Bar leader tackles pit bull of lawyerly image
Published: Sunday, February 1, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 30, 2009 at 11:22 a.m.
Carl Schwait's career has come full circle, in a way, in the fight against pit bulls.
- Title: Managing partner, Dell Graham, P.A.
- Personal: 58; married; two daughters ages 30 and 24
- Education: BA in Psychology, University of Rochester, N.Y., 1972; Juris Doctor, University of Miami School of Law, 1976.
- Favorite lawyer joke: "Don't have one."
- Hobbies: Tennis, kayaking, listening to music, gardening, playing with his dogs, being with family, traveling.
- Favorite quotes: "Bloom where you are planted."
"Today is the first day of the rest of your life."
- Recent book: "The Appeal" by John Grisham
- Favorite movie: "The Sixth Sense"
As a city commissioner in South Miami in the 1980s, he became a minor celebrity on the talk show circuit after helping write the first anti-pit bull ordinance in South Florida. The law was later found unconstitutional.
Now, as an elected member of the Florida Bar Board of Governors, he helps regulate how lawyers portray themselves in advertising, including a recent case in which the Bar reprimanded a law firm for showing lawyers in a negative light by using pit bulls in its promotions.
And he has made a point in his leadership role in the Eighth Judicial Circuit Bar Association of trying to overcome the pit bull image many people have of lawyers through community outreach efforts such as providing Christmas gifts in elementary schools.
(Lest anyone thinks Schwait has a problem with dogs, he has supported animal shelters and is a proud owner of shelter dogs.)
The Santa program started during his year as the association's president in 2003. They had hoped to raise enough money to provide stockings full of presents to 10 children and ended up with enough for 250. The program has since expanded and Schwait credits the generosity of local lawyers, judges and their staffs.
Schwait himself plays Santa, handing out gifts to each child individually.
"It was the kind of day where when you're done you just want to have a good cry because you were so happy and satisfied and at the same time you're understanding how blessed you are in your life knowing that some of these children were getting gifts from the Bar Association that would be the only gifts they were going to get this Christmas," he said. "To get on the ground with those children and hand them their stocking and each of them with their eyes or their hand showing recognition and thankfulness was a moment much greater than winning a trial or bringing in a new client."
When he's not helping Santa, Schwait defends property owners against personal injury claims on behalf of some of the largest insurance companies and health-care providers, as well as government, small business and individuals. He is a managing partner, along with John Jopling, of the 11-lawyer firm Dell Graham, which traces its roots in Gainesville to the 1880s.
He started at the firm 19 years ago today after he and wife, Anna Schwait, a professor of nursing at the University of Florida, decided he should leave his practice and resign from the city commission to get away from South Florida; at the time, it was ahead of a mass migration away from the area.
"We decided we didn't want to raise a family in an urban environment like Miami," he said. "Raising our daughters, restarting our careers and realizing we will live the rest of our lives in Gainesville has been one of the true blessings of life."
He also found a markedly different legal environment.
"The tenor and civility of the practice was breathtaking," he said. "The respect shown between lawyers, to clients and to and from judges allowed a practice of your craft not consistently experienced in Miami."
The respect is mutual. The 1,100 members of the six-county Eight Circuit recently re-elected Schwait to his third two-year term representing the area on the Florida Bar Board that regulates the legal profession in Florida.
He is also preparing future lawyers by teaching the trial practice course at the UF College of Law. After starting as a guest lecturer in 1992, he is now in his 10th year of teaching the course.
"I'm starting to see some of my own students on the opposite side of my own cases," he said. "It's exciting, but it makes me feel much older."
Schwait said when he entered law school in 1973, "everyone was going to law school to save the world."
He may have toned down his ambitions, but has found he can contribute.
"As you get a little older you realize that whatever changes you can make are going to be within your own community."
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