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Interview with Chief Judge Karen K. Specie

By Gláucia JonesRavago

1. What can you tell us about your journey as an attorney and your career path?

The biggest irony is that I am a bankruptcy judge but I never took a bankruptcy class in law school. After my law school graduation, I moved to New York City and walked door to door looking for a job. I got a job with a midtown Manhattan law firm where I worked on my first bankruptcy case. I liked it so much that I ended up focusing my career in this area of the law. I believe Bankruptcy touches every aspect of the law and you can’t be a competent lawyer without basic knowledge of it. Today, I serve as the Chief, and only, bankruptcy judge for the Northern District of Florida, presiding over cases in Tallahassee, Gainesville, Panama City and Pensacola.

2. Could you share an example of a hurdle or obstacle you experienced as an attorney and how you overcame it?

Being a woman lawyer in commercial litigation was difficult. We think New York City is a forward-thinking area, but the lawyers I encountered in New York were more overtly sexist than in the south. For example, more than once I would be in a room with many male attorneys, all of whom knew I was also a lawyer, and one invariably would ask me to make a copy or get coffee. After New York I worked at Fowler White in Tampa, which was wonderful. Two years later I moved to Gainesville. That was difficult; because I was “young, from a big city and female” it took about five years to feel accepted. But in that part of the deep south I got the impression that the attitude towards professional women was more cultural than intentional.

3. What’s your advice to other young women professionals beginning their career?

Regardless of the bias, whether based on gender, race, ethnicity, culture or sexual orientation, try very hard not to have a chip on your shoulder. Instead, let your behavior demonstrate your abilities and what you want people think of you.

4. What are a few things that irritate you in your courtroom?

What irritates me on the bench is when lawyers interrupt me or each other. Here is one tip: if the proceeding is by phone, give part of your argument and then take a breath or two: give the judge an opportunity to ask questions or speak.

5. Any other pet peeves?

My other pet peeve is that so many times lawyers don’t talk to one another. Like all the Florida federal court local rules say, before filing a motion to compel, and many times other motions, attorneys must confer. Confer means TALK. (It doesn’t mean exchange emails or text messages). I do not tolerate when attorneys fail to properly confer.

6. What have been your biggest career and/or personal achievement prior to being appointed?

The fact that I worked full-time throughout all three of my pregnancies and raising three children. I had huge doses of mommy guilt. And technology was not what it is now: telework was virtually non-existent. But at the same time, now that all three children are adults, I feel rewarded. My children’s friends all think of me as Momma Specie…or actually “Honorable Momma Specie,” so even though at times I wondered whether I was doing the right thing, I don’t believe I would have been a good stay-at-home mom. The good news is that in my case, I have been able to maintain my career and independence while being a mom, and now a grandmother. I feel that I was a good role model for my children.

7. What advice would you give to your 21 year-old-self?

“Go for it. Don’t let others dissuade you from doing what you feel you want to do.”

8. Who have been your allies and how have they supported you?

Allies have been for the most part my fellow judges. Second, the lawyers that I have developed relationships with over the years; Ed Waller, formerly of Fowler White, especially. Third, my husband and children. Especially my husband, with whom I’ve always shared all household and family duties and responsibilities.

9. If you could take any woman to lunch – from the past or present – who would that be any why?

Lunch would be with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor because I think her background is like mine. She was raised on a ranch in Arizona yet became the first woman Supreme Court Justice. She and I share a love of horses; Justice O’Connor has written a children’s book about a horse. I would also like to meet Amanda Gorman, the young Poet Laureate, who read a poem during the inauguration of President Joe Biden. I actually would like to meet her and her mom.

10. How do you manage work/life balance?

I make sure I get my physical exercise. If I don’t exercise, I don’t sleep, and if I don’t sleep, I get grumpy. I walk, run, do yoga stretches and lift weights. I am a breast cancer survivor and during my treatments (which included four surgeries plus recovery time) I realized that you need to take good care of yourself while you are here.

11. What changes do you hope to see towards gender equality in the upcoming year?

During my career I’ve always tried to view lawyers as lawyers. View all lawyers the same way regardless of skin color or gender. I would like to see society this way. See each other for our profession and not even notice whether the professional is a male or a female. We are professionals, period.

12. Last thoughts:

March 8, 2021, ABC news did a spot in honor of International Women’s Day. The focus was on a woman that had health care issues while raising children, another one that lost her job and has a Down Syndrome son, and another woman caring for aging parents. The focus was WOMEN ARE STRONG. I encourage all women to know that they are STRONG.

 

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