Attorney at Law Magazine Miami publisher Rhenne Leon sat down with Michelle Suskauer of Kaplan & Rothstein P.A to discuss her career and her plans for the future in the 2018 Women in Law special issue.
Michelle Suskauer, the 2018 Woman Lawyer of the Year, became the 70th president of The Florida Bar in June. She is only the sixth woman to hold this position. A nationally recognized criminal defense attorney and legal analyst, she has more than 25 years of experience and has participated in hundreds of criminal trials, both jury and nonjury. Last year, she joined Dimond Kaplan & Rothstein P.A., a Miamibased firm representing clients in securities fraud, commercial litigation and criminal defense cases. She is married to Judge Scott Suskauer who presides over family law, personal injury and probate cases. Their two daughters are graduates of the Dreyfoos School of the Arts; one a student and one a recent graduate of Penn State’s musical theatre program.
AALM: What do you find rewarding about being an attorney? What do you find challenging about your practice and how do you overcome those challenges?
Michelle Suskauer: There’s a Jewish concept – Tikkun Olam – which means performing acts of kindness to repair the world. As an attorney, I have a responsibility to help those who are disadvantaged, to leave our community and our world better than when I found it. At the same time, practicing law has become more challenging. Although technology has assisted us in our practices in being more productive, we are also tethered to our phones, tablets and computers 24/7 which has caused increased stress in the profession. Although I am incredibly busy and getting busier, I try to take time to do things I enjoy – working out, baking and spending time with family and friends.
AALM: What was the beginning of your career like? How has it evolved over the years?
Michelle Suskauer: I began my career as an assistant public defender in Palm Beach County. On my first day of work, I met Scott Suskauer, who became an important mentor to me as well as my husband. In three years, I learned to try complex criminal cases. I helped my clients and their families through some very challenging circumstances to find creative solutions to difficult problems. After we married, we opened our own practice and worked together for 18 years until he was appointed to the circuit court in 2015.
AALM: Did you have any mentors? What is the best lesson they taught you?
Michelle Suskauer: My father, my aunt, my husband and Justice Barbara Pariente are some of my most important mentors. They taught me the importance of making meaningful connections, taking the initiative and being kind and compassionate. My father could talk to anyone, never came empty-handed and was an expert at follow up. My aunt Sherry Hyman, an attorney in Jupiter, urged me to join local voluntary bar associations and get involved in my legal community. Justice Pariente, a family friend, has always given me great ideas, energy and love. My husband, Scott, stresses the importance of being nice to everyone – courtroom staff, clerks, judicial assistants.
AALM: How welcoming do you think the South Florida legal community is to women practitioners? How do you personally try to help women following in your career path?
Michelle Suskauer: I will be the 70th president of The Florida Bar, but only the sixth woman to serve. When I was a young child, only 3 percent of lawyers in the United States were women. Now in Florida, 38 percent of attorneys are women, but we have a long way to go to achieve parity in pay and increase the number of equity and managing partners.
As president this year, it is my privilege and my commitment to lift others and make sure the door is opened for many more women so we lose count as to how many have been president of our Bar.
AALM: How supportive are fellow women practitioners? What’s the most important advice for women entering the legal profession?
Michelle Suskauer: Early in my career, I was encouraged to join the Florida Association for Women Lawyers, where I found a strong group of women who became a source of support and life-long friendships. The advice I give to new attorneys is find a mentor and get involved with a local bar association or community nonprofit. We have an obligation as attorneys to give back and get involved, both in our legal community and our community at large.
AALM: What challenges do you feel that as a woman you face that men don’t? Conversly, do you feel that being a woman gives you an advantage in your chosen career?
Michelle Suskauer: A recurring theme for me is being underestimated. That is a challenge and can be frustrating, but also gives me an advantage. As women, we are constantly trying to prove ourselves, working harder, and in turn, are harder on ourselves. We are judged by our appearances as well as our work product. That is a tremendous amount of pressure that women deal with daily. I do believe women have an advantage in legal careers. It comes more naturally for us to make connections.
AALM: How do you balance your home life and work life?
Michelle Suskauer: As a working mother, it has always been a challenge to try to “do it all.” I feel that I have truly balanced home and work when I don’t completely collapse at the end of the day! When my daughters were growing up, I was fortunate to be in partnership with my husband. It was exhausting, but we made it work. Women are so incredibly hard on themselves and I am no exception. We must reach out for help from our family, our friends, our community. The way I handle it is giving up the idea of perfection. It’s important to do the best that we can but occasionally just trying to do our best is enough.
AALM: Are you looking forward to being president of The Florida Bar and what changes do you hope to bring to Florida’s legal system as president?
Michelle Suskauer: I am a true “people person” and understand the importance of relationships and making connections both in the practice of law and in life. I am excited to travel around the state. Leading the 106,000-member Florida Bar provides opportunities to do what I love. The practice of law has changed, and the Bar is helping attorneys cope with the pressures of the profession by highlighting healthy ways to deal with stress. I am continuing that initiative. I believe in finding new and innovative ways to increase access to the courts for people who cannot afford attorneys. As the first former public defender to become president of The Florida Bar, I remain acutely aware of changes that need to be made in the criminal justice system. I am inviting all the various stakeholders to a summit in fall 2018. I hope we can find a way to propose meaningful reforms that can be enacted into legislation.