Late-blooming lawyer now holds prestigious Bar position
Published: Monday, August 5, 2013 at 2:38 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, August 5, 2013 at 2:38 p.m.
Eugene K. Pettis arrived at the University of Florida in the 1970s with thoughts of becoming a dentist. He ended up graduating with a law degree.
Now, Pettis, 52, holds a position of prestige among lawyers in Florida. On June 28, he was sworn in for his one-year term as the new president of The Florida Bar.
He is the 65th president of the third-largest bar association in the United States, and the first black ever to hold the position.
Pettis grew up as the youngest of seven children.
“We were not wealthy. We had everything that we needed and some of the things that we wanted but we were kind of middle income at that time,” Pettis said.
For most of his time growing up, Pettis’ mom was a teacher’s aide, and his dad was a maintenance worker at the U.S. post office. They provided all of their children with the opportunity of higher education. All of his siblings went to college.
The career paths of Pettis’ siblings have ranged from working in the airline industry to a dentist.
In 1985, the Pettis family was picked by the Urban League of Broward County to be one of the nine Great American Families that met with first lady Nancy Reagan. They were one of 200 families picked across the United States.
When he arrived at UF from Fort Lauderdale, Pettis recalled recently, he was looking at the pre-dental curriculum. But he soon realized he didn’t like all of the science studies that would be required.
He eventually made his way to a political science major with a minor in English.
“I found some joy in the political science curriculum,’’ he said. “I was always engaged in public service and just trying to make a difference, which I think is a big part of being a lawyer.”
At UF, he was active in numerous organizations.
He was the first black Student Government treasurer, president of the UF Black Student Union in 1979 and chairman of the ACCENT Speaker’s Bureau.
After he graduated from UF in 1982 with a bachelor of arts degree in political science, he attended the only law school he applied to: the UF Levin College of Law.
“I was where I think I was supposed to be. I can’t imagine doing anything other than the law,” Pettis said.
In 1985, he graduated from the law school and returned to Fort Lauderdale, where he joined the law firm of Conrad Scherer and James.
He stayed there six years before he and seven other people left to form their own firm. Pettis stayed with that group from January 1992 until April 1996, when he co-founded the firm where he still works: Haliczer Pettis & Schwamm.
He is a civil trial lawyer who handles cases such as personal injury, medical malpractice and employment matters.
Pettis lives in Fort Lauderdale with his wife and two daughters.
In June 2005, Pettis was elected to The Florida Bar’s Board of Governors. He was sworn in as president-elect on Dec. 15, 2011.
Pettis was unopposed and said, “I assumed no one ran against me because I had pretty broad support across the state.”
Pettis also is on the Board of Trustees for the Levin College of Law.
He credited his years at UF for giving him the training to succeed.
“A lot of my leadership skills were honed during my years engaged in Student Government,” he said. “I think UF provides an incredible real-life experience of engagement, involvement and organizational experience that will be used for the rest of my life.”
Pettis added, “In addition to what I learned in the classroom I think I’ve learned as much outside of class.”
Pettis said that about a year and a half ago in Atlantic Beach by Jacksonville, a young woman congratulated him on being elected and told her 7-year-old son, “You see you can be anything you want to be in life.”
“When you take on such a position and you’re first, you’re a role model,” Pettis.
He said there have been people who are equal or more qualified to serve as president but didn’t. Black people couldn’t even be a part of The Florida Bar a couple decades ago, much less dream of being president. Pettis said he wants to lift the bar as one unified bar with all races of all demographics.
“I think I have the vision and commitment,” he said.