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Some might wonder why Terry Russell would want to become president of the Florida Bar so badly. Serving as president involves a backbreaking schedule that requires traveling constantly around the state. Leaders of the Bar are not terribly popular with business leaders or state officials. And the job doesn’t pay a dime. Still, Bar President-elect Terry Russell, who starts today as 53rd president of the Bar, will only say that he relishes the challenge. “We certainly did not face the challenges [in 1991] that we face today,” says Russell, who ran for president in 1991 and lost by 256 votes. “[Being president then] would’ve been nothing like this. But I’ve never been more excited about anything in my life.” Sitting in his corner office at Ruden McClosky Smith Schuster & Russell in Fort Lauderdale, the burly, mustachioed Russell, 56, muses that in another era, he might have had the luxury of setting the agenda for the 70,000-member Bar. But in the year ahead, he knows others will largely define his agenda. His main task will be to stave off renewed attacks on the Bar and the judiciary by a Republican-dominated Legislature that tried to strip the Bar earlier this year of its attorney discipline and regulatory powers. The Legislature also tried to take control of the Bar’s budget and make it a voluntary organization — no longer a part of the Florida Supreme Court with mandatory membership — that would have effectively killed it. True, Russell will be working with the same conservative crop of Republican legislators who dealt a major setback to the Bar this year by giving Gov. Jeb Bush the power to appoint all members of the state’s 26 judicial nominating commissions. The Florida Bar lost its power to appoint three members of each JNC, though it retains power to recommend four members of each panel to the governor. Conservatives who pushed for the JNC changes, in tandem with the Christian Coalition of Florida and the Florida Chamber of Commerce, say they hope the overhaul will result in more conservative judges being appointed to the bench. The concept of appointing people to the bench to achieve specific political results deeply worries many attorneys, judges and political leaders around the state. “Eliminating the erosion of the judicial system’s independence is going to be our No. 1 priority,” Russell says, “because it has to be.” Russell, a registered independent who says he’s a Democrat at heart, promises that his approach to the Legislature will be amicable and cooperative, not partisan and confrontational, in hopes of forging partnerships in the GOP. Carl Schuster, the managing partner at Ruden McClosky, says Russell is politically astute and naturally inclined toward consensus-building. “His approach has always been very calm and studied,” Schuster says. “He doesn’t panic, he’s no bull in a china shop.” But Russell’s magnanimity is likely to be tested in the months ahead. State Rep. Fred Brummer, R-Apopka, is an outspoken critic of the legal profession and the courts who wants to end the Bar’s role in judicial selection and judicial discipline. “It’ll be a struggle to try and return the people’s courts to the people,” Brummer says of the next legislative session. Still, Richard McFarlain, who previously served as the Bar’s chief lobbyist and who now serves as general counsel of Florida State University, says the timing may be good for a collaborative approach. “I think the fierceness has gone out of [the Legislature],” McFarlain says. “There will always be people who don’t like lawyers or organized bar associations, but I don’t think the vast majority of the Legislature is going to get too excited about these issues. Alan Dimond, a past Bar president and a principal shareholder at Greenberg Traurig in Miami, disagrees. Dimond, who defeated Russell for Bar president in 1991, says that the conservatives’ victory on the JNC issue has instilled the Bar’s foes with new fervor. “In terms of dealing with the Legislature, a tough job got tougher,” he says. Russell isn’t fazed, although he seems less than enthusiastic about the president’s role of Bar media representative. Russomanno says one of a president’s chief duties is to reach out to the news media to communicate to the public when the independence of the judiciary is being threatened. But Russell doesn’t seem comfortable being interviewed, answering with clipped responses in a polite but distant tone. One comes away sensing that Russell plans to score his victories in Tallahassee back rooms, not from the bully pulpit. Russell anticipates that one of his big problems is going to be getting the public focused on Bar and judicial issues. Most people, he says, are far more concerned about issues like education, health care and election reform. “The independence of the judiciary is way below their radar,” he laments. Russell hopes to dampen the anti-Bar and anti-judiciary mood by promoting projects that he thinks could win bipartisan support, such as a legal assistance fund for civil litigants who can’t afford a lawyer. Russell says the lack of access to legal counsel has fueled the growth of self-representation in divorces, tenant-landlord disputes and immigration cases, and often led to unfavorable outcomes. First District Court of Appeal Judge William Van Nortwick, whom Russell named chairman of an upcoming task force in Naples on legal access, says enabling the middle class and poor to afford legal services is a passionate goal for Russell. “His presidency will point the Bar back to its public service roots,” Van Nortwick says. The Legislature, Russell observes, has long complained that the Bar was never proactive in creating programs. “So I’m going to take them up on it this year by asking them for $10 million,” he says. McFarlain says Russell can stack the odds in his favor by identifying funding sources beforehand. “I’ve learned over the years you don’t go cap in hand and ask for money,” McFarlain says. “They’ll say, ‘Fine, but where will you get money to pay for it?’ “ Russell also wants to establish resources to help small and midsize firms, including sole practitioners, keep up with technological advances. He also intends to take hard stands against the unlicensed practice of law by paralegals and attorneys splitting legal fees with nonlawyers in multidisciplinary practices. He considers that an “erosion of traditional attorney-client relationships.” Rather than having lawyers partner with nonlawyers, he wants to ease the way for law firms to launch ancillary businesses to provide a wider range of services to clients, which his own firm has done. Russell traces his interest in the law to his involvement in the legal system when he was 16 and witnessed a crime. He was pumping gas at his father’s Shell service station in Jacksonville, Fla., when a middle-aged white man pulled in with an apprehensive-looking black girl in the passenger seat. That was an unusual sight in Jacksonville in the 1960s. Russell accepted a check for payment and wrote down the tag number of the car. The police investigated and filed assault charges against the man. Russell testified at the man’s criminal trial. Enthralled by that courtroom experience, Russell resolved to practice law. After graduating from the University of Florida in 1966, he enrolled in the inaugural law school class at Florida State University and graduated in 1968. A dean there arranged for him to clerk for U.S. District Judge William O. Mehrtens in Miami, an experience that steered young Russell toward litigation. In 1970, Russell joined a four-lawyer firm that gradually grew into Ruden McClosky Smith Schuster & Russell, now with nearly 200 lawyers. Russell, a commercial litigator whose clients include General Motors and Humana, got involved in organized bar activities after partner Carl Schuster lamented the firm’s lack of involvement in professional organizations. Rising to the bait, Russell became active in the Broward County Bar Association, the American Bar Association, the Broward County Trial Lawyers Association, the American Board of Trial Advocates, and the Board of Governors of Nova Southeastern University’s law school. Russell once came to Nova’s rescue, fighting in court to preserve $14.5 million bequeathed to the fledgling law school. Outgoing President Herman Russomanno says he’s confident that Russell’s extensive involvement in bar organizations will give him a good compass to guide the Florida Bar through the difficult times ahead. “I can’t think of anyone I’d rather be succeeded by than Terry,” Russomanno says. Dimond says Bar foes shouldn’t underestimate the political skills Russell has honed in two decades of organized bar activity. “Terry knows the players and he knows the issues, and I think he’s got a good sense of proportion,” Dimond says. “The question is, can he find the votes he needs to protect our system of administering justice?”

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