Woman of Firsts

By Sharon Cole

To those who have seen her in the courtroom, it is not surprising Sylvia Walbolt (JD 63) spearheaded appeals resulting in the reversal of more than $100 million in jury verdicts — despite a judicial climate in Florida courts that overwhelmingly affirms such decisions.

And that’s just in a single year. Nor is it surprising she played a vital role in convincing her law firm, Carlton Fields, to participate in an American Bar Association initiative by committing a significant percentage of billable hours to pro bono services.

“Sylvia’s leadership is legendary,” said Carlton Fields partner/shareholderWilliam Reece Smith Jr. (JD 49). “She’s been a strong supporter of pro bono services and is an outstanding woman litigator who has gained recognition and respect for excellence in our profession from both male and female litigators, here and elsewhere.”

Walbolt continues to be involved in compelling cases and worthy causes on a regular basis, even after 40 years with the Tampa-based firm. It was in 2001 that she participated in the two major cases that led to $100 million in reversals.

She was part of the team that won reversal of a $79.2 million verdict against Humana Insurance Co. of Florida Inc. for its failure as an HMO to provide special health care benefits to a girl with cerebral palsy.

“The Humana case included the highest punitive damages awarded for an individual in Florida’s history,” said Walbolt.

She also won reversal of a jury verdict against Columbia/JFK Medical Center Inc. and the University of Miami that had awarded $22.8 million to radiation oncologists in a breach-of contract lawsuit.

Another example of Walbolt’s talents include the more recent reversal of a judgment entered on a jury verdict for a police officer in a First Amendment Section 1983 employment retaliation case.

“It was a case against the City of Riviera Beach for termination of a police officer,” explained Walbolt. “The officer said he was fired because he spoke against the police department. He had received a jury verdict and we took it upon appeal. We got it reversed and the case was over.”

Gary Sasso, Walbolt’s colleague of 16 years, said, “Sylvia is a very creative lawyer. She’s able to get to the heart of the matter in the courtroom, which makes her successful.”

Walbolt became known as a woman of firsts early on, when she was the solo female law student in her 1963 class and graduated first. She was one of Tampa’s first women lawyers, became the first female partner of her firm, and was the first woman to be elected president of The Florida Bar Foundation.

Walbolt has appeared as counsel in more than 180 published decisions — including cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, the 11th Circuit and the Florida Supreme Court, and was selected by National Law Journal in 2001 as one of the top 10 women litigators in the nation.

BEFORE HER TIME

Walbolt began litigating just a few months after signing on with Carlton Fields in 1963. By 1969, she was asked to take over trial preparation for a major anti-trust case involving Florida Power Corporation, an electric utility dominated by an all-male management team and legal department.

“To allow a woman to sit in a meeting with the president of Florida Power and tell him what he should or shouldn’t do was unheard of in the ‘60s,” she said. “But gender never became an issue. It was very much a matter of respect.”

During trial preparations Walbolt had to be hospitalized due to premature birth complications with her first child, and it was colleague and mentor Reece Smith who brought to her bedside galley proofs of the briefs on Florida Power’s appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Back then the word ‘mentor’ wasn’t used so much, but I instinctively knew Reece was my mentor,” she said. “He just rolled with the punches in situations like that.” Florida Power won the case and although Walbolt could not be there to try it, Smith brought her back an autographed opinion from Chief Justice Warren Berger.

Walbolt admits women attorneys at that time did not share the level of support she received at Carlton Fields and throughout her career. Recalling an invitation to speak on an allfemale panel in the late 1970s, she said, “I was the last to speak and, after listening to other speakers talk about discrimination they encountered, I realized just how fortunate I had been.”

Her firm even accepted her proposal to work part-time while her children were young. “No one had heard of such a thing back then,” she says. “In that regard, they were a pioneer and set a new standard.”

Often serving as a mentor for young women, Walbolt recognizes certain problems existed for her in the past that are still present for women today — in spite of new standards. “I’m not sure we’ve made a lot of strides when it comes to finding a way for women to balance a quality personal life with the things we need to do for a successful law practice,” she said.

However, she is impressed with the number of women now in the legal profession, which bears stark contrast to her first years. “It is amazing to see how different the landscape is today where I may be arguing before a woman judge, have a female client, and be competing with another woman lawyer.”

Today, Carlton Fields employs 69 women (and 200 total attorneys) in six Florida offices.

“I helped recruit the second woman to join our firm, Ruth Kinsolving — a 1971 UF law grad and an associate editor of Florida Law Review — and many more,” she said. (Kinsolving, named in 2003 by Florida Real Estate Journal as one of 20 “top women in Commercial Real Estate,” is co-chair of the Carlton Fields’ Real Estate & Mortgage Financial Group. In addition, Walbolt’s partner is Gwynne Young, chair of the LCA Board of Trustees Major Gift Committee.)

Walbolt is confident her female counterparts favorably impact the legal system, “just as do African Americans and disabled people.”

“It’s beneficial to have breadth on the bench and in the courtroom,” she said. “Women and the diversity movement as a whole have helped shape the law. Each person sees legal issues from the prism of his or her own experiences.”

LOVE FOR THE LAW

While she could have chosen any number of impressive cases to cite as a career highlight, Walbolt immediately reflected on something quite different — a choice indicative of her love for the law and everything it stands for. She spoke of serving on the Anglo American Exchange Panel of 1999-2000, a program allowing those practicing law in different countries to share information and learnfrom one another about the ups and downs of legal processes.

“That was one of the greatest moments of my career. Five American lawyers and five American judges — including high caliber figures such as Justice Anthony Kennedy and Justice Clarence Thomas of the Supreme Court — met with British and Scottish solicitors to talk about issues of common interest,” Walbolt said. “Three of those issues included federalism, professionalism and the teaching of law.”

She laughed when noting the Brits were a bit amused that after 200 years, those in the U.S. are still deciding where to draw the line between federal and state. And she relished the ensuing discussions on the differences between the British and American ways of teaching law.

“We wondered if it really is a good thing our teaching methods are oriented to the practical side of law practice as opposed to the older method, which urges thinking and analyzing legal issues.”

Another topic was professionalism in relation to the way money is earned. “We still have a lot of work to do to ensure integrity within this profession,” she conceded. “But it’s also true there are a lot of great lawyers out there doing a lot of great things.”

HER UF DAYS

So what provoked Walbolt to pursue law during a time when most women did not? Her interest was initially piqued while working in UF’s law library and, since her dual major of mathematics and history didn’t completely suit her, she decided to study law.

“I realized I didn’t want anything to do with my undergrad degree,” she said. “I got to know students coming in and out of the law library and thought, ‘I can do this.’ I then applied for and received a scholarship.”

She admits she didn’t believe she would ever get a job practicing law, and just assumed she would clerk or teach. “I wish I could say I had a grand plan in mind when I applied to law school, but I didn’t. Once I got there, however, I was fascinated with the legal analysis process.”

Her parents were very supportive of her choice. “I didn’t know for many years that my mother, who is an extremely bright and capable person, wanted to study law but was told by the University of Illinois Law School they only accepted men,” said Walbolt. “So, she became a librarian and a teacher…but she would have been a terrific lawyer.”

She recalls that the law professors most influential to her were Dean Henry A. Fenn and Professor Walter Weyrauch, now Distinguished Professor of Law and Stephen C. O’Connell Chair.

“I didn’t have a choice but to be prepared for Weyrauch’s class,” she said. “He would always call on me. Since I was the only woman, he knew I was present and had to respond. If a guy didn’t know an answer when called upon, he could pretend he wasn’t present and the professor wouldn’t know.”

She said no special treatment was given to her because she was a woman, “but that made me a stronger lawyer and I wouldn’t have changed it.”

Walbolt continues moving full force ahead and shows no signs of slowing down. Though she could retire, she said. “So far no one has suggested I leave, so it is not on the immediate horizon.

“But I’m cognizant I don’t want to overstay my welcome. You see athletes who stay too long and I don’t want to do that.”