FORT LAUDERDALE — Eugene K. Pettis remembers when he had to fish for quarters to pay bullies to let him pass through Sunland Park. After his father fell asleep on the sofa, change would trickle from his pockets. Young Eugene used the coins to secure a path to Sunland Elementary School all through fifth and sixth grades.
Such was the nearby neighborhood where Pettis grew up in Fort Lauderdale.
Pettis made his shortcut payments count. And he will make history this Friday when he is installed as the 65th president of the Florida Bar – the first African American to hold the post – during the organization’s annual convention in Boca Raton. Two Hispanic men served as president in 1989 and 2007. Outgoing president Gwynne Young is the fifth female to head the Bar since 1993.
To assume the presidency of a 96,000-member organization that has been run by mostly white men is a role Pettis is prepared to embrace.
He saw the possibility a few years ago when he decided to get involved in the Bar and set out on a path that would propel him to the top job. With his two daughters away at school, family conditions now allow for the grueling year ahead.
“There is a magnitude to me being sworn in as president,” said Pettis. “If I don’t use this moment to advance diversity then it is lost.”
Pettis credits his leadership skills to his stay-at-home mother who attended all PTA meetings and was heavily involved in the community where he grow up near Sistrunk Boulevard and Interstate 95, a professional working class neighborhood surrounded by more rough and tumble areas.
Pettis already has left an impact on diversity efforts in his president-elect year on the Bar. He launched the Wm. Reece Smith Jr. Leadership Academy of the Florida Bar to train a diverse group of lawyers to fit into a leadership pipeline. There is no fee for the academy but the fellows will pay their own expenses to attend the one-day meeting. Scholarships are available on a need basis.
The first class of 59 fellows has been selected and will meet during the annual convention which culminates on Saturday.
As of today, of those who self-reported, African Americans comprise only three percent of the Bar – where membership is mandatory for lawyers. Hispanics are eight percent and “Others” four percent. Still, the Bar received 263 nominations for positions in the Leadership Academy.
“The curriculum will enhance the fellows’ skills so they can go out into the community as better Bar leaders and ambassadors,” Pettis said.
Pettis himself is already such an ambassador, launching the 2016 Commission, a three-year study to examine how legal education, Bar admissions, pro bono services and technology will impact the legal profession.
“Just like doctors do residency at hospitals, can a recently graduated law student provide pro bono services for credit?” Pettis said. “This is just an idea of how far-reaching this study will be.”
The civil trial attorney is a founding member of Haliczer Pettis & Schwamm, a law firm with offices in Fort Lauderdale and Orlando. He started his career in 1985 with Conrad, Scherer & James, with a focus on medical malpractice and personal injury litigation. He went on to establish Cooney, Haliczer, Mattsen, et al. with colleagues from Conrad, Scherer & James.
In 1996, Pettis and Jim Haliczer founded Haliczer Pettis & Schwamm. The practice focuses on medical malpractice, personal injury, commercial litigation, employment litigation, workers’ compensation and professional liability.
Richard Schwamm fondly remembers his job interview with Pettis, who is now one of his closest friends.
“I interviewed him,” said Schwamm, who heads the Orlando office.
“I wanted to know his story, his past, his career. He is the poster-child of what you want to be. I love the guy. He makes you feel included in everything.”
Sheila, Pettis wife of 25 years, said she knew her husband would go on to do big things after he won his first big case against Humana Hospital when he worked at Conrad, Sherer & James.
“I knew he was going to win but he could have lost, too, but I saw his drive and I knew he was going to win,” Sheila Pettis recalled. “Law is his passion.”
The couple contribute to community charities in Broward County and recently established an endowment for minority students attending Pettis’ alma mater, the University of Florida’s Levinson School of Law. He serves on the University of Florida Foundation Board as University of Florida’s Levin College of Law Trustee, is a life member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity and past member of the Broward College Foundation Board of Directors and other organizations in Florida.
Lauderhill City Attorney Earl Hall said Pettis’ leadership skills were evident even while attending university. Pettis was the first president of the Black Student Union at UF. He founded Students Unite Now and ran for treasurer of the student government.
Pettis made history when he became treasurer at UF, the first African American in the post.
“Eugene is subtly ambitious, disarmingly ambitious, distinguished,” Hall said of the friend he has known since undergraduate studies. “When he became the first African-American treasurer, it was a wonderful achievement for Eugene and the university. It was a prelude to more firsts in that regard. We all saw it.”
*Photo of Eugene K. Pettis