AVON PARK – When Avon Park attorney David Lanier began practicing law, he sat as close to the open windows as he could so he could catch a breeze.
After working as a private practice lawyer, Lanier was appointed small-claims court judge in the old Highlands County courthouse when it was still clattering with the sounds of manual typewriters and had no air-conditioning.
Then, court cases were simpler at times than the class-action lawsuits so common today. Lanier once tried a case for a man seeking damages amounting to a dollar because “it was his day in court and we gave him all the attention we possibly could.”
Lanier, 87, has been working in the Highlands County legal system as a judge or attorney since 1955 and will soon mark his 60th year in law.
To commemorate his six-decade dedication to the legal system as a former assistant state attorney, South Florida Community College attorney, county judge and circuit court judge, Lanier was the guest of honor at a special luncheon Aug. 15 at The Hotel Jacaranda.
There, representatives from the 10th Judicial Circuit Court -- Highlands, Polk and Hardee counties -- about 30 family members, friends, local government and civic members honored Lanier for his steadfast and dedicated legal commitment to the county and communities.
The luncheon was also an opportunity for Lanier to talk about his life growing up in Avon Park, his service in the U.S. Merchant Marines and U.S. Army during the Korean War and his eventual move into a legal career.
It was also held to acknowledge the Judge J. David Langford Professionalism Award he received in May for his 60 years of law service.
Following lunch, Lanier was interviewed and recorded. He recounted and recollected slices of time in a law career spanning back to carbon copy machines and launching into the digital age.
“I still have the carbon copy of the first will I drafted. I’ve made it this far without being disbarred,” he joked.
In front of guests such as his son Jim, Circuit court judges Angela Cowden and Bruce Smith, Avon Park City Manager Julian Deleon, Administrative Services Director Maria Sutherland and City Councilman Parke Sutherland, Polk County Circuit Judge Mary Catherine Green led an hour-long interview and recorded it as part of an oral history project.
Lanier spoke of growing up on Lake Lotela, reading for fun and working as a teenager in the family’s Ford automobile shop his father, Charles, opened after his banking and citrus business crashed during the Depression.
“I never had a problem as a teenager saying, ‘There’s nothing to do,’” he said.
Lanier, who still lives on Lake Lotela, recounted his education at Bolles Military Academy in Jacksonville where he was sent his junior year of high school and where he graduated as a sergeant in 1945, which influenced his sense of dedication.
But, as a teen, it was a neighbor, county judge Tom McNicholas, who impacted Lanier the most and impressed him enough he decide to pursue a law degree.
“I thought he was the smartest man I knew and at 14, I decided I was going to be a lawyer,” he said.
In 1947, Lanier entered the University of Florida and earned a bachelor of science/bachelor of arts degree in finance in February 1951 and was accepted into the University of Florida Law School, getting his law degree in 1953 and juris doctorate in 1957.
After graduation, Lainer returned home to Avon Park with his wife, Sujette (who died Aug. 8, 2013), where for four years, he divided time between the family business and his law practice.
From 1955 to 1968 he served as the judge of the small claims court, Highlands County, and as city judge for Avon Park.
There were just three lawyers working in Avon Park at the time.
“It (adjudicating) was a little different atmosphere than what you have today; then, you’d work out a settlement. Rarely did we go to trial or court,” he said.
As for what he “specialized” in during the early years of his career, Lanier said, “Anything that came through the front door.” His practice now consists mostly of the preparation of wills and trusts, real estate and probate.
Over the years, Lanier has also dedicated time and talent to the Avon Park Rotary; the Highlands County Bank where he served on the board of directors; South Florida State College, where he taught business law; and the Walker Memorial Civic Advisory Board for Walker Memorial Hospital.
It has been his commitment and will to work for the people that has kept him in practice for so long, said some of his peers and city staff.
“As a young attorney, it’s positive to see someone who has been in law that long and still shows respect and love for his profession,” said Danielle Brewer, president of the Highlands County Bar Association and associate attorney with Swaine & Harris, Sebring. “He’s one of the most beloved members of the bar by colleagues and the judiciary.”
Green said she was fascinated with Lanier’s insight into the bygone eras of Avon Park and law in mid-century Florida.
She said he still brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to the profession.
“It’s the oral history will really help us understand where we have been and where we are going. It’s best to hear it from the people that lived it,” she said.
According to Susannah Read Lyle, assistant director of public information for The Florida Bar, there are about 98,950 members with 86,069 in good standing to practice.
Some are retired, let their membership lapse or have been disciplined. There are 147 members, including Lanier, with 60 or more years of practice.
Lanier has two sons, Rick of Crystal River, and Jim of Avon Park.