Professional Protector

Audra Michelle Bryant on safeguarding children and defending fellow attorneys

Published in 2014 Florida Super Lawyers — July 2014

When someone walks into her office, Audra Michelle Bryant just knows: “You can often tell from the clients’ faces if it’s their first time getting sued.”

The professional liability attorney at Bush & Augspurger in Tallahassee defends lawyers, insurance brokers, accountants and other professionals hit with lawsuits. But Bryant’s role extends beyond just attorney. “Being a lawyer is partly being a counselor,” she says. “[You] guide them through it.”

Bryant wanted to be a lawyer from a young age; what kind of lawyer was the tricky part. “In law school, I was really worried about what I would do when I got out. I had no idea,” she says. “And the closer and closer I got to graduating, the more anxiety I got.”

She enjoyed a family law clinic at Florida State University College of Law, so after graduating in 2004, she joined the Department of Children and Families, representing the state in cases involving everything from foster care and abuse to termination of parental rights. 

“It was eye-opening,” Bryant says. “When I was a kid, I don’t remember any of my friends or anyone that I knew who didn’t live with their parents. I remember in the ’90s, even back then, it was kind of a big deal if your parents were divorced.”

At DCF, Bryant took on her first trial, which alleged physical abuse of a child. “I remember it really being scary,” she says. “You don’t have all that practical experience, so it was: ‘I need to subpoena police officers. How do I subpoena a police officer?’”

She also took on cases in smaller counties where DCF struggled to keep attorneys on staff. “You had to sit down … look at files you’ve never seen before,” she says, “and learn them well enough [to] argue on behalf of the state as to whether the department needed to be involved in their lives.”

After two and a half years, Bryant was grateful for the experience but emotionally exhausted. She found her way to professional liability defense. “The best part to me is it’s always something new,” she says.

Defending lawyers makes Bryant very aware of her own work. “One of the main issues I find a lot is lawyers aren’t being as careful as they need to be,” she says. Small things like missing a statute of limitations deadline by a few days can lead to lawsuits. “Not until I started doing this type of work did I realize the multitude of mistakes that can be out there. It makes you a little more cautious.”

She hasn’t forgotten her child welfare work. From 2008 to 2009, she was a court-appointed attorney ad litem for foster care children in Leon County, and Bush & Augspurger recently represented DCF contractor Partnership for Strong Families (PSF). After the death of 4-year-old Kristina Hepp at her father’s hands in 2009, Hepp’s estate sued PSF, alleging the agency should have known that Hepp’s father was unfit. The court found in PSF’s favor, and Bryant represented PSF when the plaintiffs appealed.

“It hit home because it brought back all those memories,” she says. “It’s hard for me to read through the documents.” In June 2013, the appeals court agreed with the lower court.

Currently, Bryant is defending an engineering firm in a case involving condominiums with alleged construction defects. Another case has generated national news headlines: a challenge by the National Education Association and the Florida Education Association of the state’s formula for teacher evaluations, passed by the state Legislature in 2011.

Bryant and Lisa Augspurger, her firm partner in Orlando, represent the School Board of Hernando County, one of three school boards that are defendants. The Florida Department of Education is also a defendant.

 Bryant says, “This is what our client’s doing: We’re complying with the law as it’s been set forth by the Legislature.” She notes that school boards have invested significant money to comply with state requirements. “It’s not like someone just drops millions of dollars on them to implement things. This is ground-level volunteers, people pitching in trying to get things done.”

Motions for summary judgment are pending, and the case is set for trial. “This is very important in my mind because teachers are teaching children, [who] are going to be the leaders of the world,” Bryant says. “I like being a part of something that’s going to matter.” 

At the firm’s Tallahassee office, which she joined in 2011, Bryant found a mentor in officemate Richard Bush. She was impressed from the start with his insight: “You learn to be a little more analytical and reflective whenever you’re interviewing clients.

“He’s very good at telling me, ‘The client is trying to help you win their case; listen to your client.’ I took that to heart.”

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