by Amy Martinez
Updated 4 months ago
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.
Downs, 60, grew up in Orlando on 15 acres with an orange grove and all sorts of animals, including horses, goats and a pet llama named Dolly.
Her father, Earl, a successful real estate developer, had grown up in Birmingham, Ala., during the 1930s and 1940s as the son of a sheriff who’d lost a re-election bid to segregationist Bull Connor. The experience left Earl Downs with a passion for civil rights. In the early 1960s, he clashed with the city of Orlando over a requirement that he provide separate “colored” waiting rooms for new medical offices he was building. The city relented and allowed him to build a desegregated waiting room. Downs’ mother, Sally, a former Little Miss Orlando winner, had been a member of the first graduating class that included women at the University of Florida.
Downs was the oldest of three girls and one boy, all of whom learned to be self-reliant. She tells of being given such adult-like tasks as checking out of the family’s hotel rooms at a young age as her father supervised from afar. “He just always wanted us to be able to do for ourselves.”
Downs, who graduated from UF with a bachelor’s degree in history in 1979, followed her dad into real estate, founding her own brokerage. In the course of doing business, she had an encounter with the law that shaped her later career track.
Early in her working years, she gained exclusive listing rights to homes in The Springs, a planned community that her father had developed in Longwood. In 1983, one of the subdivision’s builders sued Downs and her father in an antitrust case, claiming it had wrongfully been forced to market homes through her brokerage.
“I’ll never forget that awful, scary day when a deputy sheriff handed me a sheaf of papers. The words almost seemed like another language,” she says. “I thought, ‘This is awful. I can’t even understand what’s required here.’ ”
The Downses hired a local attorney, Jackie Griffin, who had gone into law after teaching Spanish. Griffin inspired Downs to become a lawyer. “She dazzled me with her intellect, her life and her job,” Downs says. “I became fascinated by that lawsuit.” Eventually, Downs and her father settled the suit for $750.
With help from another local attorney, Biff Marshall, Downs sold her brokerage business and enrolled in law school at UF. There, she became friends with a classmate named Buddy Dyer.
After law school, Downs returned to Orlando and worked for Griffin in private practice. In 1990, Griffin, who has since died, became an appellate judge for Florida’s 5th District Court of Appeal. Downs joined a litigation firm in Orlando, King, Blackwell, Zehnder & Wermuth, where she developed a reputation for taking on complex, high-stakes business cases and individual matters.
In 1997, Downs won what was then the largest payout of its kind in Florida — a $230-million cash and property settlement for Bettie Siegel in her divorce from timeshare magnate David Siegel. Downs’ other clients have included golfer Annika Sorenstam and NBA stars Dwight Howard and Chris Bosh.
In the courtroom, lawyers say, Downs is a tough opponent — intelligent, commanding, well-prepared and adept at tailoring her approach to the situation. “If the situation requires her to be firm and serious, then that’s how she’ll be,” says Anne Conway, an Orlando federal judge and longtime friend. Outside, Downs is known for a bawdy sense of humor and salty language.
“I like to think I’m a plain speaker,” she says. “If emphasis is needed, so be it. I hope I don’t shock or offend people, unless they deserve it.”
Downs’ friendship with Dyer has now extended beyond law school to the benefit of both.
In 2005, Dyer, then mayor of Orlando, was indicted on a felony charge of paying someone to collect absentee ballots during his recent election campaign. As he prepared to turn himself in, he felt he couldn’t go home because reporters had camped out on his lawn. Downs’ house became a refuge for him and his family.
“I had to explain to my children what was going on and that everything was going to be all right,” he says. “My kids know Mayanne as well as they know my blood relatives, so it was a comforting place for them to be.”
Downs was part of a team of lawyers who helped persuade prosecutors to drop the charges against Dyer, allowing him to return to his mayoral post a month and a half later. “I trust her implicitly,” he says.
In 2007, Dyer hired Downs as Orlando’s outside city attorney. Shortly afterward, she nearly died from an infected kidney stone that landed her in a medically induced coma for 11 days. “I had only a 25% chance of survival,” she says. Colleagues, friends and family members gave blood and comforted her children. “It just makes you think about people around you a little differently.”
As soon as she was well enough, Downs threw herself back into work. During the past decade, she helped structure and steer Dyer’s multibillion-dollar downtown venues projects, including a new home for the Orlando Magic and a reconstructed Citrus Bowl, now called Camping World Stadium.
In addition to her law-firm work, she advises Dyer and city commissioners on legal matters and oversees Orlando’s 25-member legal department. The city has a $200,000 annual contract for her services, though the amount it pays varies based on how much time she puts in.
Downs notes that she only provides legal advice and does not award contracts or make zoning changes. She dismisses any suggestions about potential conflicts of interest arising from the fact that some of her colleagues at GrayRobinson lobby the city on behalf of clients. “I can bet everything I own that nobody is going to influence me when I give advice to my mayor or my council,” she told the Orlando Sentinel. Many city attorneys in Florida are also members of law firms, she points out.
Highs and lows
Five years ago, Downs got a call from Marshall, who had been GrayRobinson’s president since the early 1990s. He was looking toward retirement and asked if she’d be interested in succeeding him.
In 2012, Downs left the boutique law firm where she had worked for 23 years to help launch a new complex litigation section at GrayRobinson. In June 2016, the firm’s board of directors unanimously voted to promote Downs to president and managing director.
“We didn’t hire her because she’s a woman. We hired her because she’s the most qualified person,” Marshall says. “But it’s a side benefit — we get some additional diversity in our leadership.”
In the same month she was elected head of the firm, Downs mourned the deaths of both of her parents and helped the city deal with the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. The attack, in which 49 were killed, raised a host of legal issues for the city, including oversight of a memorial fund for the victims’ families. Downs took a leave of absence from GrayRobinson to dedicate herself full time to helping the city work through the issues.
“We received and distributed to victims and their families a little over $32 million,” she says. “This is a very generous, loving and inclusive community. People were remarkable in their willingness to help and do the right thing, but it was a very complicated time.” Figuring out “the right level of payment” for each of the survivors and families of the dead, as well as the tax deductibility of donations, proved tricky, she says. “We had some large donations from our corporate community partners, but also there were a lot of $10, $20, $50 and $100 donations from people all over the world.”
Last year, in a press release announcing her promotion, GrayRobinson noted that Downs is one of few women at the top of the largest 200 U.S. law firms. Downs says she hopes her appointment sends a message to other law firms.
“This profession has a long way to go before women are meaningfully in charge, notwithstanding what their business cards say,” she says.
Downs, for her part, has hired women at the firm and seeks to ensure those who are busy with child rearing can keep their careers moving forward, she says. “I want them to be at the table, not just have people say they’re at the table.”
She sees corporate clients increasingly pushing law firms to diversify their leadership. “Just as they seek to have their management be a more diverse representation” of their communities and industries, she says, “they want to see their vendors do the same thing.”
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