Career Corner: Journalist turns litigator, Sunday morning legal analyst
A cold, rainy day during winter break became fate for Lee Stapleton (JD 82).
The University of Florida graduate student who was studying public relations had stayed in Gainesville for the holidays, and at the suggestion of a professor, she reluctantly went to a dingy office to inquire about a freelance writing job for the Florida Times-Union.
Little did Stapleton know that visiting the office where wallpaper was peeling off the walls would set her on a course to become one of Miami’s top lawyers and set the trajectory for her lifelong love of learning and adventure.
Stapleton was put on the courts beat with the newspaper, where she fell in love with the challenges and complexities of the legal field.
“What I do as a litigator is very much like what I did as a journalist,” she said. “You go in and bring the skill set that you have, and you use it to master a variety of different subjects.”
Stapleton had long had an interest in a variety of subjects, perhaps partly because she had a childhood full of variety. Born to a military family that was always on the go, she lived in Virginia, Florida, Germany, New Mexico and California before she was 18 years old.
She wound up in Gainesville for college and, when she got the newspaper job, covered local events for the Jacksonville paper. One day on assignment, she walked up to the Gainesville courthouse on her way to cover a hearing. She saw a judge, black robes flowing, standing at a bus stop pavilion. She stopped to listen. The judge was annulling a marriage under the awning because the courtroom had been evacuated due to a bomb threat.
“There’s always something different at the courthouse,” she said. “There’s a familiarity to the rhythm to it, but there’s always new things: new sets of facts, new and improbable situations.”
It was those idiosyncrasies that kept Stapleton coming back for more. Eventually, she decided law was a path she wanted to pursue.
Upon earning her law degree at UF, she recalled a vacation to Miami as a high school senior. The city had made an impression her, and she decided to return to build a career there.
“At some point, I decided I wanted something more akin to what I had done as a journalist.”
And so, in 1984, she was hired by Stanley Marcus, U.S. attorney with the 3rd District Court of Appeal. Her job in the major crime section at what was at the time the busiest U.S. attorney’s office in the country, put her in touch with cases involving some of Miami’s most harrowing law-breakers.
“There was a lot of allure to that, because those were the days when there was a lot of adventure, and there was certainly a lot of criminal activity to pursue,” Stapleton said.
For a long time, Stapleton said, Miami was considered a “lawless town where sort of anything goes.” The legal crackdown that advanced in the ’80s, which Stapleton was part of, played an integral part in “pushing back the wilderness” and preserving Miami as a paradise.
Stapleton helped prosecute the Renee Stewart case, in which a 19-year-old University of Miami freshman acted as a middleman weapons dealer between rogue police officers and narcotics traffickers. She also worked on the Isaac Hicks case that busted up a multi-million dollar, inner-city cocaine ring that sold its product near schoolyards.
Stapleton eventually left the U.S. attorney’s office and went into private practice. It has afforded her opportunities to work on cases based in exotic places like South America. She’s currently a partner at Baker & McKenzie in Miami and was featured in the 2013 issue of Florida Super Lawyers magazine.
She is also the Sunday morning legal analyst for Miami’s Channel 10 ABC affiliate. On air, she said her goal is “to be both educational and entertaining.”
She has commented on national issues such as the Gov. Chris Christie bridge debacle and the Casey Anthony and George Zimmerman trials. Other days, “it’s just whatever is interesting legally.”
Her Sunday morning routine actually begins Saturday night. The last thing she does before going to bed is read over her carefully researched notes for the next day’s topic. She gets up at 5 a.m. and checks the news online to see if anything new has come up related to the topic. Then it’s off to the TV station to get ready to go on air.
“There’s a lot that precedes going on air,” she said. “It’s the same sense as going into the courtroom. No matter how often I’ve done it, I still get butterflies, which is a good thing. You never want to be complacent.”
But complacent was never in Lee Stapleton’s nature, anyway.