F O R E W O R D
By Leslie Gray Streeter
“It was a very serious and dangerous situation.”
A panicked mother was facing every parent’s nightmare scenario, trying to extricate herself and her children from the legal and physical grasp of her abusive ex-husband. Her then-lawyer was unhelpful – “I knew he didn’t care about me,” she says matter-of-factly. So in desperation she started researching family law attorneys online, to “help me protect my children and fight for their rights and their safety.”
She chose Eddie Stephens, whose solid reviews made her confident “that he was the guy.” What she couldn’t know at the time, she says, was “how bad things were going to get” with her ex, or how much her new attorney would go above and beyond for her.
“I knew his credentials, but I didn’t know anything about his heart,” she says. “I get emotional thinking about it, (when) he and his team looked out for me in the hardest of times. I always felt like I wasn’t just another client, like he was completely invested in me and my girls, making sure I was OK. I just knew he was the right person.”
Through a 25-year career, Stephens, a board certified family law attorney with West Palm Beach’s Ward Damon, has felt “a natural calling to help people in trauma.” That calling, he says, is based not only in a professional commitment but in a catastrophic childhood loss that makes this personal to him.
“I went through those traumas (and) those ordeals and I have a tolerance for other people’s pain. I drink their poison for them,” says Stephens, a community advocate whose volunteerism has included Boy Scouts of America, Leadership Palm Beach County and Peggy Adams Animal Rescue League. “I enjoy being on the side of justice.”
“He’s very passionate about his work, and he absolutely wants to do the right thing,” says attorney Laura Davis Smith, who notes that Stephens is one of fewer than 300 people certified in the state, meaning that “he’s been peer-reviewed (as meeting) the highest professional standards. He’s honed his craft and made himself the best litigator and resolver of conflict, a very skilled advocate on behalf of his clients. He believes in them…. Where it’s important, you’ll find Eddie.”
Stephens grew up in Coral Gables in Miami, a sixth generation Floridian. He says he honed the storytelling skills that later became vital as a trial attorney as a kid riding his bike around town, gathering with friends in the crumbling façade of the Biltmore Hotel, years before its grand reimaging, to tell ghost stories “and freak them the hell out.”
“It was all fenced off, but it was an incredible structure. It had been a war hospital. We’d have incredible adventures there,” he says. His first career goal was to follow that penchant for storytelling into motion picture production, “and was learning to edit with film, but I quickly learned that it was obsolete.”
Having ruled out his other two childhood ambitions to be either an actor or a rock star – “I learned I did not have the talent” – Stephens switched to a business degree with the goal of becoming a lawyer. “Trials seemed like storytelling. It seemed like an artistic endeavor.”
He felt family law was “the most profound way I could see to help people.” Once pulled in, the complexity of this work held because “it helps on such a meaningful level. I don’t think other occupations have that sort of adrenaline rush, maybe only a fireman or a doctor,” he says. “You’re fixing things for them, pulling them out of bad situations.”
Stephens knows about bad situations, about trauma one needs to be pulled out of. He lost his mother at a young age, a profound loss he says “defined who I am.” Being shaped by such loss is not unheard of, but he insists that “it defined me in a really good way. When you deal with unimaginable grief, it can (make you) more empathetic in a way you weren’t before.”
The stakes in family law are high. “Kids’ safety can be determined by your representation. That highly focuses you on being good, very quickly” Stephens says. “I have a unique style. I never felt comfortable selling myself. I never wanted to be an aggressive, barky attorney.”
Actually, as much as he enjoys “the big production” of a trial, Stephens knows that it “can be horrible for the family, in the worst way, in having to have a judge resolve (something) that was meant for two parents to resolve. A win, here, is mitigating loss. No one really wins, except the attorneys. Protecting (clients) from loss? I consider that a win.”
“His generosity and passion for what he believes in just goes deep,” says Renee Layman, of the Center for Child Counseling, who met Stephens in 2015 through Leadership Palm Beach County and connected with him over his work with ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences.) “He’s someone I could pick up the phone and just say ‘Hey, Eddie.’ He’s helped our therapists, trained our staff. He’s done so much. I’m glad we have people like him.”
That conscience “pretty much guides him. It’s not just a fleeting thought,” says wife Jacquie, who worked with him as a paralegal. “He has a moral compass. There are days and instances in which it’s more difficult to follow that compass than others….For him, I’m sure there are times where it’s been like, ‘Forget this, I wish I could just go ahead and cheat.’ But he refuses to. It would be more difficult if he tried to go against his own code.”
Stephens, the father of sons Matthew, 19, and Christopher, 21, believes in balancing the professional and the personal for his own emotional health. He acknowledges that law can “be a very toxic job. Attorneys have a 20 percent alcoholism rate. It’s stressful. I have to be happy in my personal life and honor my other obligations. There’s a whole lot more to being a good lawyer than being a good lawyer.”
Those outside interests do find themselves in the courtroom, like Stephens’ 6 a.m. Jiu Jitsu classes which translate into his “favorite secret move” during cross-examination, “that I turn against (opponents), whatever I can do to win my case. The art of being in the courtroom is like martial arts.”
Although those interviewed come from different areas of Stephens’ life, the two words that came up with each were “commitment” and “detail.” The attorney himself playfully self-identifies as a “computer geek,” stemming from an unfortunate step onto a nail at age 12 that derailed his baseball camp plans and sent him to computer camp instead.
That geekiness has translated into a love of research. For the last 15 years, he’s taken weekly reports of family law cases and written summaries of each, turning them into THIS book for other attorneys to have on hand. He also writes a blog that more than 1300 divorce attorneys in the state subscribe to.
“I want to be a master of what I do, to be consistent, competent, caring and honest. If you’re not honest, you won’t be a good attorney. It’s hard to build a reputation and easy to destroy one,” Stephens explains. It’s an ongoing process, even over 25 years and “thousands of hearings. You have to practice your craft. The more you do, the more comfortable you are. You have to understand it all to become an expert.”
It was Stephens’ famed attention to detail that caught the eye of his current law partner, Caryn A. Stevens, when she first saw the email blasts he sent to other attorneys. “It’s interesting to see how his brain works. He has a wealth of information, and you can ask a question and he always has the answer. And you think ‘My God, I didn’t know you knew that!’”
“Everybody knows Eddie,” says Stevens, who jokes that their similar last names “confuse all the judges. It’s like ‘No, he’s not my husband.” But what he is “is a great guy. I can’t always say that about bosses in my career, but he is. Authentic, hysterical, witty.”
Those standards are also important when his instincts have failed him. Stephens recalls a case involving an old friend accused of inappropriate contact with a minor at the same time Stephens was advocating for him to have timesharing with his daughter. “I believed him,” he says. “Usually, I can tell if people are lying, but there are some really sick people out there that can fool you.” Stephens was convinced that his client was telling the truth – until the other attorney revealed text messages that proved otherwise.
“I realized then that my client is in the wrong. This was a horrible moment in my life. As an attorney, you have an ethical duty not to harm your client, but I could not really hide my new understanding of the case. I said to the judge, ‘I have evidence I’ve never seen before, we have to stop the trial right now,” Stephens says, recalling that the energy in the courtroom was so tense that “I had to get an escort out of the building.”
He wanted to withdraw, but was unable to, so the case ended in a negotiation where the client waived his parental rights and he subsequently went to prison for the other matter. “This guy’s not a good person,” Stephens says. “It ripped my heart out. I’m not interested in defending bad people.”
Those standards allow him to “raise the bar of professionalism and ethics in a place where ethics and professionalism are not always paramount concerns,” says partner Caryn Stevens. “I knew I was going to join more than a practice of law. It was more of a movement to practice law the right way.”
Recently, Stephens’ leadership exemplified the importance of that movement during the global pandemic. In March 2020, Stevens says the court shutdown, “created a whole new problem” for people needing a Court hearing. But Stephens, she says, “never closed, we were one of the earlier firms to do Zoom meetings, so he was like ‘How about Zoom law practice?’ Eddie was getting the highest video technology, cameras and microphones. We never lost focus. He’s an idea master, he’s the tech guy, he’s the brain. I am always happy to add the color and go on that ride.”
Although he didn’t start out wanting to be a lawyer, Stephens says he’s “never thought about giving it up,” even when things are difficult. “A very healthy life is not meant to be totally successful. It’s more likely that if you’d not had that setback instead of success, things would be different. A setback could be a very valuable moment.”
Even with stress and difficulties, Stephens considers himself blessed, and acknowledges the people in his professional and public lives he believes were placed in his life to help him. So “I pay the Universe back,” he says, by, in turn, helping improve the lives of hundreds of Palm Beach County youth, not only through the law but also as program chair of Leadership Palm Beach County GROW, as a longstanding volunteer with Boy Scouts of America, and as a board member with the Center for Child Counseling.
He also enjoys sharing his hard-won wisdom with others. Stephens’ advice to young attorneys is to maintain a sense of flexibility and of knowing what can and cannot be controlled. “A lot of people try to fight change, but at the end of the day gravity always wins,” he says. “Find a way to work with that gravity. Never think you know it all. Don’t pretend to know what it’s all about. Try to do the best with what you have. I never thought my life would take me to this moment. I’m just trying to get to that destination that we will all end up at, if we do the right thing.”
Ultimately, that mission to do the right thing, no matter the cost, is what others see in Eddie Stephens.
“He’s one of a kind,” says the relieved client. “I’m his biggest fan.”
Leslie Gray Streeter is an author, veteran journalist and speaker. whose memoir “Black Widow,” was published in March 2020 by Little, Brown and Company. Until recently, she was the longtime entertainment and lifestyle columnist and writer for the Palm Beach Post. A native of Baltimore, Md and a University of Maryland graduate, she and her work have been featured in The Miami Herald, the Washington Post, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Atlantic, the Today show, SiriusXM, O, The Oprah Magazine and more. She lives with her son Brooks and her mother Tina in her hometown of Baltimore, which she moved back to last summer. She’s a slow runner, an amateur vegan cook and a true crime and “Law and Order” enthusiast. Photo Credit Rissa Miller Creative.