It’s been more than a year since the controversial idea of allowing out-of-state lawyers to practice in Florida was voted down by the Florida Bar board of governors — but the issue is still divisive in the race for bar president.

Both candidates for the 2018-19 presidency say they opposed reciprocity, a system in which lawyers from other states could practice in Florida without passing the state bar exam in exchange for the same privilege for Florida lawyers. But because candidate Lanse Scriven was tasked with presenting the idea to bar members, some are choosing to back his opponent, Michelle Suskauer.

“As a member of the board of governors, I have seen firsthand Michelle’s tireless work on the board,” Miami attorney Jack Hickey said in an endorsement of Suskauer. “And perhaps as importantly to all of us, Michelle took an early, public and strong stance last year against reciprocity.”

Scriven, a commercial litigator with the Tampa firm Trenam who serves on the board alongside Suskauer, was in charge of the bar admissions subgroup of the Vision 2016 commission, which studied the future of the legal practice in Florida. But he wasn’t on the subgroup committee that recommended the bar consider a reciprocity rule.

“I was the messenger,” he said. “I am not a proponent of reciprocity in bar admissions. When the board of governors considered whether Florida should consider adopting reciprocity in 2015, I was among the board of governors members who voted unanimously against any further consideration of the issue. Nothing has changed for me.”

Scriven did make some public statements that seemed to defend the idea, telling the Florida Bar News in 2014 that the fear of reciprocity flooding the Florida legal market with competitors was a “myth that we as the board need to help our members understand,” adding that territorial restrictions are not as important as they used to be.

Suskauer, a West Palm Beach criminal defense attorney with two-member firm Suskauer Feuer, said the issue comes up frequently as she travels around the state.

“If it’s not the top question I’m asked, it’s in the top three: What was your position on reciprocity?” she said. “It was probably one of the most divisive issues that we’ve seen … I think it was a very bad idea for Florida lawyers, Florida law firms and for the consumer.”

The two candidates seeking election in March each have broad support from Florida lawyers, including many past bar presidents. Scriven and Suskauer have served together on the board of governors since 2010, and Scriven touts support from all five past presidents from that time period who are eligible to endorse a candidate. Those are Ramon Abadin, Eugene Pettis, Gwynne Young, Scott Hawkins and Mayanne Downs. Five other past presidents also endorse Scriven.

“He has a wealth of experience, strong character and is committed to serving the interests of lawyers in The Florida Bar,” Pettis said in an endorsement. “I know what it takes to get this job done, and I have concluded that Lanse is the most qualified to lead the bar at this time in our history.”

Thirteen past presidents including Tod Aronovitz, Herman Russomanno, Edith Osman, Howard Coker, Steve Zack and Gerald Richman back Suskauer.

The candidates, while both popular, differ in some of their priorities and experiences.

Scriven is a longtime litigator who has practiced on his own, in a large Florida firm and in a Florida office of the national firm Quarles & Brady. He would be the second black president of the Florida Bar if elected, and in addition to his service on the board of governors, he has been president of the Hillsborough County Bar Association, the Florida chapter of the National Bar Association and the George Edgecomb Bar Association.

Scriven would also bring geographic diversity to the bar presidency, which by the end of President-elect Michael Higer’s term in 2018 will have seen only one president in five years from outside South Florida. (That’s current Florida Bar President Bill Schifino of Tampa.)

Scriven’s top priority is helping lawyers deal with increased competition in the marketplace through technology training and better communication with consumers about the specialized services bar members offer. He is also devoted to inclusion of diverse voices in important decisions that affect Florida lawyers.

“In any large organization, it is sometimes easy to mistake ‘talk’ for progress,” Scriven said. “As an example, we should identify, and then implement, best practices used by statewide voluntary bars to promote members who seek leadership positions, including nominees for judicial nominating commissions, the judiciary and Florida Bar appointments.”

Both candidates said they aim to work with soon-to-be-appointed members of Florida’s Constitution Revision Commission to try to help preserve the independence of the judiciary.

Suskauer said she is a consensus builder who has shown her ability to “bring folks from diverse backgrounds [and] different sides of the aisle to the table.”

She has led the Palm Beach County Bar Association and the Palm Beach County Chapter of the Florida Association for Women Lawyers, and she is president-elect of the board of directors of the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County.

Suskauer believes quality of life is one of the biggest issues facing Florida lawyers, and she said she is committed to destigmatizing the stress attorneys feel being available at all hours via mobile devices. She believes her experience balancing a demanding practice, bar work and a family will help her support members of the bar.

“We have had many commercial litigators in the last several years who have been leaders of our bar and have done a wonderful job, but we have had only one criminal trial lawyer ever to be president of the bar,” she said. “And we’ve had very few small-firm practitioners.”

Suskauer wants to help support graduates of Florida’s 12 law schools who find themselves unemployed or underemployed, fight for a better-funded judiciary and promote access to justice.

The winner of the election will become president-elect in June 2017 and will begin serving as president in June 2018.

Contact Celia Ampel at campel@alm.com. On Twitter: @CeliaAmpel

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