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Karen A. Gievers’ crusade to reform Florida’s foster care system began humbly in 1989, when she was wondering where to contribute the 20 hours of pro bono work that the state bar recommended each Florida lawyer donate annually. Mel Martinez — now housing and urban development secretary in the Bush administration, then president of the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers — urged academy members to help neglected and abused children. She complied and was assigned to represent six siblings who had spent years in foster care without finding homes, even though state and federal law calls for placement within 12 months. Gievers relates the story matter-of-factly, with a seasoned trial lawyer’s ability to use understatement to launch a zinger. “When I talked to the department’s attorney, he told me, ‘If you don’t like it, sue us,’ ” she says. “ To some, that might have been a deterrent.” 1,800 HOURS Gievers estimates she has logged more than 1,800 pro bono hours since June 2000 on a class action, in which she heads a team of 21 lawyers, suing the state on behalf of teen-agers in foster care. The case is a recently filed reprise of one that she thought she had, in effect, won in 1995. It promises to add many hours to the total. “You take one little step and then the next logical step, then another,” she says of her contribution of time. “And you look at where you were, A, and where you are now, B, and sometimes it’s just amazing.” She sounds not in the least amazed. It’s a good description for a career that today finds her regularly described as one of the nation’s most effective child advocates, a powerful lobbyist and a commercial and personal injury litigator able to command top rates. One hometown newspaper, the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Sun-Sentinel, put it this way: Gievers is the name that “surfaces virtually every time you read about some godawful fate dealt a foster child. She’s the outraged voice you hear when another rape, another beating, another death makes the news.” Gievers, 52, got to this point from a childhood she describes as pure Ozzie-and-Harriet, in the Los Angeles suburb of Culver City, Calif. She quit UCLA in her first semester to marry Joe Gievers, a flight engineer, with whom she moved to Florida and had two children. She says that in the early 1970s, she was “just your standard homemaker.” That’s not quite right. When her bosses at Sears Roebuck tried to fire her from her customer service job because of her pregnancy, she took on corporate management and won. When she decided to resume her education, she earned a bachelor’s degree in economics at Florida International University and a law degree from the University of Miami in a mere five years. She planned to specialize in tax law but found that boring. Soon afterwards, she decided that it was a good deal more satisfying to sue insurance companies than to represent them. As a soon-to-be partner at the personal injury firm then known as Anderson & Moss, Gievers found no earlier generation of women to emulate. She describes one senior partner’s “Southern Baptist” style as a poor fit. “To start with, he was a good foot taller,” says Gievers, who is 5 feet 2 inches tall. “I couldn’t preach at the jury. But I found I could talk to them, just talk, like I did in my first real job at a Swedish smorgasbord.” THE BULLDOG Colleagues describe her early style less benignly, using words like “bulldog” and “take no prisoners” for the early years, and “clinical” for the mellower version that developed over time. Also, over time, she came to value minimalism. She often doesn’t depose defendants’ experts, preferring to impeach them on the stand via their publications. And she consciously rations objections during trial. “Jurors come in after watching ‘court cases’ on TV, and you have to make it simple,” she says. “They think we should be able to dispose of the issues fast enough to do four in an hour, including commercials.” It works. Her largest verdict, $12 million, came in an obstetrical malpractice suit that other lawyers had turned down as too costly to pursue. A recent $4.4 million win against the state came in a similarly referred case. Starting in 1987, Gievers admits, she had more time to devote to lawyering than was healthy. That’s the year a teen-age driver hit and killed her husband of 18 years as he was cycling. Their children were 14 and 16, and she says that as soon as they were off to college, she spent even more time in the office. By then she ran a solo practice, having tried and discarded working with a mix of partners and associates. Her personal tragedy led to lobbying on behalf of safe-driving legislation; she founded a group, Operation SafeDrive, that takes drivers’ education projects into the schools. TRIAL LAWYER By 1990, Gievers was installed as the first woman president of the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers. She billed at the impressive rate of $300 per hour, when she wasn’t donating her time. When Gov. Lawton Chiles and his cabinet tried to balance the state budget with cuts that included a volunteer guardian ad litem program for children, she objected on the ground that it was an unconstitutional intrusion on the Legislature’s authority. The Florida Supreme Court agreed, 6-1. Although being tagged a trial lawyer — or, worse still, a liberal trial lawyer — is an albatross in Florida politics, Gievers made a decent showing when she ran for insurance commissioner in 1994 and secretary of state in 1998. Of her loss to Katherine Harris in the latter race, she allows a little emotion in her voice. “It was so close,” she says. (She pulled 46 percent of the vote in the runoff.) One of the commercials in the race tagged Gievers as a “liberal who led an extremist group, to an ultra-feminist agenda.” Gievers says that she prefers being called progressive, and that fiscally she’s “as conservative as they come.” Regarding the rest, she pleads ignorance. “I was a member of the Girl Scouts,” she says. Today she estimates that she spends 75 percent to 80 percent of her time on foster care cases. Some of these cases are pro bono. Others are personal injury actions for which she charges a standard contingency fee. Slightly more than half her time is donated. She found someone to whom she can comfortably delegate some duties: Her paralegal is a former client, Frank Bach, a widower whom she represented in a medical malpractice case. They were married in 1997. She moved her home and practice from Miami to Tallahassee, Fla., the following year. Gievers uses the word “blessed” when talking about her life these days. She manages to seem realistic rather than giddy when she says that since “none of us knows how long we have on this planet.” She and her husband celebrate their anniversary every Sunday. A SETBACK Early last month, she suffered a setback on foster care. She first filed the suit a decade ago, then settled it in 1995. In June 2000, she refiled it when, she says, the state failed to make the improvements it had promised. U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno in Miami found in December that she was seeking an “unseemly conflict between state and federal judges.” He declined to hold that the allowable state remedies were inadequate. Although he dismissed with prejudice the heart of the litigation, Gievers is not one to sit back and grieve over the loss. “If precedent means anything,” she vows, “we’ll be back in front of him.” And if she can’t win a remand on appeal? “Then all that’s happened is that the doors of the federal courthouse are closed to us,” she replies evenly.

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