Sun Sentinel: Legal brief Eugene K. Pettis will be the Florida Bar’s first African American president in 2013 (2-12-2012)

By Cindy Kent, Sun Sentinel
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Eugene K. Pettis was looking for purpose when he was deciding on a career, he says.

His favorite television show growing up was the cop series Adam-12.

At first, Pettis planned on dentistry and then environmental engineering.

But then he focused on political science and law.

Pettis co-founded of his Fort Lauderdale law firm Haliczer Pettis & Schwamm in 1996. He’s practiced in the areas of medical malpractice, personal injury, employment law, professional liability and commercial litigation.

This summer, Pettis will be sworn in as president-elect at the Florida Bar’s annual convention in June. He’ll serve as Bar president in 2013.

His tenure will also mark another first: Pettis will be the first African American president in Florida Bar history.

As for who his legal/justice heroes are, Pettis says that’s easy: they are those that utilize their legal degrees to better their surrounding communities.

The drill-down

How important is it to you personally to be in a leadership position with The Florida Bar? It is an honor and will perhaps be one of the most thrilling chapters of my life.

Notably, you’re the first black person to be elected to the position. Why do you think this is only happening now? The fact that I will be the first African-American to serve as president of The Florida Bar is remarkable. There certainly have been many individuals worthy of the role; however, due to circumstances within and outside of The Bar, they have not been able to achieve such a position.

How does it reflect on The Florida Bar that they have not had a black person in this position yet? The Florida Bar has come a long way in its 61-year history. Despite some of its darker days, I believe it is at the cutting edge of diversity and inclusion, which will impact the entire State of Florida.

What are some issues you would focus on during your incumbency1) identifying a predictable and sufficient source of funding for our court system to ensure no disruption in access to justice for the citizens of this state; 2)continue to create opportunities for diversity and inclusion of all of our members, because we believe that there is strength in numbers; and 3) with the significant increase of lawyers entering the profession, and the difficulty in finding work, it’s important we provide law students, as well as incoming lawyers, the necessary training so they can competently transition into the practice of law.

Do you feel the legal system is ready to go viral? The impact of social media in the courtroom was recently evidenced in the Casey Anthony trial in Orlando. Many experts believe that it was the defense counsel’s utilization of social media and how certain issues were playing out in that form that led to her acquittal. I believe social media presents concerns in the courtroom because jurors can be exposed to the Internet in so many different ways, thus being influenced by information, which is outside of the evidence in the case. Moreover, many of the opinions that go viral on the Internet allow popular opinion to develop that may have no foundation in the law.

Many people who enter the legal system in South Florida don’t have the ability to pay. If you had to single-handedly fight the case to improve our economy, what would be your opening argument? One of the most important issues we have within the justice system is maintaining access to the courts. With the downturn of the economy, so many services are not affordable. This has increased the importance of our legal aid systems and the significance of pro bono work by lawyers, making sure people in our community have equal access to justice.

What is the best advice you ever received? My mother taught me, “All things are possible if you only believe,” which has been central to my success.

Notes

On mentoring: Perhaps some of my greatest mentors are individuals that shaped my character throughout my grade school years. These were men and women who taught me the importance of self-confidence, sacrifice, preparation, leadership and being kind to others. I clearly would not be where I am today if it were not for those pre-law mentors who shaped my life.

– Eugene Pettis

On Legal resources, information

Pettis’ firm provides resource links ranging from legal services to consumer organizations at: hpslegal.com

The Florida Bar also provides links to numerous resources. at: floridabar.org

On the details: Haliczer Pettis & Schwamm; Address: One Financial Plaza, Fort Lauderdale; hpslegal.com; 954-523-9922