Alice Sum is certain about where her law career began. As the daughter of Chinese immigrants, the future Fowler White Burnett shareholder spent her youth watching as her parents labored to succeed as small business owners in a foreign and cutthroat country.
“They worked for some years and saved up enough money to open up a Chinese restaurant,” Sum said of her upbringing in North Miami. Despite barely speaking English, her mother and father were able to transition from waiters to proper proprietors. But even as they carved out a living for themselves, it was not without its struggles and setbacks.
“What I learned so quickly from seeing them really toil away long, long hours was how hard it is to run a small business and how hard it is to make ends meet,” Sum said. “I would even see them have problems with vendors or their landlord, things like that.
“And even as a 10 or 11 year-old kid I used to think to myself ‘Gosh, I wish I could help my parents with these problems,’” she said.
Sum has no doubt this inverted parental concern was the first seed in her now-blossoming commercial litigation practice. After earning her Juris Doctor degree at the University of Florida Levin College of Law in 1999, Sum worked as an associate at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney and the firm now known as Kluger Kaplan Silverman Katzen & Levine. She joined her present home, Fowler White Burnett, in 2007 and was made partner in less than two years.
In addition to arguing complex cases — including her representation of Chinese nationals in a securities class action suit — Sum’s resume is replete with roles within bar associations and legal organizations. She is a founding member and past president of the Asian Pacific American Bar Association of South Florida, and former Gov. Rick Scott in September appointed her to the Judicial Nominating Commission for Broward County. Sum also sits on the Judicial Nominating Procedures Committee for the Florida Bar, is a member of the board of directors with the Dade County Bar Association and serves as a state and federal court judicial liaison with the Miami-Dade Chapter of the Florida Association for Women Lawyers.
Any one of Sum’s positions would be demanding on its own, but taken in total, hers is the curriculum vitae of a person committed to the needs of peers and clientele.
“We all have common issues that members are facing. Why should each bar try to reinvent the wheel on the road when each has experiences that can help each other?” Sum said. “I think it’s far more important to say to our brother and sister bar organizations, ‘Hi. You know we have this problem. What have you done to work on that issue?’ … I think that should really be easy because lawyers are problem solvers and they are collaborators.”
“I love practicing law. I love working with my clients. It’s what you do to make money and to put food on the table,” she continued. “But I feel like what feeds my soul and what makes being a lawyer worthwhile is finding a way to help others. It’s what puts a smile on my face when I wake up in the morning. I know I’m going to do something either for my client, or something related to one of the bar organizations I’m a part of.”
Sum is looking to expand her horizons by vying for a seat on the Florida Bar Board of Governors. If she becomes a member, she hope to remove some of the career hazards of practicing law in South Florida.
“Across the board I think there’s so much the Florida Bar needs to be doing to help lawyers in making their practice easier,” Sum said. “It comes down to the bread and butter: helping them grow their practice, serving as a referral force to connect lawyers with clients.”
Sum also emphasized the importance of providing mental health resources to litigators.
“I think the Florida Bar has made incredible strides in the last few years, but there’s a lot more to do to destigmatize issues related to mental health,” she said. “All of these things weigh on people who have to balance their lives with their families, and it’s not easy.”
Even as her breadth of experience outwardly tells a story of success, Sum said she wants to share the hard lessons she’s learnt and “help other lawyers overcome their obstacles and fears.”
“It is incredibly fulfilling, but I’d be lying if I said it was easy,” she said of her profession. “Everybody has to balance their career. And there are days that are difficult because I’m running around dealing with client’s issues and my obligations to bars.”
“I’m still committed to family and personal time and making sure that I have everything as in balance as I can,” she continued. “But no one has it in perfect balance and nobody has it easy. I’m no different than any other lawyer that practices here in South Florida.”
Alice K. Sum
Born: September 1974, North Miami
Spouse: James A. Stepan
Education: University of Florida, J.D., 1999, B.A., 1995
Experience: Shareholder, Fowler White Burnett, 2007-present; Associate, Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, 2005-2006; Associate, Kluger Kaplan Silverman Katzen & Levine, 2000-2005