In 1997, a doctor told Rick and Sherry Moss that their 3-year-old daughter Haley had not yet spoken because she is autistic.
Their daughter would likely never graduate from high school, the doctor said, never make a friend, never get a driver’s license.
On Friday, Haley Moss became a member of the Florida Bar. She took the oath of attorney during a ceremony at the Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building in Miami. The oath was administered by Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Lisa Walsh.
“I became a lawyer, and I became a judge because I have the facility of speech,” Walsh said, noting she is privileged to have this ability. “It’s a great privilege for me to swear in somebody that has actually had to overcome issues and develop skills that may not be natural.”
Moss’ swearing-in came six months after she gave the commencement speech at her alma mater, the University of Miami School of Law; 3½ years after receiving both a B.A. and a B.S. from the University of Florida; four years after she published her second book; six years after she graduated from the Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale; seven years after her art was honored by the Dan Marino Foundation; and 21 years after her parents were first told that none of these feats would likely be realized.
Moss has repeatedly defied the low expectations that had been set for her. For that, she gives much credit to her parents, whose mantra “don’t deny the diagnosis, embrace it” instilled in her a positive association with her diagnosis.
Autism makes her different, not lesser, she always says. Throughout her life, she said she’s had an innate ability to be self-reflective, to find out what does and doesn’t work for her. And she has an invaluable ability that helped get her through law school — a great memory.
“You know what’s hard and what’s easy,” she said. “I’ve always been more aware of my surroundings.”
Some things are harder: making friends, cleaning up and doing laundry. “The things people refer to as adulting,” she said. But her hyperawareness helped her understand her limits.
After graduation, Moss landed a job as an associate with Zumpano Patricios. Founders Joe Zumpano and Leon Patricios attended the ceremony with about 15 of the firm’s Miami attorneys.
Moss and Zumpano were introduced by a former partner at the firm whom she met in college. She clerked for Zumpano’s firm last summer and was offered a job upon graduation. For Zumpano, who has a 16-year-old autistic son, the moment was cathartic, as she represents the hopes and aspirations of all those with autism, including his child.
“As an attorney, you will have the opportunity to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves,” he told Moss during the ceremony.
To the audience, he said, “The hopes of so many rest on her.”
Zumpano said it’s important that neurodiversity be considered in addition to diversity in gender, race and sexual orientation. Zumpano knows of only three or four attorneys with autism and most of them work in the public sector. His firm prides itself on its diversity, and it is why he requested Judge Walsh, who had previously led the National Association of Women Judges, to administer the oath.
“Judge Walsh is a pioneer in gender diversity much like Haley, who is a pioneer in neuro-diversity,” he said.
As for her future practice, Moss will work on a variety of issues as an associate. The firm is probably best known for its high-profile anti-terrorism cases and for handling managed care litigation for hospital systems. Zumpano Patricios has offices in Miami, Chicago and Salt Lake City.
Haley’s proud parents offered some advice for other parents of autistic children.
“Just never give up,” they said. “Don’t put up limits and boundaries on your child. Different can be extraordinary.”