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October 20, 2017
Calling the shots: GrayRobinson law firm gives Mayanne Downs full control

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Mayanne Downs joined GrayRobinson in 2012. Last year, she became president and managing director, one of few women to run a major law firm in the U.S.

Women Leaders

Calling the shots: GrayRobinson law firm gives Mayanne Downs full control

Amy Martinez | 9/28/2017

Mayanne Downs

President/managing director,
GrayRobinson; Orlando city attorney

Education: University of Florida bachelor’s degree in history, 1979; UF law degree, 1987
Family: Divorced with two children, 26-year-old Barry Rigby, a Nashville musician, and 24-year-old Savannah Rigby, a UF law student

Hobbies: Traveling abroad, cooking, rooting for the Florida Gators

Background: An Orlando native, Downs says she decided to become a lawyer after she and her father, then working together in real estate, were sued in an antitrust case. They hired a local attorney, Jackie Griffin, who inspired Downs to go to law school. The suit eventually was settled for $750.

Notable: Downs also is a member of the state’s Judicial Qualifications Commission and a former president of the Florida Bar.

Quote: “The phrase ‘lean in’ is not one I find very inspirational,” she says. “I say ‘jump in.’ Be engaged in every part of your life. You’ll experience more and learn more.”

 

Last spring, Mike Haag applied for a chief marketing role at GrayRobinson in Orlando. Haag, who had spent a decade working at other large law firms, expected to run through a gauntlet of committees and boards before being hired. But 20 minutes into an interview with GrayRobinson’s new president and managing director, Mayanne Downs, he got the green light.

“He had been vetted, and I knew what I was looking for,” says Downs, who had set aside a full hour for the interview. “We could both save that 40 minutes because we didn’t need it. I said, ‘This is perfect. You’re just what we want. You’re hired. Done!’ ”

At most large law firms, executive committees made up of a dozen or so partners decide everything from whether to open a new office to what art hangs on the walls. At GrayRobinson, Downs has full decision-making authority over the firm’s management and day-to-day operations, including hiring and firing. She has no term limit, putting her in charge indefinitely, and does not need board of directors approval — with an exception for charter matters, such as whether to make an attorney partner.

“We’re trying to ensure decisions are made quickly so that everyone can move on with their lives,” she says. “We just don’t send things to committee the way a lot of organizations do.”

When Downs was named managing director in September 2016, she became the only woman at any of Florida’s 20 largest law firms to hold the top position. With about 300 attorneys and lobbyists in 13 offices across the state, GrayRobinson ranks as Florida’s fifth-largest law firm.

Downs’ authority within GrayRobinson puts her among the most influential women leading Florida businesses today. “Basically, she’s a benevolent dictator,” says firm Chairman Byrd “Biff” Marshall. “She holds the title of president and managing director and runs everything.”

During a recent morning at the office, Downs’ cell phone rings and buzzes with incoming messages from co-workers. She does not suffer fools quietly. One ambiguous text message irks her.

“Say what you mean; mean what you say,” she says as she reads the message off her phone. Her 16th-floor office features a Buddha statue and a sign that says, “I’ll be nicer if you’ll be smarter.” Her phone’s ringtone: “I Won’t Back Down,” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

“I’m comfortable making decisions,” she says. “When you have to make a hard decision that’s going to disappoint somebody, it’s tempting to push it off to a group of people who’ll process it, chew it and digest it. But many times, lawyers in a law firm need an answer, and if the answer disappoints them, that’s OK — at least they can go forward.”

The firm’s structure and culture enable it to respond immediately to time-sensitive matters, especially in the area of government relations, “where the politics of a particular matter can change quickly,” she says.

Tags: Trendsetters, Government/Politics & Law

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