Anthony C. Musto of Anthony C. Musto, Attorney at Law, in Hallandale Beach.
Objectively, what key moments or accomplishments have defined your career?
The first moment that defined my career occurred when I was looking for a job shortly after law school. I received a phone call out of the blue from the head of the Florida Attorney General’s West Palm Beach branch office, asking if I would be interested in interviewing for a position. Turns out a college professor of mine, a lawyer who had gone on to become the head of the attorney general’s Miami branch, heard about the opening in West Palm Beach, called his counterpart, and suggested I be considered. Within a week or so, I was arguing a case before the Fourth District Court of Appeal. Four years later, I became the chief counsel of the attorney general’s Miami office.
Because of this one phone call, my love of appellate practice was born. A field that I had not even thought about, it struck a chord with me because of its intellectual challenges and the flexibility it provides, both in terms of time and location. It seldom ties you to the schedules of other people—judges, lawyers, clients, support staff—like so many other things do. You can write briefs in the wee hours (as I have done so often, especially when I was younger and thought nothing of working until 4 or 5 in the morning), at the crack of dawn, or whenever you choose during the day. I have been able to work from home since long before doing so became widely accepted (or, in light of the pandemic, necessary). And it now allows me to maintain my practice while spending time at both a primary residence in Hallandale Beach and a second home in Asheville, North Carolina.
This one phone started me down the road to a career that has involved handling over 1,000 appellate proceedings in the state and federal courts, including over 80 on the merits in the Florida Supreme Court, encompassing civil, criminal, and administrative matters, rules proceedings, and extraordinary writs.
The second moment occurred at a midyear meeting of The Florida Bar. I had left the attorney general’s office, spent time at the Dade State attorney’s office, and been in private practice for a while. I ran into John Copelan, a lawyer I knew from a number of cases we had worked on together when I was a prosecutor and he was at the Miami City attorney’s office. John had become the Broward County attorney and he asked me if I could recommend someone to handle appeals for his office. I was fed up with the business aspects of private practice and told him that I would be interested. A few days later we had lunch, discussed and expanded the scope of the position, and soon afterward, I had a new job—one that had a tremendous impact on my career.
Not only did I learn about many new subject areas because an appellate practitioner in a local government office handles an incredible range of cases (my first brief there was in a Florida Supreme Court case involving inverse condemnation, something I had never heard of), but Copelan also gave me many administrative duties, including putting me in charge of the office’s pro bono programs. This role ignited in me a true passion for pro bono, one that I will discuss in my answer to the next question.
The third moment was really a series of moments that occurred unbeknownst to me. They defined the part of my career spent in academia. A new dean took over at St. Thomas University School of Law and decided to replace most of the professors teaching legal writing with part-time adjuncts. The school ran an ad and I applied. Many, many lawyers want to teach, either full or part time, so the school received a blizzard of applications. One of the professors doing the hiring took the stack home, where her attorney-husband browsed through them. He knew me from cases we had handled against each other, including one in the Florida Supreme Court, and he spoke highly of me to his wife. His comments carried great weight and I got the job.
A new dean took over a few years later and I became full time when he undid the switch to adjuncts. Shortly thereafter, a tragic death opened a position, and I became the school’s director of community outreach and pro bono services. At about the same time, a professor had to take some time off to deal with a family illness, so the teaching I was doing in addition to my administrative duties was switched to substantive courses. When yet another dean took over and determined that community outreach and pro bono services should be handled by staff, not a professor, I began teaching substantive courses full time. Over the following decade, I became something of a utility infielder (for those of you who don’t get sports references, think “jack of all trades”), bouncing among subjects like criminal law, criminal procedure I and II, evidence, appellate practice, and juvenile law, as well as advanced courses in some of those areas.
Subjectively, what are your proudest or most personally satisfying achievements?
I am most proud of my pro bono service and my efforts to advance the public interest.
As noted above, the catalyst for my pro bono involvement was my role at the Broward County Attorney’s Office. While pro bono programs in public offices are the norm today, that was not the case then. Indeed, pro bono activity by government lawyers was almost unheard of. We overcame the many obstacles and objections to the provision of pro bono services by lawyers in public service (concerns such as conflicts of interest and appearances of conflicts, the use of government facilities and resources, and the need for malpractice insurance, letterhead stationery and trust accounts) to such an extent that our program became a model for other offices throughout the country. It was cited by Chief Justice Rosemary Barkett in the specially concurring opinion she wrote when the Florida Supreme Court adopted aspirational goals for pro bono service by Florida lawyers. The trailblazing nature of this program is also reflected by the office becoming the first governmental agency ever to receive the ABA Pro Bono Publico Award and the first ever to receive the Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice’s Law Firm Commendation.
Building on that foundation, I later established statewide pro bono programs providing guidance to young people aging out of foster care and representing victims of human trafficking in their efforts to obtain sealing and expunction of criminal records for crimes committed while under the influence of their traffickers. Also, countywide programs for veterans and residents of adult congregate living facilities. And, of course, at the heart of pro bono efforts is the satisfaction of helping many individuals. One case, in particular, resonates with me. It’s an appeal in which I was successful in reversing a denial of benefits for an uninsured indigent veteran who got cancer decades after being one of the first soldiers to enter Hiroshima and Nagasaki following the dropping of the atomic bombs.
On the public-interest front, I authored, submitted, obtained evidence to justify, coordinated support of, and successfully argued in the Florida Supreme Court for a rule that requires the use of recycled paper for all court filings in Florida, a rule that resulted in an estimated savings of 850,000 trees annually over the 20 years or so between its adoption and the advent of electronic filing.
Moreover, I coordinated a campaign that raised over $300,000 in contributions and pledges to ensure the continued viability of the annual Gerald T. Bennett Prosecutor/Public Defender training program held annually at the University of Florida Frederic G. Levin College of Law.
I have also served the public as an elected Hallandale Beach city commissioner. In that capacity, my accomplishments include expanding the homestead exemption for senior citizens living below the poverty level, instituting quasi-judicial proceedings for land use matters, instituting a performance review process for the city manager and city attorney, putting in a reverse-911 system to alert residents of emergency situations, enabling the city attorney and his or her assistants to handle pro bono cases, televising certain city board meetings, and creating the positions of economic development coordinator and community and press liaison.
In addition, I have chaired numerous city entities, including the Charter Review Committee and Community Relations Committee, served as a trustee of the Hallandale Beach Police Officers and Firefighters Retirement Trust, and spent many years as the president of the Hallandale Symphonic Pops Orchestra.
How are the business and profession of law changing, and are Florida lawyers well positioned for the future?
In the almost half-century since I began practicing, our profession has changed markedly. The most important and best change is greater diversity, in terms of race, gender, ethnicity, and otherwise. The change that has probably had the greatest impact on day-to-day practice has been the staggering increase in the use of technology, something I have found to be a mixed blessing. As we go forward, the lessons we learned from the pandemic will lead to greater use of technology, particularly with regard to court proceedings being handled from our desks, rather than in courtrooms.
Another change with both good and bad aspects is our profession becoming so specialized. I have embraced this change and become board certified in two fields. But our specialization has made every area of the law so complicated that we are all gun-shy about venturing even slightly beyond the bounds of our comfort zones. The days of Atticus Finch, who might write a will and handle a real estate closing in the morning, while appearing in a criminal case and drawing up a contract in the afternoon, are truly over.
The advent and proliferation of advertising have made obtaining legal services easier and more affordable for many, but those benefits come at a cost. Advertising is but one manifestation of the shift of focus from law as a profession to law as a business. While this transformation has made many of us wealthier, it has certainly been a factor in our profession’s loss of a significant amount of its dignity, and in the decline in civility and professionalism, which, contrary to what might be suggested by the term, is a much bigger problem in “civil” cases than in criminal ones. Also contributing to that decline has been hourly billing becoming the norm.
These factors and others—not all our fault—have led to the deterioration of the image of attorneys in the eyes of the public. Political considerations have become almost the only thing, rather than just one of the things, taken into account in the selection of judges—true no matter which party is in charge. Cameras have entered and remained in our courtrooms, their presence giving the public greater information about judicial proceedings, but sometimes information that can be misleading when it is defined by catchy quotes or sound bites—and, I must admit, there were times when I worked on the “catchiness” of what I was going to say in order to have some influence on what the media would report. The impact of scientific advancements such as DNA testing has led to justice in many cases, but has also created unrealistic expectations in the minds of some jurors.
We morphed from legal-size paper to letter size, thereby making our files thicker. Maybe not one of the “biggest” changes, but a pet peeve—there’s a reason they call it “legal” size, you know. And, finally, we somehow went from most lawyers being older than me to most lawyers being younger. Not sure how that happened.
What advice would you give to someone contemplating a career in law, or someone whose career in law has not been satisfying so far?
I would ask such an individual if he or she wants to go to law school primarily to make a difference or to make money. Both are legitimate reasons for entering our profession (indeed, we almost all want each in varying degrees), but I would hope that the answer would be to make a difference. If it is, I would tell the person that law is a tremendous vehicle for doing so.
I would say that a legal career gives you a chance to do great things. You can right wrongs. You can speak for those with no voice. You can achieve justice. If those things motivate you, become a lawyer and pursue them. You won’t be able to change the world through your practice, but you will be able to change the worlds of many people. Seize the opportunities to do so when they arise. If you do, you will have an incredibly satisfying and productive career, one that you will look back on with pride, contentment, and a feeling of accomplishment.
I would also say that being an attorney can open doors for you in other realms. It can be a gateway to effective involvement in things like politics, public service, civic endeavors, and charitable efforts. I have a framed copy of a classic Peanuts comic strip in my office. Snoopy, looking very much the attorney while carrying a briefcase and wearing a bowler hat and a bow tie, walks by Linus, who says, “The lawyer is evermore the leader in society.” Snoopy continues walking, stating in the second panel, “I like that,” and adding in the third, “I don’t understand it, but I like it.” Snoopy’s befuddlement aside, Linus’ point is well-taken. People look to us for leadership and it is often through leadership by ones with vision, with a desire to make a difference, that great things can be accomplished, and that maybe, just maybe, we can change the world at least a little bit.
For the prospective law student motivated primarily by economics, I would touch on the above considerations in the hope of kindling a small flame that might later grow. But my focus would be on telling him or her that while the law is a profession that can provide you with a good living, it is not a golden ticket for most. Students who are not sure what they want, those for whom law school is one of multiple options, should seriously assess the long-term financial implications of becoming a lawyer versus those of the other options. Many of today’s newly minted lawyers do not find a job in the legal field, so they take ones that do not require a legal education. They have incurred three years of expenses (and likely have student loans to pay off) without any significant income. Had they entered another field instead of going to law school, they would have accumulated three years of income, not incurred school expenses or debts over that time period, and advanced in their career paths to a point at which they would be making more money than law school graduates who enter that field three years later (and more than even many of the law graduates who do find jobs as attorneys). These facts do not mean that law school is not a good option, but they are the realities of the world and should be considered in making decisions as to what road to follow after college.
The other thing I would say—regardless of the person’s primary motivation—is the answer I give frequently to young people or their parents when they ask (something that occurs not infrequently) what college courses best prepare people for law school. None of them really do. While classes in logic and writing can be helpful, the fact is that the legal educational process is very different from the processes employed at the college level. I nonetheless do offer a recommendation as to an important matter to consider in deciding what to study as an undergraduate. The approach taken by law schools teaches students to think like lawyers, not to be lawyers (a concept I, like most practitioners, ridiculed before I began teaching, but one which I learned is critically important), so it does not prepare students at all for the economic realities of our profession. I often tell my students that when they enter private practice (as opposed to public service, which, while generally less lucrative, allows them to handle their cases blissfully unconcerned with the economic aspects of practice), they become businesspersons. They are selling their time and expertise just like the owner of a deli is selling pastrami. Yet we in law schools teach them virtually nothing about how to run, or further the economic interests of, a business. (That’s not a criticism of law schools. There is no room in the curriculum, nor, for the most part, sufficient faculty expertise to provide such instruction. Moreover, in my opinion, the need to make other systemic changes, such as integrating practical considerations into substantive courses, is of a higher priority.) Thus, I suggest that students take courses, and perhaps even major or minor, in business. It won’t prepare them for law school, but it will prepare them for their careers afterward.