Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Lisa Walsh
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Lisa Walsh (AM Holt)

Debate has been very good to Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Lisa Walsh.

It took her to tournaments. It taught her to argue effectively. And it’s how she met her husband.

“We met in tournaments,” she said. “We competed against each other.”

Born in Miami Beach, Walsh said she started in debate in middle school and got recruited to join the Miami Beach High School team. She continued on that path in college, attending what was then the School of Speech at Northwestern University, expecting to continue on into law school.

“I always had a facility with public speaking and writing. So it was kind of a natural thing,” she said. “It seemed such a foregone conclusion to go to law school.”

Only she didn’t. Not right away anyway.

“I rebelled against it.”

Going to Northwestern wasn’t easy. Walsh had to work to pay her way through school.

“I had to take out loans. I was in work study. I worked as an R.A. to pay for room and board,” she said.

Walsh also started wondering if she should go to law school at all. So when she finished her undergraduate degree, “I really started thinking about it. ‘Maybe I should go to work and earn some money,’ ” she said.

“I went to work as a sales trainee in St. Louis for Kraft, heading on the MBA course and probably mid-level management in corporate America,” she said. “And I realized that it really wasn’t what I wanted.”

Law school, she realized, “really was what I wanted, not just a path that was laid out for me. It was really where I belonged, and I’ve never looked back.”

Walsh took the LSAT and worked for nearly a year to save money for law school “as a secretary and a waitress at night.”

She got into the University of Miami and moved back to South Florida to work on her law degree.

“I actually was always focused on being a trial lawyer,” she said. “I did an internship at the (Miami-Dade) public defender’s office and got hired there right out of law school as a trial lawyer.”

Four years later, she moved to the appellate division.

“It was the best decision I have ever made,” she said.

Walsh wound up handling about 300 appeals over the next eight years.

“It teaches you so much. Not just the substance of law, but it certainly teaches you how to research and write very quickly,” she said. “You end up with a broad understanding and a broad view of the law and the path that it’s traveling.

“You begin to understand what is going to be persuasive and what is not. You understand what are the motivating factors that are going to cause an appellate court to rule in your favor or not. It was really the best experience and education I ever had.”

In 2004, “I took that knowledge and opened my own law firm” handling civil appeals, she said.

Four years later, she was appointed to county court, and barely three years after that, she was elevated to the circuit bench.

National Leader

Walsh said the appellate experience shapes her perspective and how she handles cases.

“It’s very important to me that I stay within the lanes,” she said. “I know or I think I know how it is that I’m supposed to make decisions on certain issues. And I have an appreciation when I’m making the decision of what is the lens that I am going to be reviewed by. … I have an awareness of what the record looks like.”

Since taking the bench, she said, “I’m not a stickler for formality, but I’m orderly. I’m efficient. I’m practical. I hope I’m accessible.”

Walsh insists that “hearings are set adequately in advance so that no one is surprised or sandbagged at a hearing. I think it’s important as much as I can to try to be fair in the process so that one person’s right to be heard doesn’t trump another person’s right to be heard.”

She also has made it a point to impart her appellate experience to others.

“I kind of made it my mission to really work on teaching lawyers and teaching judges,” Walsh said. She holds a voir dire seminar “because the law on voir dire has currently gone through a big change. And if you make a mistake in voir dire, it’s a structural error in your trial. It would be such a waste of time, money, energy and judicial resources to have an unnecessary reversal.”

Her judicial teaching and learning has extended far beyond Florida. She has spoken on human trafficking in Chile and worked with judges from around the world as a member of the National Association of Women Judges.

In October, she’ll be sworn in as the group’s new president in time to head the National Association of Women Judges conference next May in Washington. It’s expected to attract 700 judges from around the world, including U.S. Supreme Court justices.