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A Dynamo in the Courtroom

Known as a tough but compassionate litigator, Lee E. Stapleton loves going to trial. “For me there is nothing like being in the courtroom,” says Stapleton, a partner in the Miami office of Baker & McKenzie LLP. “Trial work is pure advocacy. You’re in front of a jury trying to persuade people from the community to make the right decision for your client.”

Through the years, Stapleton has blended her experiences as a journalist, a federal prosecutor and a civil litigator into a practice that includes complex commercial matters and white-collar criminal defense. Her clients range from Latin American families and Fortune 500 companies to individuals in need of guidance on business disputes, currency issues and investigative matters.

Active in the South Florida community, Stapleton has won the respect of her colleagues for her trial and litigation skills. “Lee’s work is defined by passion and preparation,” says Kendall Coffey, of Coffey Burlington in Miami. “She’s a dynamo in the courtroom. She battles relentlessly for her clients with a combination of uncompromising ethics, a mastery of the law and the facts, and a charismatic presence. That’s Lee Stapleton.”

From Reporter to Lawyer

Born in Virginia, Stapleton grew up in a “military family” and moved several times as a child. She went to high school in California, but followed her dad to Florida her senior year of high school. “I wanted to return to California for college, but my dad asked me to try one year at the University of Florida,” she says. Being a Gator clicked, and Stapleton wound up earning a bachelor’s, master’s and a law degree.

While in graduate school, Stapleton worked as a part-time “stringer” for The Florida Times-Union, covering events in Gainesville, and writing features and restaurant reviews for the Jacksonville newspaper. After completing her graduate studies, she worked as a reporter for the Augusta Chronicle in Augusta, Georgia, then returned to The Florida Times-Union. But she decided that she didn’t want to move to a larger paper and a new city every few years in the traditional career path of journalism. “When I started law school, I felt that I could always go back to being a reporter if law didn’t work out,” she says.

After earning her law degree, Stapleton accepted an offer from Steel Hector & Davis and moved to Miami. “I wanted to do First Amendment work, and the firm represented The Miami Herald and other media outlets,” she says. “I found myself becoming interested in many different types of litigation other than First Amendment law. I also loved the adventure of coming to Miami, which seemed like a huge metropolis to me at the time.”

Serving as a Prosecutor

In 1984, Stapleton joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office to broaden her trial experience. “I planned to be there three years, and stayed for 16 years,” Stapleton says. “There is no better experience for someone who wants to try cases than to work as a prosecutor or a public defender. People go to law school to learn the law, but these are offices where you can learn your craft. I attribute the good things that have happened to me as an attorney to the training and experience that I got as a federal prosecutor.”

As a prosecutor in the Major Crimes division under William Turnoff, now a federal magistrate, Stapleton handled a wide range of cases and spent most of her time in trial. “One of the biggest thrills of my life was standing in front of a jury and saying, “I represent the United States of America,’” she says. “I learned a lot about life and law as a federal prosecutor. For instance, sometimes you can’t take the most draconian position, because the defendants may have been in difficult situations and circumstances. You have to be compassionate as well as tough.”

Stapleton became the chief of the Narcotics Section and was the chief assistant U.S. attorney under Coffey, helping to manage the 400-person office – the biggest and busiest in the country. “Every day was different, interesting and intense,” she says. “I also picked up the management skills that came with that job.” In 1997 Stapleton went to Washington, D.C. to serve as director of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force for the U.S. Department of Justice, a $400 million program run out of Washington. She returned to Miami and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, where she served as senior litigation counsel in the Economic Crimes Section.

Into Private Practice
In 2000, Stapleton went into private practice, handling civil and criminal cases at Aragon Burlington. “I wasn’t sure that after being a federal prosecutor I would like criminal defense work, but I found I really enjoyed it.,” she says. “I also developed a civil litigation practice.”

Two years later, Stapleton was invited to join Baker & McKenzie, and practice in an international firm. She soon began handling matters for Latin American clients, representing several prominent families facing legal issues in the United States. She describes them as people with “situations.” For example, she secured the full return of a Venezuelan client’s funds in an asset-forfeiture case litigated in the District of Puerto Rico.

She has also been successful in having individuals removed from the Office of Foreign Asset Control list, which promotes U.S. citizens and companies from doing business with those who are listed. “Being on the OFAC list is a form of commercial death.” She adds that she enjoys doing a variety of cases, adding, “the important point is understanding the end game.”

Stapleton recently defended a Fortune 500 building systems manufacturer, against claims of a defective product. After initially demanding damages of nearly $20 million, the plaintiff ultimately agreed to dismiss the case. “I loved doing that case. The clients are fantastic and the case was high-stakes and fascinating.”
Still a Journalist

Stapleton is a long-time adjunct professor at the University of Miami School of Law and teaches in the Litigation Skills program. And she still puts her journalistic skills to good use, serving as associate editor of the American Bar Association’s Litigation Magazine and as the on-air legal analyst for ABC’s Miami affiliate, WPLG Channel 10 News.

“I started doing legal commentary on WPLG, the local ABC affiliate, nine years ago for the Michael Jackson case,” she says. “I thought I’d be there one Sunday but they asked me to come back the next Sunday and I’m still WPLG’s legal analyst. Every week there’s something lively and new and I’ve certainly come to appreciate the need for brevity. Having only a few minutes to explain sometimes complicated legal situations has made me a more effective lawyer. I can speak in sound bites rather than paragraphs.”

In addition to her legal practice, Stapleton plays an active role in the community. A Coconut Grove resident who enjoys cooking and entertaining, Stapleton is a board member for Baptist Health Outpatient Services and Baptist Health Enterprise Florida and a longtime member of the Orange Bowl Committee. In 2015, she will become the 77th president of the nonprofit Orange Bowl Committee, becoming just the third woman to serve in that position. “This is an enormous honor and recognition of her leadership and talent,” says Bob Hudson, managing partner of Baker & McKenzie’s Miami Office.

Stapleton adds that being elected president of the Orange Bowl Committee was not something she would ever have imagined when she moved to Miami. Reflecting on her years as a lawyer here, Stapleton says, “The Magic City has been magical for me.”

South Florida Legal Guide 2014 Edition

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