Lee Stapleton’s Paradise Found

The litigator—and former ‘military brat’—discovered her perfect home in Miami

Published in 2013 Florida Super Lawyers Magazine

As a third-year law student in the early 1980s, Lee Stapleton had an on-campus interview with a lawyer from a prominent Atlanta firm. He urged her to rethink her plan to pursue job opportunities in Miami.

“He said, ‘You have a choice between civilization or the Wild Wild West,’” she recalls.

Stapleton remembers the news stories at the time: In a 1980 FBI report, the city topped the list of most crime-ridden U.S. cities. A few years earlier, Miami drug kingpin Jimenez Panesso and his bodyguard were gunned down by a rival’s hitmen—not in a back alley but in broad daylight, at Dadeland Mall, then the biggest shopping center in Miami.

Still, when Stapleton graduated from the University of Florida’s law school in 1982, she jumped at the chance of a job in Miami with Steel, Hector & Davis. Two years later, she joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida, where she got her feet wet fighting the gamut of federal crimes, from guns to drugs, including the powerful “Cocaine Cowboys”—gangs of Colombian narcotics dealers with bases in Southern Florida. It was “fun, dynamic work,” Stapleton says, “basically cops and robbers.”

By 1981, Time magazine was reporting that South Florida was on its way to becoming “a paradise lost.” But Stapleton—a self-described military brat who grew up in places ranging from California to Virginia to Germany—fell in love with Miami. “Even with what was then a pretty overt criminal activity, this is paradise found, not paradise lost,” she says. “That is really a small percentage of what this community is about.”

Stapleton rose to the position of chief assistant attorney, handling administration as well as a diverse caseload. As regional director of the Department of Justice’s Organized Crime and Drug Enforcement Task Force, she also coordinated the efforts of federal, state and local law enforcement’s battles against drug trafficking across Florida and the Caribbean. But after 16 years as a prosecutor and a two-year stint as director of the task force’s national office in Washington, D.C., it was time for a change.

In private practice since 2000, Stapleton has a wide-ranging international practice, including commercial litigation and white-collar criminal defense, at Baker & McKenzie in Miami. She has tried dozens of cases across the U.S., and in South and Latin America.

“When I left the U.S. Attorney’s Office and went into private practice, it was a big question mark as to what I was going to be doing,” Stapleton says. “From the beginning, I started having clients in South America, and I really enjoy going to those countries, so it’s something that’s evolved.”

At the start of her career, going to trial was terrifying. “I remember [federal] Judge Joe Eaton calling me into his chambers,” she says. “He was a nice judge, and he said, ‘When you start viewing this as a place to come to work, you’re going to be just fine.’ I took that advice to heart. … [Today], if somebody says, ‘We can’t resolve this; we’re going to court,’ it’s like, ‘OK, let’s go.’”

A particularly satisfying recent case ended when a local developer dismissed his multimillion-dollar lawsuit against Stapleton’s client, a Fortune 500 manufacturing company. “After four years of litigation and a request for $20 million ... they were thrilled,” she says.

Stapleton, who worked as a reporter before and during law school, is a legal analyst on WPLG’s Channel 10 news on Sundays. She got the gig when a fellow lawyer was unavailable to talk on-air about Michael Jackson’s child molestation case and suggested her as a replacement. “I thought I was going [on] for one week,” she says. “That was eight years ago. It’s a great skill for a litigator … not only is it interesting and I get to learn something new and topical every week, but you really learn the necessity and impact of brevity.”

Since 1989, Stapleton has shared her litigation experience by teaching trial skills at the University of Miami law school. “I always tell people you have to be yourself, no matter what that is,” she says. “You shouldn’t practice personalities to be in the courtroom; just try to take what you’ve got and make the best of it.”

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