Miami Trailblazing Female Judges in Workers’ Compensation Law

The Bencher | March/April 2024

By Stacey R. Laskin, Esquire; Vanessa Pellot, Esquire; Ingrid Hagerty, Esquire; and Audrey M. Castro, Esquire

The Richard A. Sicking American Inn of Court in Miami, Florida, is comprised of attorneys and judges of compensation claims who provide invaluable mentorship and service to young lawyers and the community. For this Women’s History Month, we interviewed two judges and Inn members, Judge Sylvia Medina-Shore and Judge Margret G. Kerr. The judges shared their experiences, challenges, and advice for younger lawyers.

Medina-Shore has been a judge of compensation claims in the Miami District since 2000 and has served as the administrative judge since 2006. Previously, she represented employers, carriers, and injured employees in workers’ compensation matters for about 10 years.

Medina-Shore said she enjoyed being in private practice but was interested in becoming a judge. At the same time, while she was confident about her qualifications, she had doubts due to her age, gender, and lack of government connections. Her husband then gave her invaluable advice: “You won’t know if you will be selected and appointed unless you apply.”

She advised young lawyers to work hard, always believe in yourself, and accept life’s challenges. She reminded us to be prepared when appearing before any judge. If you are not prepared to address a particular issue, “just admit it,” she said. Medina-Shore has witnessed how some attorneys’ perception of their cases is one-sided. She reminded us to not let our egos cloud our judgment: “It is always about your client. You did not lose the case—your client lost it.”

When Medina-Shore was a new judge, attorneys mistook her for an interpreter, then a secretary, and finally a court reporter before she told them, “No, I’m your judge.” She can laugh about it now, remembering, “It was awful for that attorney. He apologized so much.” A lesson learned for all lawyers.

We also had the privilege of speaking with Judge Margret G. Kerr about her career, experiences, and goals. After graduating from university in England, Kerr worked as a money market trader, followed by several years on a Caribbean island as a SCUBA instructor and boat captain. She then moved to the United States and attended the University of Miami School of Law, while working full time with Carnival Cruise Lines.

Looking back, Kerr wishes she had the opportunity to attend more of the interesting events her law school offered, such as speakers and networking events. Working full time and attending law school full time, however, was no easy task, and it was hard to find the extra time.

Kerr started handling workers’ compensation cases shortly after graduating from law school. The law firm where she worked specialized in maritime and Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act defense work. One of the firm clients needed representation involving their Florida workers’ compensation cases, and Kerr was assigned to represent the client. She took on the challenge and found the work so rewarding that before she knew it she specialized in the workers’ compensation field and 20 years passed.

When Kerr was appointed as a judge in 2013, she was particularly honored because she considered the other applicants to be well-qualified and she did not expect to be the successful candidate. According to Kerr, one of the most difficult aspects of being a judge has been losing the  camaraderie with other members of the bar because a judge must maintain a degree of distance and neutrality.

As a judge, however, she takes pleasure and pride in bringing young attorneys into leadership positions and encouraging professionalism. Her involvement and commitment to the Richard A. Sicking American Inn of Court as its founding president is a testament to that commitment. Additionally, in 2023, she helped host and put together the first Workers’ Compensation Academy for young lawyers.

What advice does she have for young lawyers to improve the profession? “Take the high road. Never get down in the mud with a difficult witness or attorney when litigating cases,” she said. And she added, “Communicate more with your opposing attorneys.”

Kerr highlighted the importance of finding new ways to network. Emerging leaders must take charge because “technology can be isolating, so find new ways to communicate and work with each other.”

Specifically for women in the field, she said, “Don’t try to do it all. Be kind to yourself and be kind to other women. Don’t compare yourself. It’s easy to believe other people have it all together, but chances are they face the same concerns and obstacles as you.”

As a woman lawyer, Kerr said she faced many challenges in the early years of her legal career. Now, she feels there is a healthy representation of women, and the profession better understands the unique issues women face. She said she has seen an increased number of talented and successful women lawyers and she would like to see an increase in those women taking on managing partner positions and judgeships.

Kerr encouraged all emerging leaders in the profession to volunteer their time to educate younger lawyers and to volunteer their time outside work. “The law is a very demanding vocation, but your job should not define who you are,” she said. “It is extremely important to have a strong work-life balance to maintain a healthy perspective on life.”

Kerr believes it is impossible to go through life without encountering significant obstacles and setbacks. It is how we deal with those obstacles in the context of our lives that defines us, she said.

Medina-Shore and Kerr enjoy a close working relationship and share a common belief in the joys of being a judge. Both women agree that being a judge is the best job they have ever had. An attorney’s job is to represent their client’s best interest, while a judge serves all parties equally. An attorney must search for the legal position most advantageous to their client, but a judge has the privilege of applying the law to the facts, not the facts to the law. A judge enjoys the application of the law in its purest sense, which both women said was what drew them to the profession so many years ago.

Our conversations with Medina-Shore and Kerr revealed a compelling blend of resilience, wisdom, and humility. Their journeys, marked by overcoming gender-based challenges and balancing personal and professional life, resonated deeply. Both judges are not only accomplished professionals but also mentors whose experiences are invaluable to aspiring lawyers.

Our takeaways are a reinforced belief in the power of perseverance, the importance of self-belief, and the meaningful role of mentorship in shaping the legal landscape.

Stacey R. Laskin, Esquire; Vanessa Pellot, Esquire; Ingrid Hagerty, Esquire; and Audrey M. Castro, Esquire; are members of the Reporting Committee of the Richard A. Sicking American Inn of Court in Miami, Florida.

© 2024 Stacey R. Laskin, Esquire; Vanessa Pellot, Esquire; Ingrid Hagerty, Esquire; and Audrey M. Castro, Esquire. This article was originally published in the March/April 2024 issue of The Bencher, a bi-monthly publication of the American Inns of Court. This article, in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored electronically in any form without the written consent of the American Inns of Court.