Founding Fathers’ Vision Met, Exceeded
The Cramdown – Fall, 2002
By Catherine Peek McEwen
Past experience, if not forgotten, is a guide to the future. -Chinese Proverb
As the Tampa Bay Bankruptcy Bar Association begins its 15th year, a retrospective piece seems appropriate for this space. Who started the association? Why? Has their vision been met?
The starting point for the answers to these questions can be figured out easily enough by looking at our past leaders. Initial chairman Leonard Gilbert and initial president Don Stichter were part of a small group who decided that the bankruptcy practitioners in town needed a specialty bar association. Leonard credits Don and Harley Riedel with the follow-through: “We had talked about this long enough, but they are the ones who pushed it. The rest of us were really along for the ride, but we had a good time doing it,”
Don remembers it just a bit differently. “My recollection is that Doug McClurg was very much a mover and shaker,” he said. Doug credits the idea of the association to then-newly appointed bankruptcy judge Tom Baynes. “So, I called Leonard, Don, Harley, Bill Zewadski, Bob Glenn, and Dick Prosser, and said ‘let’s put something together.’ We got started, signed up some folks, collected some dues, and offered some educational programs. In later years we added the newsletter and annual dinner,” said Doug.
In short, the collective wisdom of the group shows that the association was the product of a team effort, much like it is today.
No matter how modest the “official” founders – Leonard and Don — are about claiming credit for the creation of the association, they are as enthusiastic as a proud founding father could be about how the idea has turned out so far.
“The thought was that the bankruptcy practice had grown; we had a lot of people practicing in the Tampa Division, but not everyone knew each other,” according to Leonard. “We thought we could probably help each other if we had an organization to use as a vehicle to produce helpful programs with specialized legal education and to get a good dialogue going between bench and bar,” he said, “We do things together and for other people. I am very pleased with the result. It’s turned out better than we probably thought it would.” Don concurred: “The idea was to improve the contacts, have an organization that can meet a lot of common goals and deal in an organized way with common problems and objectives. I think the association’s done an excellent job of fulfilling those goals.”
Both Don and Leonard were and continue to be satisfied with the level and mix of our membership. “In retrospect,” said Don, “we had such a volume of bankruptcy work and bankruptcy practitioners that we were well overdue when the organization got started.” Added Leonard, “We were surprised how well the membership grew. We were over 65 members or more at the outset.” “We have a solid membership,” added Don. Last year’s membership total of 260, with an average of 100 of those regularly attending the monthly meeting and educational program, bears him out. The early board meetings at Dick’s office were also well attended, thanks to the drawing card of a home-cooked breakfast by members’ wives.
As well, said Don, “we hit the right level on the make-up of our membership. We have balance. Our people run the gamut from consumer lawyers, creditors’ lawyers, and lawyers who handle reorganization chapters.” The balance was no accident. “We tried to create a diverse board so we would attract all kinds of practitioners — big case, small case — and make sure no one was left out,” explained Leonard.
The association’s educational programs received high marks from the founders as being consistently good in content and ever improving as the years have rolled by. “We have many informative meetings – and to give us continuing legal education credit for them is excellent,” said Don. “The programs have really helped raise the quality of the bankruptcy practice all throughout the Middle District,” observed Leonard.
The quality of the practice is impacted in another way by our association, according to Don. “I think the bankruptcy bar meets the standards of professionalism better than the bar as a whole. Our organization assists our members to meet those standards.”
A “pleasant occurrence” that was not expected in the beginning has been the involvement of our judges in our programs, reflected Don. “The judges have been a real boost to our organization in that they have participated so well and effectively, and that certainly has enhanced the prestige of the association and being a member in it,” he said.
As we look down the road at how the next 15 years should be traveled, we should, of course, judiciously consider new programs to benefit our members and the community, but we must also keep an eye on our past and continue doing what we do well. We will attempt to do that this year by involving more of our practitioners, offering stimulating educational programs at an affordable cost, inviting our judges to speak and write for us, creating a forum for airing concerns with our judges and the Clerk’s office, and publishing a newsletter with news you can use.
The next time you see Leonard, Don, Harley, Doug, Bob, Bill, or Dick in the courthouse corridors, you might thank them for their early efforts at establishing this association as the premier voluntary bar association for bankruptcy lawyers in Florida. Better yet, in addition to thanking them, let them know you appreciate their spadework by volunteering to become an active participant in one or more of our committees.