John M. Stewart: President of The Florida Bar.

Author:Bitar, Rawan
Position:Interview
 
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The Path to the Presidency

About 18 months into his career as a young lawyer, John Stewart decided to take a short break at the office. He picked up The Florida Bar News and opened the pages. Inside was a short story about an open seat on the Young Lawyers Division Board of Governors. He had been involved in local bar activities, but nothing like this. The opportunity piqued his interest. Stewart entered the race and won the 19th Circuit seat. Now, at 49, he has reached the pinnacle of his tenure. Stewart was elected Bar president without opposition after 11 years on the Board of Governors.

Photo by Mark Wallheiser

As it relates to the modern practice of law, technology can be difficult to discuss due to its rapidly changing nature and complexity. But John Stewart, who has been involved in Bar service for two decades, was up for the challenge when he was appointed chair of the Technology Subcommittee by 2013 Bar President Gene Pettis as part of the Vision 2016 Commission--established to study the future of the practice of law in Florida. It was no easy task for the Rossway Swan partner, in Vero Beach, who focuses on probate litigation and mediation work. Curious about gadgets (Stewart carried a savvy Palm Pilot at the time), but with little interest in how they impact the legal profession, Stewart ended up making major changes. A standing Committee on Technology was established, at the same time as a Board of Governors Technology Committee, which he chaired, and The Florida Bar became the first bar in the nation to require a mandatory CLE tech component for its members.

"I'm still amazed with how much we accomplished in that committee," says Stewart, who was immediately thrown into the spotlight. The tech CLE, approved by the Florida Supreme Court in 2016, was instituted so lawyers remain ahead of the competition and on the cutting edge, he says. "It has all been enormously successful. I've never had a complaint from anybody about having to take three hours of a technology CLE."

Stewart believes technology can play a pivotal role in the delivery of legal services.

"Today, there are still billions of dollars' worth of unmet legal needs in America," he says. "Lawyers who have successfully integrated technology into their practices are well positioned to capture a large share of that market."

A fire still burns bright in the 49-year-old Bar president, who sat on the Florida Supreme Court's Technology Commission for five years, appointed twice by the chief justice, and regularly speaks about tech developments at venues around the country, including the ABA Tech Show. As a testament to his commitment, in January, Stewart flew to Segovia, Spain, for a global conference, "Law Without Walls," which involved overseeing international student projects that demanded technological solutions.

"It gives me a great deal of comfort knowing that he's going to be at the helm," says 2014 Bar President Greg Coleman, who served with Stewart on the Young Lawyers Division and Board of Governors. They became fast friends back in 1999 and didn't know what the future held. Stewart would spend the next 20 years involved in Bar service, with no breaks in between years, including as YLD president in 2006. With an expansive knowledge of the inner workings of the Bar, Coleman asserts, Stewart is uniquely prepared to lead. "He served in so many leadership roles before he ran for president that the level of experience he brings to the job is in the upper 10 percent of all Bar presidents."

Former 2006 Bar President Hank Coxe describes Stewart, who was leading the YLD during the same term, as a rare contemplator in a world full of talkers. A big-picture kind of guy, Stewart doesn't dwell on the minutiae. Instead, he hangs back to listen to what's going on beyond the details. "I think he'll do an excellent job as president because people will listen to what he has to say," Coxe added. "He has an excellent understanding and appreciation of people."

Part of that deep understanding relates to Stewart's widely known talent for making people laugh.

"I can be pretty intense," says Stewart reflectively. But in a subtle way, the new Bar president can lighten the mood, not only with his wry jokes, but with his footwear. A true Floridian, there's always an accessible pair of flip flops on hand. "I will change into my flip flops as soon as I can," he admits, even with formal wear. Coleman laughs when he thinks about his friend's habit.

"He's transitioned to socks and shoes," Coleman chuckles. Lately, Stewart has been collecting novelty socks at tech shows and showing them off underneath his pant legs. A popular pair feature the face of U.S. President George Washington, which Stewart wore to the board's out-of-state meeting in D.C. The amusing socks might even show up on Stewart's social media accounts, where on his Twitter bio he describes himself as an "X-Luddite turned LegalTech geek!"

"I try not to wear ties at all," Stewart confesses when comparing himself to his father--a lawyer who regularly wears a bow tie. The single father of a 15-year-old daughter, Mary-Claire, doesn't take himself too seriously.

"I'm very casual. But that belies a lot of intensity that I have underneath," he admits.

Focused and introspective, others wait until the end of debates to hear what Stewart has to say.

"People seek and value his advice," observes 2010 Bar President Mayanne Downs, who was initially drawn to Stewart's keen sense of humor. His quiet wit, she says, is a lost art among peers who often take themselves too seriously. "John is a go-to person. It's an ultimate compliment when people really want your point of view.... John never makes anything about himself. He's not craving the limelight or attention."

Twinkle in His Eye

Although colleagues admire Stewart's reputation for handling any task thrown his way--and his propensity to sit back and reflect on an issue without over-talking--a prominent feature of the new Bar president's personality is the ability to make fun of himself.

"He has a twinkle in his eye because he knows he's been funny," says 2011 Bar President Scott Hawkins, who is so accustomed to Stewart's sense of humor, he will immediately begin to chuckle in anticipation of witty comments when Stewart stands up to say anything at all.

"He had us in stitches. I think I spilled my drink," 2005 Bar President Alan Bookman recalled about dinner one evening with his wife, Stewart, and friends. "He's a good man. He's funny, he's bright, he's articulate, and, most importantly, a lot of fun."

At the board's year-end...

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