Substance Over Style
“It is always the right time to do the right thing. That makes for a great way to live and to serve.”
In his downtown Orlando office, the wise and benevolent face of Abraham Lincoln stares down over David H. Simmons’ shoulder. It isn’t intended to be solely decorative – Lincoln is the inspiration and example after which Simmons sought to model his legal and political career. Many might consider that to be an unattainable standard; however, aiming at the highest possible mark is what Simmons has always done. This may explain why the Orlando Sentinel rated him one of the top three most effective State Representatives in Central Florida in 2007, commenting that he is “the definition of substance over style.” It may also explain why he ran unopposed for his Senate seat in 2010.
Lincoln once said, “I get ready and perhaps my chance will come.” For Simmons, that maxim characterizes the essence of his character and his professional development. Both of his parents were school teachers, but in rural Tennessee where he grew up, they had to supplement their income by working a family farm. It developed in Simmons a solid work ethic, which was easily transferred to his academic pursuits. He was salutatorian of his high school and earned a scholarship to Tennessee Tech University. There, he graduated first in his class in mathematics, which further honed his aptitude for logic and deductive reasoning – skills that would mark his legal reputation.
It was the influence of Lincoln that caused Simmons to look to law as a career. He earned a scholarship to Vanderbilt Law School and again distinguished himself, leading to a job offer from the Carlton Fields law firm out of Tampa, at the time one of the largest in Florida. After traveling around the state, Simmons decided to settle in Orlando. “The city was new, fresh and clean; it was and is ‘the city beautiful’,” he said. Then in 1981, he joined with several other lawyers and founded what is today de Beaubien, Knight, Simmons, Mantzaris & Neal, with over 100 employees and close to 50 lawyers, in three locations throughout the state.
Not only did Simmons flourish as a trial lawyer and litigator, his role as a mentor was a key factor in the growth and success of the firm. He explained, “Mentoring is natural when you have a team approach. We have always believed that our young attorneys needed to get their feet wet and take responsibility, rather than just carry the briefcase and do research.” Adding one of the keys to his own success, “Litigation is tough, grueling work; we have tried to model what is necessary to succeed as a litigator. Louis Nizer (a noted lawyer) said, ‘There are three secrets to success in trial practice: Preparation, Preparation, and Preparation.’”
Kenneth P. Hazouri, who joined the firm in 1996, commented on Simmons’ role in his career, “I don’t think I would be the lawyer I am today without David’s influence. He taught me to have a large fund of knowledge, which only comes by immersing yourself in the law. Then, you have to be able to think creatively to utilize that knowledge, to make arguments and take positions that will benefit your clients. David has been an incredible example of critical thinking, diligence to know the subject and creatively applying it.”
Another lawyer in the firm since 1987, Thomas F. Neal said, “David taught me how to be a trial lawyer – not only the tangibles and intangibles that Ken mentioned, like work ethic and creative thinking, but he also has a never give up, never say die perspective. If you can’t win it one way, you may be able to win it another way. I can’t tell you how many times David would call me at 11 p.m. or on Sunday afternoon, because he was working on a case, thinking through strategies.”
His knowledge of the law and his razor-sharp logic were key factors in his effectiveness when he entered the Florida Legislature in 2000. Using a quote attributed to Churchill, Simmons explained his reason for entering public service: “‘You make a living by what you get; you make a life by what you give.’ Lincoln believed this same thing; you derive the greatest satisfaction and sense of meaning by giving back to your community.”
During his career he helped draft key legislation for some of the most difficult and controversial issues Florida was facing. One of which was legislation covering nursing homes, an industry that was about to collapse without some type of tort reform. He and a colleague, another freshman Representative, were able to draft the tort liability amendments in such a way, that both the nursing home industry and the trial attorneys agreed to the logic and the common sense approach it held, much to the surprise of his more senior colleagues.
His legislation has provided guidance to other governing bodies around the country and the world, while garnering awards from organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD). Simmons concluded, drawing a statement from Martin Luther King, “‘It is always the right time, to do the right thing.’ That makes for a great way to live and to serve.”