Mayanne Downs
Mayanne Downs ()

Former Florida Bar president Mayanne Downs is set to lead the fifth largest law firm in Florida, as long-time GrayRobinson president and managing director Byrd “Biff” Marshall officially stepped down this weekend after 25 years.

Downs, who joined the 300-lawyer, Orlando-based firm just four years ago, would be the highest-ranking female managing partner of a Florida law firm.

“I’m keenly aware as my daughter prepares to enter the University of Florida law school that those of us who are women in real, live leadership roles, not token leadership roles, are rare,” Downs said. “I’m grateful to be a part of it. Sure, there are spa days for women and quotas, but at the end of the day that’s just token progress. I am so honored and thrilled to take this step.”

Marshall, 62, nominated Downs as his hand-picked successor to become the third head of the law firm in its history. No one else had put in his or her name to run. The election was held at a firm-wide meeting this weekend in Boca Raton.

Marshall will stay on as chairman for two years to help Downs make the transition but said he is more than ready to retire. “I want to fish,” Marshall said. “I’m one of those people who enjoys his life outside his work.”

Marshall is credited with growing the firm from some 30 lawyers to its current size, with 13 offices throughout the state. He was steadfast in his strategy to keep the firm a Florida-only firm.

Marshall said he was proud to have a woman take the reins and make history, but that’s not the only reason he picked her. He has known Downs for 25 years, when he represented her on a deal before she even became a lawyer.

Since then, they have been friends and even co-counsel on the largest divorce in Florida history, which reaped a $200 million settlement.

“She’s a lawyer’s lawyer,” he said. “This is someone I can trust. She has the chutzpah to get along with big egos. This is in the firm’s best interest.”

Miami shareholder Marlene Quintana agrees.

“It is not a surprise to me and I couldn’t be happier that someone with Mayanne’s talent and personality will be at the helm of the firm and continue to grow it the way it has so far,” Quintana said. “She has the support of the firm. As a woman, it is extremely gratifying to see how far hard work and dedication can take you.”

Third District Court of Appeal Judge Edwin Scales said he is not the least bit surprised that Downs has risen to such heights. Scales, who has known Downs for 30 years, said it was apparent to all who knew her back then.

“Anybody who knew Mayanne in the ’80s knew her star was going to rise high on the horizon,” he said. “Whatever organization she is involved in, she immediately ascends into a leadership role. Not because she’s pushy, but because she’s so likeable. Anyone can bark out orders, but you want to follow her.”

Downs, a graduate of the University of Florida Levin College of Law and an Orlando native who declined to state her age, worked in real estate law before becoming a litigator. She took to litigation immediately, and soon became the city attorney for the city of Orlando, with a staff of 25.

It was in 2007, when she was working at a small litigation boutique—King, Blackwell, Downs & Zehnder—that Downs’ entire life changed. A kidney stone led to sepsis and threw her into a coma for three weeks. She was given a 25 percent chance of dying.

When she woke up from the coma, Downs discovered that members of the legal community from around the state had been praying for her and that Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer had visited her every day. She became inspired to give back to the community that had so rallied around her.

Downs decided to run for Florida Bar president, a position she held from 2010-2011. The job taught Downs more about leadership than she had anticipated.

It was one of the more challenging times for the Legislature and the bar’s relationship, with a massive funding crisis threatening to cripple the courts.

“I learned I could find common ground and solutions with people I didn’t agree with,” she said. “We could get to the other side of the dispute. I loved doing that.”

So when Marshall asked to meet with Downs four years ago to gauge her interest in taking over leadership of the firm, she was intrigued. Her only regret would be stepping back from her hugely busy litigation practice and such clients as the city of Orlando, Miami Heat’s Chris Bosh, Orlando Magic’s Dwight Howard and an array of athletes and musicians.

“I have assembled the best team of litigators,” Downs said. “I’ve been working to push my caseload to them. I no longer handle cases, with a few exceptions.”

Unlike Marshall, Downs doesn’t rule out growing GrayRobinson outside of Florida, although she said that’s a decision that would be made jointly.

She doesn’t plan a vast array of rising star and women mentorship programs. Her primary focus is to help women by offering them flex-time, so they can spend more time with their children if they desire.

“Unlike other firms, women at GrayRobinson can move in and out of the partnership track,” she said. “I have a team filled with young mothers. I have coverage from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., so people can pick their own shifts and that benefits the team. The key is flexibility.”

A divorced mother of two, Downs answered firmly when asked whether a woman can have it all in this day and age.

“Nobody can have it all,” she said. “I think we pay a dear price for thinking we can. We’re in a long societal change. You can’t eat too much and be thin, you can’t drink too much and be sober.”