Aesthetically Yours

How to practice law in an art gallery

Published in 2009 Florida Super Lawyers — June 2009

Art and the law find common ground in Michael Maher's Winter Park office, whose walls are adorned with nearly 50 pieces from his extensive collection of signed prints. Visitors are treated to works by contemporary masters such as American pop artists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg and abstractionist Elizabeth Murray.

Maher's staff has adopted the art as its own. "It's funny, because they have all grown to love this," he says. "They will take people around to show them. They're very proud. Our clients love it."

So does he. His penchant for visiting galleries and museums with his wife, Diane, grew into a zeal for collecting, beginning with a Johns piece in 1977. But art can never take the place of his other passion: practicing law.

Growing up in Central Florida, Maher wanted to follow his father into construction. But his dad sat him down and told him that if he really wanted to make a difference, he should go into either medicine or law. When he was 15, his dad died. The words lived on.

Best known in legal circles as the chair of a group of lawyers put together to battle Big Tobacco, Maher has made a career of fighting for the powerless.

"I've always been committed to the person individually who had needs," he says. "Access to the law makes it an even playing field for the most needy."

He stayed close to home, attending Rollins College, only about five minutes from his house. A liberal arts degree and an aptitude for English and "involving myself in contested matters" led him to law school at Stetson University in St. Petersburg.

Maher went straight from law school to a general practice firm, where he tried his first criminal case within two weeks of starting. "I hadn't even seen a criminal case before that," he says. "I did a good job just because 'losing' was not an acceptable word—for me, anyway."

From there, he spent a couple of years at a personal injury firm, then went out on his own.

The tobacco case involved nine Florida firms, one from South Carolina and another from Mississippi, suing cigarette makers on behalf of the states. And although the eventual settlement was massive—$11.3 billion—he says they won something even more important: lasting change.

"It was the first time in history that they [tobacco companies] admitted that nicotine was addictive and smoking caused cancer," he says. "That was the shot heard 'round the world."

Maher, 67, now has the satisfaction of practicing law with his son, Steven, who is also a lover of the arts, though his outlet is music. Father and son make a powerful team fighting bad-faith cases. And there's nothing abstract about victory.

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