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Panel explores challenges facing women lawyers

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Program panelists

OUTGOING PRESIDENT Michelle Suskauer moderated “How She Did It: unCONVENTIONal Paths to Leadership” at the Annual Convention. From the left are State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried, Judge Krista Marx, Justice Barbara Lagoa, Suskauer, Judge Patricia Seitz, State Attorney Amira Fox, and Judge Nina Ashenafi-Richardson.

A panel of prominent women lawyers gathered at the Bar’s Annual Convention in Boca Raton to exchange stories and talk about the challenges they faced along the way.

Outgoing Florida Bar President Michelle Suskauer moderated the program, “How She Did It: unCONVENTIONal Paths to Leadership,” and led the participants in discussing ways to overcome professional obstacles, rise above challenges, and create better work/life balance.

Senior U.S. District Judge Pat Seitz, the first woman to serve as president of The Florida Bar in 1993-94, said much has changed since she became a lawyer nearly 50 years ago. She recalled that it seemed that there were only a “handful of women” in the profession at the time, and the only women working at her firm were the secretaries. “They weren’t too sure they wanted to work for a woman.”

So, Seitz said, she set about winning them over.

“I learned they knew a lot more than I did as a baby lawyer, so I glommed onto them as my first teachers, because I was not embarrassed to ask them questions,” Seitz said. “They took me on as their little child and made sure that I always looked good.”

Seitz said if you don’t know what you are doing, act like you do “and find somebody to teach you, because everybody likes to help somebody become better.”

Fifteenth Circuit Chief Judge Krista Marx told the attendees not to be afraid to fail.

“If you sit back and you watch and you dream and don’t do anything about it, you are not going to realize your dreams,” Marx said. “You are not going to win each and every battle, but if you don’t ever try, you sure aren’t.”

Marx encouraged the attendees to “be brave” and not to always take the safe route. And when you encounter adversity or failure, how you respond is the “true measure” of you as a person, Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara Lagoa added.

“If you are able to adapt and realize that failure is not fail, it is just a course adjustment and how you get to the next step, other opportunities will come along,”  Lagoa said.

Twentieth Circuit State Attorney Amira Fox discussed what it was like to run a political campaign after spending years working as a lawyer. While she knew it would be hard, she was surprised by the negativity involved and the attacks on her and her family.

“The lessons that I learned were exactly what everyone up here is saying, which is you better always be very strong,” Fox said. “You really have to be made of steel to enter into the political arena.”

Seitz agreed, saying when she decided to run for Bar president, she had to overcome the perception that a woman was not up to the task of leading the state’s lawyers.

“They didn’t think a woman could do it, didn’t think we could deal with the Legislature, that we could administer the discipline,” said Seitz, noting she feared that if she failed, she would be “messing it up” for all the women that would come after her.

Seitz said she was also not prepared for the negative feedback that came from other women.

“I was either not feminist enough, had not come up through FAWL, or I was too feminist,” Seitz said. “You begin to learn that, ‘Hey, you have to be yourself.’”

Katherine Fernandez Rundle, the Miami-Dade state attorney who worked for and then succeeded Janet Reno when she became U.S. attorney general during the Clinton administration, said she also heard criticisms about her age and looks.

Now returned to office seven times, Rundle said political campaigns are tough and can be “grotesque” as opponents work to change the narrative of who you are, what you believe in, and even go so far as to attack your children.

“That was really the hardest part,” she said.

Leon County Judge Nina Ashenafi-Richardson, the first Ethiopian-born person to serve as a judge in the United States, said she was also told not to run for a variety of reasons, such as she looked different, her name was hard to pronounce, she was from somewhere else, and it was perceived that she would be “soft on crime.”

“Dare to dream even if someone says to you that you are not going to make it,” Ashenafi-Richardson said.

Ashenafi-Richardson also reminded participants that as lawyers, “we are a small percentage of affluence” and need “to use our knowledge and experience” to make a difference.

Nikki Fried, a member of the Bar’s Young Lawyers Division who was recently elected Florida’s first woman Commissioner of Agriculture, said she went to law school to make a difference, and after eight years of work in the civil and criminal arenas and a stint in government consulting, she was “not finding my passion.”

“I went up to Tallahassee and walked the halls trying to fight for things that make a difference for children in the foster care system, public education, and expansion of medical marijuana, and every step along the way felt door were being closed. I got frustrated with the process and I said, ‘Well, I’m just going to run for office.’”

She said it was a challenge from the get-go, and she had to overcome lots of questions, not the least of which was why was a “Jewish female from Miami” running for Commissioner of Agriculture?

“I kept trying to remind everybody its Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services,” Fried said. “Now my clients ares the ag community and the [people of the] state of Florida.

“We, as women, sometimes have to overcome some obstacles along the way, but the most important thing to understand is that you have the strength to do it,” Fried said. “Sometimes you just have to put yourself out there, raise your hand, and try to make a difference. Nobody ever should steer you away from your passion and drive and direction you are trying to move in.”

Marx also said it is not a weakness to ask for help.

“I think in our society, particularly strong women, we have come to believe we have to do it all on our own,” Marx said. “We have a really hard time even asking people we love to do us a favor. It took me decades to figure out that there is not weakness in saying, ‘I need a hand here.’”

All the panelists agreed, saying they rely on the support of friends and family to help them along the way.

Ashenafi-Richardson said it’s also important not to take your time or health for granted.

“Make sure that your life mirrors what is important to you,” she said. “Don’t do something just because you don’t know how to say no.”

Ashenafi-Richardson said there are times when you need to prioritize yourself.

“Live a life of joy,” Ashenafi-Richardson said. “If you are not joyful, change your life.”