More than half of The Florida Bar presidents since 1950 are Gator law graduates, so what is it about UF Law that produces so many presidents of The Florida Bar?
By way of explanation, John F. Harkness (JD 69) notes that UF Law is the state’s flagship law school and until 1968 it was among only three Florida law schools accredited by the American Bar Association.
Even so, UF Law graduates never represented more than a minority of those practicing in the state, and the rapid growth of the state bar has meant a large influx of out- of-state talent eligible to lead the organization. Today there are 11 American Bar Association- accredited law schools in Florida.
Harkness surmises that the fact that Gators have so often led The Florida Bar as presidents is “just one of those things.”
But it is “one of those things” that happens a lot. In 2008-2009 John G. “Jay” White III (JD 83) became the first Gator in a decade to serve as bar president, setting the stage for the current run of consecutive
Gator presidents. White’s law partner Gerry Richman (JD 64), a current member of the Law Center Association Board of Trustees, was bar president 1984-1985. Richman is joined on the Board of Trustees by 1995-1996 President John A. Devault (JD 67), current bar President Scott Hawkins (JD 83), 1991-1992 President Benjamin H. Jill (JD 65) and 2013 President Eugene Pettis (JD 85). Incoming bar President Gwynne Young (JD 74) is an emeritus member.
Mayanne Downs (JD 87), a former member of the UF Law Alumni Council, notes that UF Law graduates are often double Gators — that will be true of three of the four consecutive bar presidents through 2013. And Florida law students and undergraduates eagerly soak up the leadership opportunities available through Blue Key, student government, Florida Law Review and numerous other clubs and fraternities available at a major American seat of higher learning.
“People who care about excellence and are driven to reach the highest heights can go to the flagship university. It’s elementary. It’s a perfect match,” Downs said. “And the University of Florida celebrates and promotes leadership like no school I have ever heard of or known about.”
And then there’s the whole Gator Nation phenomenon.
Harkness said fellow UF Law alumni intervened at key moments in his career. One of two people choosing him as state courts administrator in the 1970s was Justice Ben Overton (JD 52).
Harkness also recalled the recreational establishment that he and his buddies began at the University of Florida.
“We built this place called the Rathskeller, a place on campus that could serve beer many, many years ago. It’s closed down. We’d bring concerts to the university,” Harkness said.
Stephen N. Zack (JD 71), the 1989-1990 president of The Florida Bar and later of the American Bar Association, worked on the Rathskeller with Harkness. Zack was among the UF Law alumni on the committee that picked Harkness as Florida Bar executive director.
Zack is among five ABA presidents who graduated from UF Law, more than from any other law school in 50 years. The others are Chesterfield Smith (JD 48), William Reece
Smith Jr. (JD 49), Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte (JD 62) and Martha Barnett (JD 73). All besides Barnett served as presidents of The Florida Bar before taking the top spot at the ABA.
After graduating from UF Law, each of these figures has dedicated themselves to the state or national bar. They have also given back to their alma mater with major donations of time and money or as members of the UF Law Center Board of Trustees or the UF Law Alumni Council. That in turn has improved the education for future Gator lawyers and helped build the state’s largest endowment.
UF Law Dean Robert Jerry said these interrelationships are no coincidence.
“It’s a virtuous circle,” Jerry said. “We graduate future leaders, and they propel us toward greater educational heights, which leads to success for the next generation of alumni.”