Gregory W. Coleman: President of the Florida Bar.

Author:Pudlow, Jan
Position:Profile
 
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Surfing when the wind whips up big waves.

Skiing behind a Mako fishing boat.

Fishing, diving, swimming, and hanging out at the beach with friends.

When you're a kid living on Singer Island north of Palm Beach, there are plenty of saltwater amusements.

Teenaged Greg Coleman, with sun-bleached hair and a golden tan, knew that all too well. And he had the incriminating report card from The Benjamin School to prove it: straight C's.

"Son, you need to curtail some of these activities, or I am going to find a place for you to go to school where you don't have these distractions," Bill Coleman warned his son.

At the end of Greg's last semester of his freshman year, he brought home his report card--again, too many dreaded C's.

"That's it. You're done. You didn't listen," Bill Coleman announced sternly.

The very next day, the boat disappeared. Without any say-so, Greg learned his destiny....

He would begin his sophomore year in St. Louis, at The Principia School, a boarding school run by Christian Scientists. At first, it was torturous for an outdoorsy Florida kid stuck in landlocked Missouri with no one he knew. Greg tried to run away five times, making it as far as the airport, naively hoping for merciful intervention from kind strangers. But he had no money and no way to leave.

Eventually, he made friends and straight A's. And he became an All-American competitive swimmer in the 50-yard free style and played on the water polo team, poised to succeed in college.

"There are certain things in your life that you can look back on and say, 'That was a crystallizing moment in my life.' Whether I chose it or somebody else chose it for me, no question I would not be where I am right now if that decision had not been made by my father," 51-year-old Coleman said.

"Without question, I would have been a charter boat captain, and I would be in the Bahamas somewhere fishing for blue marlin. That's what would have happened had I stayed at Benjamin, because I had no interest in academics. I had too many distractions and too many things I enjoyed. And it was one of the smartest things my dad had ever done."

Instead, Coleman graduated from Stetson University College of Law, and worked as a prosecutor and insurance defense litigator before joining the law firm in 1995 now known as Critton, Luttier & Coleman in West Palm Beach.

With a sterling reputation as a problem-solver before deploying his arsenal as a litigator, Coleman is a partner practicing complex commercial litigation, insurance bad faith, professional malpractice defense, and personal injury.

Working his way up the ranks of Bar service, he led the Young Lawyers Division and then became overall president, first at the Palm Beach County Bar Association and now at The Florida Bar.

While he prepares to take the oath as president of The Florida Bar, family and friends will gather from near and far for the occasion at the Annual Convention in Orlando. But someone important will be missing. Bill Coleman--a high-school dropout who joined the Navy at 17, a self-made businessman with the Midas touch who demanded excellence from his son--died of pancreatic cancer in July 2007.

Coleman is convinced his dad hung on for three years after the terminal diagnosis so he could meet his newborn grandson, Cody, the only child of Greg and Monica, who married 13 years ago.

Coleman is ready to deliver this joke at his swearing-in speech: The last two presidents cried at the inaugural ceremony, and if he cries, too, "the Georgia Bar and the Alabama Bar are going to sense weakness and come down and invade us!"

"So my goal is to not cry when I'm sworn in. But it is hard not to be emotional," Coleman said, eyes glistening as he looked out his office window with a view of the Intracoastal Waterway and the Breakers Hotel on the beach beyond.

"My dad would be so proud."

DEFYING DAD

Once, Coleman mustered courage to defy Dad. It was 1985, he was 22, and he'd just graduated from Stetson University with a bachelor's degree in "business activities in finance" and a minor in political science.

Needing a break from academics, he planned to work that summer in Jupiter and start law school in the fall.

"No, that's not the deal," his dad said. "If I'm supporting you, you will do it the way I want you to do it."

Greg obeyed and started law school the day after graduating from college. But a month into law school, he checked out with apologies and promised he'd be back.

Walking into his dad's office at Harpoon Louie's, an iconic seafood restaurant on A1A with a view of the historic Jupiter Lighthouse, Coleman confessed, "I just dropped out of law school."

"Dad didn't talk to me for two weeks, but he let me go to work at the restaurant," Coleman said.

From the time the 750-seat restaurant opened in 1980, there was no preferential treatment for the owner's son. Starting as a dishwasher, Coleman worked on the night cleaning crew, served as bus boy, waiter, and bar back when he was too young to tend bar. Five years later, his dad let him be one of five managers, ultimately working with the general manager for a year and a half.

When his dad signed a contract in November 1986 to sell Harpoon Louie's (now called Bubba Gump), Coleman knew his job would end soon, and he asked Stetson: "Will you take me back?" Stetson agreed to let him restart law school in January 1987, and he graduated two-and-a-half years later.

"I worked in the best job any lawyer could ever have to prepare to be a lawyer," Coleman said. "This was a big restaurant. During the season, there would be a thousand people there. It was the only show in town at the time. You just learn an awful lot about people, dynamics, and personalities."

Coleman parlayed that knack to read people and get along with everyone into a valuable asset as a lawyer.

Dean Xenick, a senior associate who works closely with Coleman, said he's like former Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles basketball Coach Phil Jackson, who had a legendary Zen-like ability to quietly handle top-notch players with huge egos and personalities: Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Kobe Bryant, and Shaquille O'Neal.

"Greg can be like an ambassador. He's very diplomatic and good at controlling and dealing with big personalities," Xenick said.

"With a lot of his complex commercial litigation cases, he's dealing with high-dollar clients with big personalities, in addition to dealing with lawyers with big personalities. He's very good at coming into a room and taking all those big personalities and bringing everyone to the table. Greg is calm and even-keeled. We can duke it out and yell at each other all day long, but it will not solve the problem. Greg likes to use the phrase, 'Let's get to the meat of the coconut.' His first attempt is to resolve the problem before it blows up at litigation."

Fifteenth Circuit Judge Peter Blanc appreciates that quality.

"It's a sign of strength. Greg is confident enough in his approach that he applies common sense and reason to analyze and come up with a solution before litigation is necessary," Blanc said. "That saves the client aggravation and money. If it doesn't work out, he has his litigation skills to fall back on. It just seems too often lawyers' first reaction is to pull the trigger on litigation. And everyone is spending money on attorneys' fees and getting angry and frustrated. I just know it is a pleasure to see attorneys like Greg who look at this process as a problem-solving process."

THE GODFATHER

Of course, some cases wind up at trial. Former Bar President Jay White, a close friend and colleague, was co-counsel with Coleman in a trial that lasted two-and-a-half months.

After winning the trial, the jurors had an unusual request: Could we take the winning legal team out to dinner and drinks at E.R. Bradley's Saloon? Why not? The case is over, the judge said. So White and Coleman, along with co-counsel Bob Merkle and David Gaspari, received a unique critique of their trial skills from the amiable jurors. The lawyers learned the jurors had given them all nicknames: Merkle was "Court Jester," Gaspari was "Sleepy," White was "Ralph Lauren" because of the shirts he wore. And Coleman was "The Godfather" because he slicked his hair back and had an imposing presence.

At 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, Coleman took the jurors' good advice to soften his voice and stand further away from the jury box, because he could be intimidating towering over them.

Coleman first commanded White's attention when he was an assistant state attorney right out of law school.

"I would often stick my head in courtrooms and watch lawyers arguing their cases. I heard Greg was very good and I sat in a courtroom and watched one of his closing arguments, and he did an excellent job," White recalled.

White was so impressed that he recruited Coleman to come work with him as his associate at Walton Lantaff, practicing insurance defense.

"He's one of these people with a rare combination. He's got a tremendous legal skill set, and he's very personable. On top of that, Greg has really good common sense and great instincts. And you will not outwork him," White said.

Years ago, White and...

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