Mayanne Downs President of the Florida Bar: A force of nature.

Author:Pudlow, Jan
 
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Deep in a coma, Mayanne Downs teetered on the brink of death in an Orlando hospital.

Eighty-five miles away in Tampa, her colleagues on The Florida Bar Board of Governors gathered for dinner with their spouses.

Quietly pulling out a bundle of blue yarn, Robyn Sasso, wife of governor Andy Sasso of Clearwater, explained she was making a prayer shawl for her friend, Mayanne. Passing knitting needles to those at the dinner table, she gave quick instructions on how to take some stitches while praying for their colleague's recovery.

When Downs was finally released from Florida Hospital on April 1, 2007, after 17 days in the Intensive Care Unit, she drew that shawl around her shoulders and wouldn't take it off, so comforted by its warmth.

"It was special. It emanated something. It was just the physical representation of the support and love that this group extended to my family," Downs recalls.

"Keep in mind, I was asleep. None of this bothered me, because I didn't know anything about it. But for my family and my friends, it was a really hard, hard time."

To tell Downs' zesty life story--mother of two teenagers; world traveler who can't wait to get home; dinner party hostess so witty her guests' cheeks hurt from laughing; go-getter shareholder at King, Blackwell, Downs & Zehnder; City Attorney of Orlando, her birthplace and hometown; and Board of Governors member elevated unchallenged to president of The Florida Bar--requires describing her brush with death.

Three years ago, a stuck kidney stone caused sepsis, a severe bacterial infection spreading through her bloodstream. Downs' digestive system and lungs had shut down. Hooking her up to a respirator, doctors gave her a 25 percent chance of survival.

To save her life, doctors put her in a medically induced coma.

"She died twice. Well, she was hanging on by one thread. There was a point where I had made peace and had to face that I might not see my mom again," says her 19-year-old son Barry Rigby, a bass guitarist and student at Berklee College of Music in Boston.

While Downs lay unconscious in the ICU, a who's who list of Orlando's notables milled in the hallway.

At first, a few friends kept round-the-clock vigil in a tiny space they called "the closet." When so many people showed up to rally for Downs' recovery, they'd commandeered a conference room.

"It became the most extraordinary, temporary social network of the most diverse people you could imagine," describes friend and mentor Fifth District Court of Appeal Judge Jackie Griffin.

"I think every possible spiritual voice--from evangelicals to Episcopal, from Jewish Kabbalah and spiritual healers--was in the room."

Even a Reiki master laid on healing hands.

Neighborhood friend Judy Doyle will never forget witnessing this bedside scene: Cathy Downs-Phoenix was afraid her sister wouldn't make it through the night. Downs-Phoenix, a nurse, grasped the gravity of the situation, and with tears in her eyes, gathered friends in a circle around Downs' bed.

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One by one, she asked them to say a faith prayer or something spiritual, and pointed to Anne Conway, chief judge of the U.S. District Court, Middle District of Florida, to go first.

"Go Gators!" bellows Conway.

"That's not spiritual," Downs-Phoenix jokes, between tears and laughter.

"To Mayanne and me it is!" Conway retorts.

When Downs finally awoke from her coma to the sound of her daughter's voice, her first words were: "Did the Gators win?"

She'd been watching the Gators play basketball during March Madness, and that was the last thing she remembered before dropping into an eerie deep sleep where time stood still.

The Gators did win the NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Championship for the second time in two years.

And Downs triumphed in her recovery.

Ninth Circuit Judge Alice Blackwell said of her friend's illness: "While it might have made others more timid or insular, within four or five weeks, Mayanne's attitude was: 'I'm ready to roll!' She was back at life full speed."

When 53-year-old Downs talks about her near-death experience, she says: "Anything you say about this sounds hackneyed and everybody has said it: 'Life is fleeting. Make every moment count.' But the reason those phrases are said a lot is because they are very true, and we don't have a better way to say it.

"Yes, there was a lot of realizing I wanted to do what was important to me and make decisions recognizing the fleeting nature of the good fortune we have--our health.

"There was another issue, and that is the amount of support I received from The Florida Bar in general, lawyers from all across the state, but the Board of Governors in particular.

"The way everybody pulled together meant so much to me that it just underscored for me how important this profession is. I wanted to have an opportunity to serve it, and be somebody whose name would always be listed in this august body of people fortunate enough to act as leaders, however temporary, of this great profession and this great Florida Bar."

While Downs had wanted to be Bar president for years, there was a sense of urgency that now is her time, and no one ran against her.

"On a big scale or small scale, lawyers make people's lives different. Not everything we do can be seen by the eye of man. But what we do is of critical importance, because without this ability to resolve disputes peaceably, you can't have a democracy; you can't have a government. If disputes can't be resolved in a reasonably peaceable fashion, the fabric of society breaks apart. And that's what being a lawyer is about to me. It is my gift and my passion. I feel so grateful every day that I can make my living and support my family like this."

Prevailing Attorney in the 'Divorce from Hell'

Asked to describe Downs in three words, Judge Griffin answers: "Steadfast, smart, and more fun than a barrel of monkeys. That's one word right?"

Laughing, Griffin continues: "She's got a wonderful sense of humor, and she's so inventive and creative and communicates so well. She's very persuasive on her feet. She's pretty much fearless."

Says Judge Conway: "She doesn't bully people. She's forceful, but with a kind shove, without a kick in the pants, so to speak."

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Former Bar President and Jacksonville criminal defense attorney Hank Coxe says: "Mayanne spots the good in people quicker than anybody I know. She also spots the people who are pretentious, and she's just intolerant of that."

Biff Marshall, president and managing director of GrayRobinson, who knew Downs before law school and has hired her to represent his firm, says: "She is the combination of intelligence, tenacity, and willingness to get things done, unlike anyone I've ever known."

And Michael Marder, opposing lawyer on many cases, says Downs "is and always was very professional and accommodating. But she is also very tough."

All those qualities were put to the test in a decade-long divorce battle against timeshare tycoon David Siegel, owner of Orlando-based Westgate Resorts, with 28 resorts and 10,000 units in 10 states.

Downs represented wife Bettie Siegel, helping her win perhaps the biggest divorce settlement in U.S. history: cash and real estate valued at $237 million tax-free, including the 65,000-square-foot mansion in Windermere. On top of that, Siegel had to pay Downs' law firm $1.7 million in prevailing attorneys' fees.

Jim Leusner, a former Orlando Sentinel investigative reporter and now a private investigator, went through about 20 volumes of files to chronicle that "divorce from hell."

"I got to see Mayanne up close working on the David Siegel story, and it crystallized everything I had heard about her and seen about her," Leusner said. "I would call her a force of nature....

"The remarkable thing about that case is that after being in hand-to-hand combat with Siegel and his lawyers--plural--for nine years, when that case ended, David Siegel had so much respect and admiration for Mayanne that he and his lawyers refer business to her today."

Downs describes how they had negotiated a deal and were going to close in two weeks. But at the last minute, David Siegel wanted a few things out of the house he no longer lived in:

The certificate for the star that was named after him by his wife, worth $100.

Artwork "so hideous that if you had a match and a can of gasoline you'd think it was a public service to burn it."

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And his rollerblades.

"One time during a break in a deposition, he said, 'I want my rollerblades.'

"And I said, 'You know what, Mr. Siegel, I'm keeping those rollerblades away from you out of personal concern for your dignity.'"

That's classic Downs: wit delivered with a gracious smile to disarm her foes.

David King worked with Downs on that mammoth divorce case, a partner who has known her since 1989, a year after she was admitted to the Bar. He's watched her practice grow in the areas of civil, trial, appellate, and high-net-worth domestic relations, calling her "the salt of our firm."

"Mayanne really has a brilliant intellect that drives her in everything she does. She couples that with tenacity and a passion for the law and a desire to succeed on behalf of...

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