of previous Leadership Academy graduates that include Fabienne Fahnestock, a 17th Circuit judge; Vivian Cortes Hodz, immediate past president of the Tampa Hispanic Bar Association; Jay Kim, a member of the Bar Board of Governors from the 17th Circuit; Melissa VanSickle, a member of the Bar Board of Governors from the Second Circuit; Nikki Lewis Simon, a shareholder at Greenberg Traurig who is president of the Gwen S. Cherry Black Women Lawyers Association; and Meshon Rawls, president of the Eighth Circuit Bar Association — to name just a few.

“The fellows you meet are complete All-Stars,” said Leadership Academy Committee Chair Kevin McNeill, who has been a committee member since the beginning.

“The people who apply and are accepted are not all Type-A personalities. But they are all goal-oriented and have a desire to help their local communities and have the ability to galvanize others and work on getting projects completed, whether at their jobs or in the community. They are doers.”

Academy of Doers

Leadership Academy flings doers in a roomful of other doers.

“They get to know each other, exchange ideas, and form relationships that help one another achieve greater success,” he said.

Add in getting to know the Bar president and other leaders on first-name bases, and it’s an opportunity, McNeill said, “to maximize the gifts they already have.”

When McNeill first talked to Pettis four years ago, there were already initiatives underway to improve diversity.

“But diversity without inclusion is nothing but a numbers game. The Leadership Academy is taking diversity and helping those fellows who are already stellar by putting them in a position where they can take advantage of opportunities to be leaders in The Florida Bar. That is where inclusion comes into play,” McNeill said.

‘All I Did Was Pay My Dues’

Meshon Rawls admits there was a time as a lawyer when “all I did was pay my dues.”

After becoming a certified legal intern in 1998, she became an assistant public defender in the Eighth Circuit, with a huge caseload. Two years later, she got married, inheriting four kids. At age 27, she was focused on being a good mom, a good wife, and a good lawyer.

“I didn’t have time to try to figure out The Florida Bar,” Rawls said.

In 2006, she got a job at the University of Florida Levin College of Law, as a legal skills professor and director of Gator TeamChild Juvenile Law Clinic, where the previous director told her, “almost like a command: ‘Get involved in the Bar’s Legal Needs of Children Committee.’”

That turned out to be great advice. She was able to network with other child legal advocates. She started out joining the Bar’s Public Interest Law Section in 2006, observing the children’s legal committee until joining in 2009.

After listening to President Pettis talk about the Leadership Academy, she decided to apply for Class II and was chosen in 2014.

“The Florida Bar was foreign to me. I didn’t know how I could be utilized. No one ever encouraged me to be involved, beyond the Legal Needs of Children Committee,” Rawls said.

“Mr. Pettis said, ‘We can include people, but if you have inclusion that’s not backed by opportunity, that means nothing.’ For me, that really stuck. I already knew my talents and skills were not being utilized to the fullest extent. For me, it said, ‘You are included at the table.’ And when an opportunity comes, instead of stepping back, I stepped up.”

A self-described introvert, Rawls said she no longer allows opportunities to pass her by. Besides a long list of involvement with her church and child advocacy, Rawls is the new president of the Eighth Circuit Bar Association.

At The Florida Bar, she is a member of the Voluntary Bar Liaison Committee and the Juvenile Law Board Certification Committee.

“Now I feel ownership as part of the Bar. I feel a responsibility to do things, not just in my community, but be a leader for other people and to be an example for others. In the smaller circuits, we don’t get that much exposure and opportunities. By giving us those opportunities, our opinions are solicited. We are included when big decisions have to be made,” Rawls said.

“Now I appreciate the profession. I see the profession is much bigger than the area of law I practice in. In that one year of Leadership Academy, every meeting was about me learning more about myself. I learned I had so much more value than I was giving myself. My ideas are valued and appreciated,” Rawls said.

Bitten by the ‘Bar Junkie Bug’

For Vivian Cortes Hodz, a partner at Cortes Hodz Family Law and Mediation, a three-lawyer firm in Tampa, the Bar “just wasn’t on my radar. I was very local-focused. I had my own law office. I was focused on meeting people in my area. I didn’t realize everything The Florida Bar did for me as an attorney. I wasn’t engaged.”

When she applied to be a fellow in Class II of the Leadership Academy, she was a lawyer with a dozen years of experience.

“One of the things the Leadership Academy really pushed was applying for being on a Bar committee. They encouraged us to do that, they told us who to contact, and they put in a good word,” she said.

She was appointed to the Bar’s Voluntary Bar Liaison Committee, and is now vice chair.

After being more and more engaged in the “Big Bar,” while president of the Tampa Hispanic Bar in 2016, she traveled to the National Conference of Bar Presidents. Immediate Past Bar President Bill Schifino made a special appointment to let her be an ex officio member of the Board of Governors during his term.

Now she’s inspired to achieve her project in the works: the creation of a statewide Hispanic bar association. And she credits the Leadership Academy with giving her a huge professional boost.

“I have become so much more engaged in my profession.. . . It’s more than my clients. I have gotten a more well-rounded approach to life as an attorney and everything it means,” Cortes Hodz said. “Leadership Academy was a stepping stone for other opportunities. Now I know all of these Board of Governors members. I get referrals, and it helps my business. Really, it’s meeting like-minded people. I am very comfortable with other Bar leaders because they are wired like I am.”

She agrees it is not easy to become engaged in Bar work, if you are not invited and encouraged.

“I have been bitten by the Bar junkie bug,” Cortes Hodz said. “And once bitten, you meet people, and the more people you meet, it kind of snowballs. Then you get so many opportunities.”

You Don’t Tell Eugene ‘No’

LaShawnda Jackson has served on the Leadership Academy Committee from the beginning.

“Of course, knowing Eugene, you don’t tell Eugene ‘no.’ I have totally grown to love the program. The fellows all think they are the best class. They create this bond. They network and help each other out.”

She believes the Leadership Academy should be a permanent offering of the Bar.

“It was created five years ago, and we are still getting lots of applications,” said Jackson, who also serves on the Bar’s Code & Rules of Evidence Committee.

“This is something people need and want. If you go to a Leadership Academy graduation, it will be quite evident that these people are proud of what they have done and what they are going to be doing in their communities. We are seeing more younger lawyers now are going to Florida Bar committees and voluntary bar organizations and becoming leaders.”

Pauline Drake, the first black judge appointed in Duval County in 1998, introduced Hubert L. Grimes, interim president of Bethune Cookman University, at the Leadership Academy’s second session in August.

Drake, a member of the Leadership Academy Committee, calls herself “an informal facilitator. If someone is presenting a program, I will ask those questions to stimulate further communication and ask questions that give others freedom to share. The fellows think, ‘If Judge Drake is transparent, it must be OK.’”

Participating in Leadership Academy, Judge Drake said, forces fellows to ask themselves: “Why am I here? Am I doing this simply for name recognition? To simply receive a plaque? Or am I doing this because I want to affect positive change?. . . You have to have a servant attitude. You have to be able to learn how to be a leader. And what makes you effective is service to other individuals.

“I have had the privilege of watching young lawyers gain confidence and move forward.”

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