Downs Steps Up
Mayanne Downs lays out her goals as Bar president
Twenty-seven years ago, Mayanne Downs was working as a real estate broker when she was sued by a former client. Her real estate attorney told her to get a litigator. "As awful as it was to be sued, I thought the lawyer we hired was just unbelievable," Downs says. "She just dazzled me. The papers she filed were really hard to understand, but when I read them enough, I finally kind of got to understand them and I just fell in love with everything about the process. I decided to sell my company and go to law school."
Today, her career shift has her in position to shape and influence Florida's legal profession. She began serving a one-year term as president of the 87,000-member Florida Bar this summer, simultaneously holding two other jobs: She's the city attorney of Orlando and also a shareholder at King, Blackwell, Downs & Zehnder in Orlando. Saying she likes to keep busy and noting that she needs less sleep than most people, the single mother of two teenagers knows she's in for a challenging year.
Following are her plans as Bar president for the year ahead:
Downs switched careers after hiring an attorney almost 30 years ago
Like previous president Jesse Diner, Downs will tell anyone who will listen that the state's judiciary system is underfunded. The result, she says, is overworked judges and support staff, job and program cuts, low salaries and the courts muddling by with outdated equipment. She says at .6% of the state's budget, Florida's judiciary spending is among the lowest per capita in the nation. "Any measure you can come up with, we're at risk," she says. Her solution: "Keep lobbying. Keep pushing."
Downs thinks the state's lawyers and judiciary system could do a better job of embracing technology. She'll be pushing for enhancing methods of electronic filing and electronic communication between lawyers, clients and clerks of court, so information and data can be delivered quicker. For her part, she's using social media, including Twitter, to communicate with Bar members. One of her first Tweets encouraged lawyers to do more e-filing.
Concerned that fewer cases are going to trial, Downs has created a Florida Bar committee to study the declining numbers of both civil and criminal jury trials. First, she wants to know the specific numbers and then she wants to know what's behind the numbers. For example, she wants to know if criminal cases are being dumped prematurely just because the court system is so overburdened. "It may well be that there is nothing we can or should do about this, but I think we should think about it," she says. "We have shaped and developed law for centuries through the jury-trial process, and cases that don't go to jury trial can't make appellate law."
Downs is aware of the trend in the legal profession in which attorneys, particularly younger ones, are working toward a more desirable work-life balance. In other words, fewer attorneys are working 80 hours or more a week. This would not apply to Downs. She says she still puts her children first over her career but maintains that putting them first doesn't mean she's home with them all the time. "When I do spend time with them, I want it to be meaningful time and not just plopped down in front of a TV," she says. "It means you have to be more focused and careful about how you make decisions about your time and resources. For me, I work all of the time that I'm not with them, and I don't mind that. I'm very fortunate to have everything that I have to do."