Q&A with Exemplary Public Service Career Award Winner Susan Maher

Maher Photo

FSU Law presented alumna Susan Maher (’84) with the Exemplary Public Service Career Award in September 2022. The award recognizes a Florida State University College of Law graduate who has dedicated their career to public service and who has demonstrated exceptional character, integrity, humility and professionalism, as well as the highest regard for ethics.

Maher served the State of Florida for 31 years before retiring in 2016. Her career primarily focused on the representation of the Florida Department of Corrections and its employees in civil rights and tort litigation. Not only an outstanding attorney, Maher was a wonderful mentor who trained and taught numerous attorneys who continue to dedicate themselves to public service. The following Q&A provides details about Maher’s commitment to public service.

What did receiving the 2022 Exemplary Public Service Career Award mean to you?     
It was an awesome surprise to learn that I had received this prestigious FSU College of Law award. I was so honored to have been selected by the committee and included among the many distinguished and accomplished nominees and previous recipients of this award. But most of all, I was touched to learn from reading the nominations submitted by my colleagues how much I had positively impacted their lives and furthered their careers in public service. There is nothing more rewarding than to know that you have made a difference in the world and helped someone to achieve their goals in life.

For people who don’t know, can you please describe your public service work?           
For almost the entirety of my legal career in public service, I advised and represented the state of Florida and its employees in federal civil rights and state tort litigation, including statewide class actions, primarily involving the Department of Corrections and the Department of Children and Family Services. I worked for the Florida Department of Corrections as its deputy general counsel for 17 years and for the Attorney General’s Office in the Corrections Litigation Bureau in various capacities, including bureau chief for 16 years, where I supervised and mentored a staff of 30, over half of which were attorneys. My work provided me the opportunity to advise on and defend state policy issues related to public safety as well as prison conditions. It also included advising on a wide array of daily prison operational issues, running the gamut from individual prisoner rights, such as religious rights, property rights, sentencing, gain-time, and calculation of release dates, visitation, and medical care on one end of the spectrum, up to much broader and more generalized statewide operational issues like emergency and hurricane preparedness. Each day of my public service work was a new day, packed with special issues and challenges.

What sparked your passion for public service work?
For me, it wasn’t so much of a spark as a gravitational pull to public service work. My first experience with public service occurred while I was finishing my undergraduate work. I had completed a two-year associate degree program at a community college in Ft. Myers after finishing high school. After moving to Tallahassee and settling in, I decided to finish my college education. During that time, I worked in clerical and executive support positions at several state agencies, including the former Department of Banking and Finance, the former Department of Administration, and the former Department of Business Regulation. I learned so much about governmental operations and functions and public service work at those agencies. I was intrigued by the complexities of government and drawn to the multi-faceted purposes of public service. I found great satisfaction in performing work that sustained government functions that both benefitted the general public and contributed to improvements vital to the quality of life. So, when I completed my undergraduate degree in finance, I accepted a position as business manager for the Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering with Business Regulation in Miami. It was there that I worked closely with agency attorneys in fulfilling the agency’s regulatory and oversight duties, and there that my penchant for the law was kindled. I later returned to Tallahassee to pursue a law degree, and I continued working for state government, first as an OPS pari-mutuel auditor and later as a law clerk for the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. After graduation and admission to The Florida Bar, I took a position in the private sector as an associate in an administrative law firm. I chose this private sector position given my experience and background with state agencies and believing at the time that an administrative law practice would suit me perfectly. But I quickly realized that, rather like a shoe being on the wrong foot, private sector work just wasn’t the same. I simply didn't feel the same passion and sense of purpose in my private sector job that I had enjoyed in all of my public service work. Really, I cannot say that for me there was some particular person or event that sparked my passion for public service, but rather, there was the constant tug of an invisible gravitational bond that developed between me and the public service work I had done up to that point. I knew then that my legal career needed to be dedicated to public service, so I returned to state government and never looked back.   

What did you like most about your public service work?
It truly was a joy to have the opportunity to learn something new every day, to grow with that knowledge and experience, and above all, to make a positive difference in other people’s lives. And I especially enjoyed the many opportunities that I had to mentor new lawyers and staff, and to encourage and inspire them in the performance of their public service jobs. 

Why do you think it’s important for students and alumni to consider public service work?
Public service is integral to moving our world forward and improving the future. It is a worthwhile undertaking and a challenge that can be both demanding and fulfilling.

What one thing do you wish people knew about your work? 
That public service work, on any level, can be a positive force for change.

What does being a public servant mean to you?
For me, public service has always been a way of serving others and giving back to the community. My hope was always to find a career that would remain interesting and challenging, and that also would provide both continued personal growth and the opportunity to help others. I found that career in public service.