MICHELLE SUSKAUER: President of The Florida Bar.

Author:Bitar, Rawan
Position:Interview - Cover story

When something bad happens to your child, there's nothing worse. Any parent would agree with that statement, and for Michelle Suskauer --a mother of two who has spent her 26-year career as a criminal defense lawyer representing so many young people in particular--it takes more than empathy to sit with the families who face life-altering events that could impact the rest of a child's life. Although she holds their hands, comforts them, and calms them during the worst of times, her hat as a lawyer is of a fierce color.

She attacks cases with a ferocity, says her partner Scott Dimond of Dimond Kaplan & Rothstein.

"She keeps more balls in the air at any given time than I ever have," he said of the multitasking whiz, who operates out of the firm's West Palm Beach office with only two other lawyers by her side. "It is clear she is at the highest level of professionalism--the smart, aggressive lawyer that is going to do the right thing in the right way for her client."

The first former public defender to ever lead The Florida Bar, the 51-year-old Suskauer is also the sixth female president among the organization's preceding 69 presidents. She understands the tough business of law.

"For most of my career, I've been in a small firm, just like the majority of lawyers in the state," says Suskauer. "Every day, I'm in the trenches. I'm working. Keeping the lights on. That's who I am."

Despite a frequently intense schedule, Suskauer has made time for bar service since entering the profession over two decades ago.

"If I can help come up with some solutions to make people's lives just a tiny bit better, and leave my community in a better place than when I found it, then I accomplished something."

"There is no question in my mind that Michelle Suskauer will go down as one of the greatest Bar presidents we've ever had. The Bar could not be in better hands," said past Bar President Edward Blumberg (1997-1998), adding her eight years on the Board of Governors have prepared her to handle the organization's many moving parts. "She's going to be able to hit the ground running and really do a spectacular job. With Michelle Suskauer, the everyday practicing lawyer has a champion."

Never one to shy away from a challenge, Suskauer won contested elections to become president of the Palm Beach County Bar Association in 2009 and to join The Florida Bar Board of Governors in 2010.

"What's motivated her to be a lawyer? Helping others. Helping her colleagues," said her husband, 15th Circuit Judge Scott Suskauer, with whom she practiced law at The Suskauer Law Firm. "She's a dynamo, which is good for the Bar, to have that type of energetic, inspiring individual who wants to fight for you."

Although her talents often lead to favorable outcomes for her clients, the media benefits from her expertise when she stands before a camera. Suskauer has appeared on CNN, NBC's "Today," "The Dr. Oz Show," "Nancy Grace," "The O'Reilly Factor," and other notable programs. The savvy communicator got her start as a legal analyst more than a decade ago on local West Palm stations WPTV and WFLX, affiliates of NBC and FOX respectively, by providing insight into prominent court cases in her community--and she periodically appears on WFTL 850AM radio.

The ease with which Suskauer can speak extemporaneously doesn't mean she's not listening. Fellow Board of Governors members Renee Thompson and Gary Lesser believe all Florida Bar members will be heard.

"Because Florida is such a large state, it's important to have an effective communicator at the helm," Thompson explained. "Especially in today's world where we have information overload."

"She builds consensus. She talks to people, which is a great skill as a leader," Lesser noted. "Michelle has a reputation for being a communicator at meetings and on TV, but one of her secret talents is she's an exceptional listener."

"She listens to where there are needs," said friend of 20 years and Bar member Patricia Leonard. "She doesn't just say, 'Oh gosh, something needs to be done!' She says, 'What can I do to get that need met?' To me, it's natural that she would rise to leadership because that's the way she thinks about things."

Center Stage

For Suskauer, listening skills developed early as a child, when a Panasonic tape recorder--one of her favorite possessions--came in handy to begin interviewing others for commentary, and to create her very own newscasts and commercials. Always wanting to be a broadcast journalist when she grew up, the gregarious child carried the handheld device around when guests came over to her family's home on Long Island, New York, prepared with questions that made the adults crack up with laughter. She played "person on the street," and with a natural curiosity about people, asked what the average citizen was thinking. Small and self-assured, she was going to be on TV one day.

Those childhood pastimes came full circle into adulthood, and Suskauer doesn't stop thinking about the future. Although being in the courtroom lights her fire, so does broadcasting.

"I'd love to be an anchor or newscaster. It's a lot of fun," Suskauer says. The legal talk show of her dreams, she says, would be one that hasn't been done before, is informative, and "where nobody is screaming at somebody else, but we're actually learning."

Suskauer has never been afraid of the limelight, and that quality rubbed off on her children. Her two daughters are musical theater arts majors--one enrolled in, and the other a recent graduate of, Penn State University. When the creative sisters were cast in shows at their performing arts high school, she never missed a performance. A lover of musical theater, the eager mother was consistently spotted in the audience, cheerfully paying attention to the songs--maybe even mouthing the words--and visibly thrilled, with clenched fists, when the girls hit their notes perfectly.

Suskauer's eyes light up when playing videos of Talia, 21, and Becca, 19, delivering numbers from popular musicals. In one, Becca sings "I've Found a New Baby" from Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway. Talia, who performs "Natural Woman" surrounded by classmates gazing in awe, plans to relocate to the Big Apple with her career sights set on Broadway.

"I am incredibly proud of my girls, and they are strong," Suskauer says, admitting she herself is no retiring flower. "I am not an easy mom, I am tough, OK?--I would say to them: 'Don't ever apologize for who you are or what you want. Don't wait for someone to give something to you. Ask. What's the worst thing you'll hear? It's no.' So, whatever they end up doing, they have incredible skills, and they can stand up in front of everyone and say and do anything."

Aside from taking center stage in the courtroom for nearly three decades, with three years of govern ment work under her belt, Suskauer has several passions, and one is singing. If she rolls down her car windows, you're likely to hear the Broadway channel on SiriusXM satellite radio. For Suskauer, the privacy of her car is a safe place for singing.

"I don't want to hurt anybody's ears," she admits. "I do not have the talent that my children do or the training, but I love to sing. It makes me happy, especially Broadway."

As for her stage skills, in the court room and on TV, she gets to speak, perform, and tell stories, according to her eldest daughter, Talia, "She gets to be expressive every single day." Childhood friend Lisa Jackman, who confirms Suskauer doesn't suffer from an ounce of shyness, says the courtroom contains its own drama. "She has to command the audience whether that's judge or jury. It takes a confident person, someone who's used to being the center of attention, or is comfortable being the center of attention. That is the acting. That's the performance part."

Jackman joined her friend in the dressing room of "The Dr. Oz Show" in New York City. "She was talking to the producer, and she was so calm about it, whereas I would have been so nervous," Jackman explained.

"There are a lot of people who don't like being the center of attention. I love being the center of attention. Here I am!" Suskauer proclaimed. "And that's what I've always been. I'm a people person. I'm all about connections. I love my friends, and I love my family, and I love being with people."

Immersed in the Arts

Growing up within reach of Manhattan, just a car-ride from Long Island, the young Michelle Suskauer alongside younger brother, Howard, learned to enjoy performance early in life. Suskauer's father, Alan Rosenkranz, who passed away five years ago after an 11-year battle with kidney cancer that metastasized, encouraged an appreciation for the arts. Described as a "huge New Yorker," he and his wife, Rose, treated the children to big-city shows. The devoted father flew the family to London on $99 tickets over long weekends to catch Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, or another popular show in the West End. While some children were quizzed on math, at home, the loving father switched on the radio and quizzed Suskauer about song titles and singers. He introduced her to rock n' roll--early Bruce Springs teen, Madonna, Elton John, and The Who. "My dad and I saw everybody. I could list 50 concerts that we went to," Suskauer says. "My dad loved to dance with me, with anybody he could get a hold of. He loved music of all kinds. He loved to travel. He loved to sing. He...

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