Six attorneys who found happiness in Florida’s quieter corners
Published in 2022 Florida Super Lawyers magazine on June 24, 2022
Of the 77,000 lawyers who practice in Florida, it’s doubtful that many have been paid in lobster tails. Dave Manz was.
“I did lobster-violation cases where several defendants were caught in possession of undersized lobster tails,” explains Manz, who has practiced family law in Marathon, a town of 8,700 people in the Keys, for 34 years. To thank him for getting them out of hot water, the clients sent him lobster. Regulation size. Lots of them. “Twenty-four tails to a flat. I’d come home with six flats—like 150 lobster tail—and my wife would be like, ‘We’ve cooked these things any way we could cook ‘em.’”
Lawyers have different reasons for settling in small towns. Some can’t stand big-city commutes—or big cities. Some want to be closer to family. Others turn out to be better at networking in civic meetings than schmoozing with multimillionaires.
Here are six attorneys who refuse to quit their quaint DeLands and placid oceanfront Panama Citys.
How Did You End Up in Your Town?
Dave Manz, The Manz Law Firm, Marathon; Family Law: I had grown up in in a big metropolitan area, the West Palm Beach suburbs. I went to college and law school in Alabama, and practiced a few years. A products-liability firm I was in was breaking up, so I decided to come back to South Florida. Within a month or two, I was looking at, “Do I want to accept a job in West Palm or Miami?” On a whim, I sent some resumes out to the Keys, where I had vacationed as a kid; where my dad had taught me how to fish. Just fell in love with it and always dreamed of it, never really thinking I could live there. I found myself single, 27, [with] a job offer in Marathon.
Harlan Paul, Paul, Elkind, Branz & Paul, DeLand; Personal Injury – General: Plaintiff, Business Litigation: I was raised in South Florida and went to college at Stetson University, a small liberal arts university here. That’s how I became acquainted with DeLand.
Gery Rodriguez, Rodriguez-Albizu Law, Stuart; Business Litigation: I had been working at Greenberg Traurig, in the West Palm Beach office, as a commercial litigator. I didn’t have anything to lose by trying to practice in Stuart, because I still maintained my Palm Beach contacts. I live in Jupiter, about equidistant between West Palm Beach and Stuart. I opened an office here. Rather than working from home, I just went to work every day, and focused my networking up here. It worked out very well.
Jessica Czaya, Keith Taylor Law Group, Crystal River; Personal Injury – General: Plaintiff: My family is from here. When I graduated from law school, I moved back to Crystal River to work. I was wanting to keep my kids near my family—I now have two, but I had one at the time.
Carroll L. McCauley, Law Offices of Carroll L. McCauley Sr., Panama City; Family Law: I was practicing in Washington, D.C., as a corporate lawyer with a large company. [But] I was married to a woman whose home was Panama City.
Meagan Logan, Douglas & Douglas, Lake City; Civil Litigation: Defense: My husband is from here. It just kind of worked out. Our local school board had the same attorneys for years and years and decided to make the change, and Douglas & Douglas got the bid. While at my firm in Jacksonville, I basically served as interim school board attorney until they got things worked out. This firm basically said, “Would you like to keep doing what you’re doing?” I brought some of my defense work with me.
Why Go Small?
McCauley: I was part of a small corporate law department in this big company. I remember being invited to the president of the company’s home in one of the lovely suburbs of northern Virginia, standing on his patio next to his pool—and looking to my left at the next-door neighbor’s home, which was also lovely, with a pool, and looking to the right, at the other neighbor’s home, with a pool. I thought to myself, “Well, if I spend my life here, then I’ll be standing in a place about like this. And that doesn’t sound particularly exciting.” After practicing in D.C. for over a year, I made the decision that the city was too big for me and I would never really have an identity of my own that would feel satisfying. I basically came to a smaller pond in Panama City and started my own practice. This was in the early ‘70s.
Czaya: Moved here in 1990-something. The town has certainly grown quite a bit. Everybody’s celebrating—we might get a Target! We don’t have a Starbucks. The location’s great, the river in the spring is fantastic, it’s not super-crowded, and it’s easygoing and laid-back. I’m not a big-time city girl.
Logan: You get everything from wills to business disputes to personal injury. There are all kinds of needs in a small town, and you’re expected to be a jack of all trades. There are plenty of clients.
Rodriguez: I thought it might be a good idea to be a big fish in a smaller pond. I wanted to help out more small and mid-size business owners and individuals. I felt the best way to do that was to be on my own. I could be more nimble.
Paul: When I got out of law school, I saw friends going to bigger cities and bigger firms and figured I’d trade my earnings potential for quality of life. As it turns out, it doesn’t appear to me to have been a tradeoff at all.
Logan: You get to know everyone: You get to know your clients, you get to know the judges, you get to know opposing counsel.
Manz: It was historically a working town. [With] a lot of people, I’d barter. I bartered for a used car one time.
Paul: Initially, I was getting purely local clients and referrals from other attorneys—work they didn’t do or didn’t want to do—and slowly built the practice. We grew the firm to eight lawyers, and for a small town, that’s a good size. You think, being in a small town, you might not end up with larger cases and bigger clients. That’s just not the case. I’ve had cases and clients that brought me to Spain, Grand Cayman, British Virgin Islands.
Manz: Within two years, I was getting tons of referrals of matrimonial cases, and I got board-certified. I was able to get around the state, meet a lot of people, get my name out there.
Rodriguez: When I was ready to leave Greenberg, I reached out to them and said, “This is what I’m planning on doing. Would you continue to send me work when I’m on my own?” Uniformly, they all told me, “Yeah, of course, you’re our guy.”
McCauley: [In the early ’70s], you simply had to hang your shingle. Literally, you had a shingle. And you couldn’t advertise. You could not even have a shingle that had letters more than two and a half inches high, because that was considered unprofessional. That was a Florida Bar rule. You had two means of holding yourself out to the public—one was your shingle and one was in the phone book. You waited for the phone to ring … or you met people through civic clubs.
Czaya: We do get a lot of walk-ins. Older people seem more comfortable just walking in. Most of the younger folks say, “I found you on the internet,” and we have to set up a phone call. We have no billboards, we don’t do TV commercials. Either they know me or someone else in my firm, another lawyer or legal assistant, or they have a friend whose brother got in a car accident once and I represented them.
Paul: When I was 5 or 6, I used to watch Perry Mason. I continued to have an interest in it from my young age, and was encouraged by my parents.
Rodriguez: When I went to law school, I wanted to be a real estate developer. I took a real estate finance class in college, and the professor brought in a developer. I said, “What do I have to do? I don’t have any family ties or connections; how do I make a name for myself, how do I get involved, how do I start?” His answer basically was, “Real estate development is 90 percent law.” I figured quickly, if I got a J.D., I could get into business, too.
Manz: I grew up in North Palm. I had an uncle who taught me to hunt and camp in the Everglades. I went to school to become a zoologist and rapidly realized, “I don’t want to deal with fruit flies my whole life, I don’t want to be in a lab.” I said, “I want to be around people and learn their stories and help them.”
Logan: I graduated college when I was 19 years old, and I had dual degrees in history and political science. I thought to myself, “What am I going to do, teach kids who are two years younger than me?” I had always excelled in language arts and logical reasoning, so I took the LSAT and went to law school.
McCauley: My father was killed two months before I was born. He was a lieutenant in the Army Air Force and flew a B-17 bomber and was killed over Germany in May of 1943. And my family had veterans’ benefits. So even though we were [of] modest circumstances, I always knew I would have an opportunity to get an education. I started figuring out, “Well, I read a lot, and I’m somewhat verbal and, gee, what fits that skill set?”
Big Cases in Small Towns
Manz: My first case was helping a guy get money back from somebody who wrongly installed his screen on his house. [Once] it was a small-church pastor who’d been charged with solicitation-prostitution. I handled a divorce case involving a $500 truck. I did land-use work. I did a case involving a slip-and-fall where somebody fell on an I-beam almost hidden in the parking lot of a hardware store—got a good settlement! Represented a lady who fell at a meat counter and got an award. I did capital sexual-battery cases. I’ve represented three different wives over the years against the same guy because they all referred the next wife to me. I’ve seen the guy in the city. He’s a trainer, and I’m at the gym all the time.
Paul: I was retained by then President-elect George W. Bush in 2000 to represent him in Volusia County regarding the election ballot dispute with Al Gore in Volusia County. I advised the Bush team regarding the Volusia County dispute until a recount confirmed a week later that Bush was the winner in Volusia County by 300 votes and further litigation would be unnecessary. One of [my] larger cases involved a products liability suit against E.I. duPont—representing a large number of farmers as co-counsel with products liability counsel, for damage to their crops as a result of a chemical that was defective. Another was a client from Madrid who retained me for an international corporate-fraud case. The board of directors of the Spanish company had a president in the U.S. who defrauded the company and converted its assets. He set up trusts in Grand Cayman, the British Virgin Islands and Spain. The company retained me to obtain a judgment against their terminated president, track down the converted assets and attempt to recover them. We ultimately obtained a judgment against the defendant totaling $8,400,000 and recovered assets in multiple countries.
Logan: One of my first clients here was a family out in Suwannee County. It was a land dispute between siblings, land they had inherited from their parents. There was a deed from a mother to her 13 children that said, basically, “Upon my death, each child should take an even share.” After her death, it sat for several years, and none of the children felt the need to probate. These are poor farmers—they farm tobacco, they farm peanuts, they’re not sophisticated when it comes to legal disputes. They chose to keep things going the way they were going. A grandchild stepped in and probated the estate, and moved to partition the land—over 200 acres. Because he stepped up, he was given a share, even though he had no claim to it under the deed. That served to reduce everyone else’s share. It resulted in liens on the siblings’ properties. They were sold at auction on the courthouse steps. So these individuals were divested of property that was left to them by their mother that had been in their family for 100 years. The fight is to get the property back. It’s not finished.
Czaya: The first big trial I had was a wrongful death case. It was lengthy and involved a case against a road construction company. Part of the roadway that was still under construction ended up causing a fatal head-on collision. I ended up representing the deceased woman’s husband and three children.
Rodriguez: It’s not always the big matter that makes a difference. We get people who come into our office; we offer a half-hour free consult. Just yesterday, I was talking with a potential client on the phone, and when you ask them, “How’d you find me?” they tell you, “You’re the only person to call me back.”
And About That Commute
Paul: What I can do is have a cup of coffee, and my staff can call and tell me that the first appointment’s there for the day. By the time they’ve filled out the information sheet, I can be in the car, almost to the office.
McCauley: We don’t have to drive, and I don’t have to commute. In Washington, D.C., I had a 30-minute commute that was unpleasant. The Beltway was awful. I had somebody say one time, “People in the Beltway were like rats circling around until they found their little warren and their little place to jump into— their apartment—and close the door, and jump out again in the morning.”
Logan: I commuted to my job in Jacksonville for 11 years. We have two kids, and as they get older and get into activities, you can’t help but feel like you’re missing things, spending three hours in the car every day.
Paul: If you want to do patent law, international law, corporate law—those specialties really aren’t available to you in a small community. Anything that is more specialized is probably going to be in a large firm. So you are limited, to some degree, in the clients you’re going to have, the cases you’re going to handle.
Logan: Living in a small town—and Lake City’s getting bigger all the time—our options for shopping and dining are limited. I miss that. We have a great firm here. We have five lawyers. But I came from a firm with 26 lawyers. If you had a question, or if there was something outside your wheelhouse, I do, on occasion, miss having colleagues to talk to and commiserate with.
Czaya: In law school, they used to joke about how you should never order a cocktail for lunch at a restaurant because people might say, “My lawyer’s getting drunk at 2 in the afternoon!” In a small town, people recognize their lawyer. A lot of people probably don’t want to go to the store and run into a client. But it is a small town.
Manz: I walk into Publix, I see 20 people I represented—I represented their dad, I represented their mom, I was on the other side of their case. Your reputation precedes you every day. Now, if you’ve got what I consider the highest morality and ethics, that is all going to fit into place. I always look at it like, “I treat the $1,200 case as well as the $500,000 case.” If I do that, I never have to worry about, “Hey, you remember me? You represented my dad 20 years ago!”
Rodriguez: One of the biggest challenges I had growing the firm was finding staff. If I were in the Palm Beach County market, it would have been much easier, because there’s a much larger labor pool.
Manz: I’ve had those thoughts: “We would have gone to the art museum more,” or “We would have gone to the ballet more—or had more cultural opportunities for the kids.” I have friends who represent professional athletes and multi-multi-millionaire businessmen every day, and that’s all they do. I might represent somebody who’s trying to keep their business open on Wall Street, in Key West, long enough to break even, and they’ve already sold their house and prices are skyrocketing and they just want some help to stay on their feet. But you’re going to have these intangibles that can be profoundly valuable. I’ve got three daughters and I teach them how to fish and do things we couldn’t do with the lifestyle of a big city. I’ve seen how a lot of kids are raised up and down the coast of Florida who don’t have an opportunity to do things you can do here—that are unique to a small town.
My favorite thing about my town
Harlan Paul: The cultural and social activities. America’s Main Streets [2017 national competition] said DeLand has the best downtown. It was also named one of the best small towns in the South by Southern Living . It’s close to the ocean, it’s close to Orlando. It has a charm. I used to call it a hidden gem, but at this point I don’t think it’s hidden anymore.
Meagan Logan: The sense of community. Lake City is a small town, everybody knows each other, and if something comes up, everyone’s willing to help. Last year, the city fire chief died as a result of COVID. The entire community rallied. There were wreaths all over the place.
Gery Rodriguez: It’s a beach community, it’s on the water. I’m a boater myself. It’s a golf community. I’m a golfer, too. It’s amazing how much nicer the folks are, just generally.
Jessica Czaya: We have freshwater springs. There’s this part [where] you have to swim in or kayak in. You get into the springs and it opens up into this big, round, open area and the water is completely clear and it’s turquoise. You can see all the way down.
Dave Manz: I would say the water. I’m really connected—scuba dive, fish, take the boat out with the family.
Carroll L. McCauley: I’m looking out my windows now and the sun’s shining and it’s a beautiful day. We have what we need nearby. I live half a mile from where I work, and that makes my colleagues in the big cities eat their hearts out.