Published in 2021 Florida Super Lawyers magazine
By Carlos Harrison on June 24, 2021
Dozens upon dozens of children—from infants to teens—beam from photos covering the walls of Jeanne Tate’s Tampa firm, and a remarkable number of them bear her name. Boys named Tate, girls named Jeanne, some with Tate’s last name hyphenated to their own in a lifelong tribute for making their families possible.
Tate’s family law practice handles only adoptions and surrogacies, and she also runs a full-fledged adoption agency. The photos on her wall are a tiny fraction of the 4,000 children who have found forever homes thanks largely to her.
“I feel like I am doing God’s work,” Tate says. “It is so uplifting and enriching to help a family grow through adoption. And the ability to find a family to adopt a special-needs or older child resonates loudly in my heart and soul.”
But it almost didn’t happen.
“I was very interested as a young child in true crime,” she says. “I read The Sunset Murders. I even liked fake crime—Perry Mason, Columbo, you name it. If it had to do with the whodunit kind of thing, I was watching it. So I always thought that I would be a criminal lawyer.”
The lawyers she read about and saw on TV were the only ones Tate knew.
Her dad got his GED through the military, and dedicated his post-military life to his rubber stamp business. Her mother quit college three credits shy of a microbiology degree to get married, and worked as a waitress and at the family business while raising four children.
Growing up in Oakland Park, just outside Fort Lauderdale, Tate was the oldest and, as she puts it, “a pretty big jock” who also loved math.
She was highly competitive, and adept at solving problems. So, even though her parents couldn’t help with her college costs—and the University of Florida “didn’t offer sports scholarships for women back then”—she went anyway, playing as many intramural sports as possible, and cutting expenses by living with five other women in a three-bedroom apartment. She waitressed year-round to pay her way.
“I worked every moment that I could,” she says. “Obviously, academics were important to me, but every spring break, every summer, every Christmas break, if I had a minute, I was working. I worked also throughout college, on the graveyard shift. I would go to work at 11 p.m. and then get off at 7 a.m. so that I could then go to class, play sports, and do my homework at work.”
“You’re probably going to hear people say she must never sleep, because she gets so much done,” says appellate attorney Raymond “Tom” Elligett, who worked with Tate at her first firm and sometimes joins her for cases on appeal. “She’s had some little family businesses on the side, and all kinds of activities, not only in the Bar but in the community. Somebody will say, ‘When did you do that?’ And she’ll say, ‘I was up sewing last night.’ So she’s up till like two or three in the morning, sewing or painting or something.”
Tate started off in college as a math major but switched to journalism to hone her language skills for future courtroom use. Then, in her sophomore year, her dad died unexpectedly, and her mother fell ill. Tate’s brothers and sister were all minors. Well-intentioned relatives suggested splitting them up, sending one to live with a cousin in one place, another with an aunt someplace else. Tate wouldn’t hear of it. She quit school, went home, and worked full time for about six months to keep her siblings together until her mother was able to take over again.
Then she returned to school, where she came up with an idea to help with expenses.
“I figured out that, by being a little sister at a fraternity, you would have a lot of social events and meals and entertainment and all of that. [You] didn’t pay dues. I couldn’t afford to be in a sorority. So I became a little sister at Delta Chi.”
Which is how she met her husband, Mark, now a corporate tax attorney. She was a senior, getting ready for law school. He was an incoming freshman, but he told her he was a transferring junior, tricking her into being his little sister—both guide and campus mentor—and biding his time until he persuaded her to go out with him.
“His father says I’m the only reason his son went to law school,” she says.
Tate started law school in spring 1979; a semester later, she started an internship at Shackleford, Farrior, Stallings & Evans in Tampa (now Gray Robinson).
She clerked for them during breaks and in the summer, and got a scholarship that helped with the rest of her expenses as she continued attending law school full time. The firm liked her so much, they told her an associate’s position would be waiting as soon as she graduated.
“I’m telling you, it was crazy, because I’m not even through with my first year of law school,” she says. “It was $50,000. I thought I hit the lotto.”
Her first case involved being on the team representing Florida after a wayward freighter caused the collapse of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Seven cars and a Greyhound bus plunged into the bay below; 35 people died. Tate soon traded her childhood dream of going into criminal law into a focus on admiralty, construction and securities.
It was the early ‘80s—a different time for women in the law.
“I usually would bring my lunch in, because the lawyers, partners and associates would go eat at the University Club, and they did not allow women as guests. I could be a waitress there, but I couldn’t eat there.”
Shackleford, she realized, had been in existence nearly a century, and had “dozens and dozens of partners. But in their entire history, they’d never had a woman partner. So I decided that I was going to become a partner.
“I looked at the metrics and what it took to be a partner. I had to bill a certain number of hours—check. You had to do good legal work—check. But you also had to have a book of business.”
That was a problem. At the time, her focus was on admiralty, construction and securities law. She was new in town and excluded from the usual places lawyers and their typically male clients ate. Plus, she didn’t play golf. So she looked to expand into a practice area where there was greater opportunity. She figured some of those high-end corporate clients might need divorces.
“I carved out family law as a temporary placeholder until I could gain the confidence of those clients that I was doing legal work for, and they would start referring work to me,” she says.
It worked. In just five years, she became one of the firm’s first female partners.
This came as no surprise to the judge who swore her into the Bar, Susan Bucklew, now a senior U.S. district judge, who has remained Tate’s friend and mentor. She has witnessed Tate’s determination, both in the law and when they played softball together for the Hillsborough County Bar Association’s women’s team. Tate went on to play on the Bar’s coed team, and in local leagues.
“She’s not just going to be the average player,” Bucklew says. “She’s a superstar.”
Tate left Shackleford after 10 years to become the first female partner at Hill Ward Henderson, a firm founded by one of her mentors, Benjamin H. Hill III.
She continued to concentrate on securities, admiralty and construction litigation, with adoptions on the side.
“I did really all family law—from prenuptial agreements for wealthy clients to divorces to post-divorce modifications and adoptions. The adoption part really spoke to me in a way that I had never experienced before. I can’t really recall how long I did divorces, but my guess would be at least 10 years.”
Eight years later, Tate went on her own, dedicated completely to the area that had become a passion. Two years after that, she launched a full-fledged adoption agency. That allowed her to offer a complete array of services to everyone involved—the birth and adoptive parents, as well as the children. “To do home studies, to investigate the suitability of adoptive parents, to provide counseling to birth,” she says. “Mothers obviously have grief and loss associated with an adoption plan and typically have a lot of other issues in their lives where they need guidance and support. … We also provide that service for fathers who wish to be involved and engaged.”
She named her agency Heart of Adoptions—in large part, she says, because of a frightening experience with one of her own children. Her youngest daughter, Amanda (Shelley), had a near-fatal heart attack at age 8, when doctors discovered she suffered from cardiomyopathy. Thanks to a heart transplant, she survived, and today she’s a vet tech and a gestational carrier with Heart of Surrogacy, which Tate opened last November, an agency dedicated to bringing surrogate mothers and intended parents together. Tate’s older daughter, Erica (Healey), is an attorney and works with her mom. Mark, the oldest child, is an engineer; Mike is in the insurance field. They’re all UF Gators except Mike, who got a football scholarship to Cornell. The family joke: “He couldn’t get into UF, so he went to Cornell.”
Tate quickly discovered a need in the adoption field: helping birth mothers of color, as well as hard-to-place foster, disabled or terminally ill children.
“I still never believe that there’s not a family for every child,” she says. “We have placed children with brain tumors, life expectancy of a year; no legs below the knees; horrible drug addiction, some terrible diseases like Prader-Willi syndrome.”
Finding homes for hard-to-place children became a driving force for Tate—and her practice.
“Those kids really are my passionate sense about why I got involved in this field,” she says. “We work very hard to get those kids the subsidies they need, and to get those kids families.”
She now has law offices in Naples, Orlando and Merritt Island. Most recently, she started Hearts to Home, “focusing 100% on finding families for kids in foster care because, let’s face it, the state doesn’t make a very good parent.”
Along the way, she helped the nonprofit Gift of Adoption Fund expand from a fledgling foundation to an organization with chapters in 26 states, providing grants to help would-be adoptive parents who don’t have the wherewithal for the expensive process.
As an adoption rights advocate, she has helped shape Florida laws regarding parental rights—such as the intervention statute, which gives birth parents a chance to pull children placed in foster care out of that system and steer them toward private adoption.
“The tremendous financial savings to the state will resonate with any lawmaker; but really, from the eyes of the child, we’re achieving permanency in a few months when it takes the state several years.”
Tate also played a crucial role in ending Florida’s “Scarlet Letter Law,” repealed after being ruled unconstitutional in 2003. Women who wanted to place a baby for adoption but were unsure of the father were required to run newspaper ads, giving a detailed description of themselves and of the possible father(s), and a list of sexual encounters. It was effectively a public shaming. Tate helped write a law offering an alternate solution: a registry for men who think they might be fathers. She defended that law before the state Supreme Court, and says she remembers one justice commenting: “Mrs. Tate, are you trying to tell me that after I had sex with a woman, I can’t go out on the balcony and smoke a cigarette, I got to go register with the state of Florida?” Tate recalls saying, “Absolutely not, your honor. You can go out on the balcony and smoke that cigarette. But sometime between then and the next nine months, when that mother has her baby—if you want to parent that child—you need to register with the state of Florida to protect yourself.” The justice voted to uphold the registry.
Active in pro bono work, Tate offers her firm’s services to handle all Hillsborough County adoptions for the nonprofit Bay Area Legal Services.
All of which has brought her a host of awards and accolades, including the Congressional Angel in Adoption Award, the Florida Adoption Council’s Lifetime Achievement Award, the Hillsborough Association for Women Lawyers Achievement Award, and the state Supreme Court’s Tobias Simon Pro Bono Service Award.
Despite her extensive experience, not all adoptions are smooth and undisputed. Sometimes biological fathers or other relatives step in to contest the proceedings. Tampa attorney Anthony Marchese, who has worked both with and in opposition to Tate in some of those cases, says, “If you go up against her, you have to be overly prepared, because she will be fully prepared.”
“She has your back,” says Loreen Spencer, a two-time client who serves with Tate on the board of Florida’s chapter of Gift of Adoption Funds. “You have such confidence in her ability and her intelligence and her professionalism that you really just trust her.”
The clients who matter most, though, are the ones who, more often than not, can’t speak for themselves.
“I don’t want to get emotional about this,” she says, dabbing a tear from her eye, “but I think of all the kids out there that don’t have a family. I can’t think of a greater gift to give any child than a family.”
At Jeanne Tate’s house, there’s room for more than just humans. At last count, she and Mark shared their home with six tortoises, three chickens, nine goats, a macaw, an umbrella cockatoo, a couple of tarantulas, a cadre of lizards, iguanas, and pythons of nearly every kind—emerald green tree pythons, Burmese, reticulated, albinos and, lately, some specially bred “designer snakes” called pybos.
“I don’t count them,” she says of the snakes.
It started with her husband’s love of reptiles. He had a reticulated python, Nimrod, when she met him, and she grew to share his passion. The snakes and lizards now have two heated rooms all to themselves, but you might find them anywhere.
“I can remember being in her kitchen and looking up at her light fixture above the island, and there’s a big green snake wrapped around her chandelier,” says her friend Loreen Spencer. “And she goes, ‘Well, if you look closely, they’re all over.’”
Those are just part of the ever-growing family menagerie. On their family property, the Nimrod Ranch—named after the dearly departed python—they also own five horses, a pig, and about 180 head of cattle. Along with more lizards, another tarantula and a scorpion.
Her husband brought the tarantulas home decades ago, she says, after he fell in love with their “pretty red, fuzzy feet.”
“They don’t do anything for me. But he has had some fun pranking people with them, who think the tarantula that’s sitting on the bar is fake.”
Third Place Award in the Sunshine State Awards presented by the Florida Society of Professional Journalists in the category of Profile Story.
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