In a profession that seems to celebrate the sacrifice of family time, an attorney pushes for parental leave without apology.
“I am a husband. I am a father. I am a lawyer. I am those three things in that order. Yet oftentimes in the midst of dealing with clients and deadlines, I forget about the true order of my priorities. That being said, I have never been ashamed of my priorities.”
These are the powerful opening words of “Yes, I took paternity leave (and I’m not afraid to admit it),” an editorial by attorney Santo DiGangi (BA ’06, JD ’09), first published February 2019 in the newsletter of the Florida Bar Young Lawyers Division (YLD), of which he was then president-elect. DiGangi exposes the ridicule he faced from other lawyers when he announced he was taking paternity leave to be with his wife and newborn son, and he condemns the backlash that men in most professions face when they take time off to care for their families.
Losing my dad at such a young age helped me realize you can’t take life for granted. You don’t know how many days you have left on earth. That’s why I’m so committed to paternity leave.
— Santo DiGangi —
“My goal is to begin to chip away and eventually eradicate that stigma,” wrote the UF “40 Gators Under 40” honoree, who is a partner at Critton, Luttier & Coleman, in West Palm Beach.
The op/ed piece came from his heart, DiGangi says, but it was more than an act of self-expression or an eloquent critique of gender norms: It marked a turning point in a longtime battle to make parental leave a right for practicing lawyers in Florida. And not only did DiGangi, the YLD and the Florida Bar end up winning that fight, with the Florida Supreme Court ruling for parental-leave continuance in December 2019, they also convinced the American Bar Association to recommend the same rule to all 50 states.
“The beauty of the parental-leave continuance rule is that it applies to both moms and dads,” said DiGangi in a late-summer interview, just days before the birth of his third son.
But the story behind this impressive legal victory has deeper roots. The eldest child of Sicilian immigrants, DiGangi lost his own father, himself a lawyer, at an early age. Santo DiGangi’s fierce commitment to helping attorneys nurture their families can be traced to his love for – and the loss of – his father, Giuseppe DiGangi.
“Losing my dad at such a young age helped me realize you can’t take life for granted,” said DiGangi, 36. “You don’t know how many days you have left on earth. That’s why I’m so committed to paternity leave.”
“Like ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’”
Putting family first is a value his parents, Giuseppe and Rose, brought with them from Italy when their families immigrated to the New York area in the 1960s, in search of the American Dream. Giuseppe DiGangi had been a practicing lawyer in Italy; however, he never got to practice in the United States, which has a different legal system, and he found a niche as an importer of Italian leather goods and Murano glass.
Still, Dad’s original vocation had a powerful influence on Santo, born in 1984, three years before his younger brother, Luigi.
“If you had asked me at age 4 or 5 what I wanted to do when I grew up, I would have said I wanted to be a lawyer,” said DiGangi.
Italian was DiGangi’s mother tongue – “I didn’t speak a word of English until kindergarten,” he said – and its melodic sounds accompanied family get-togethers and landmark events, like Santo’s First Communion. A photo of the occasion shows Giuseppe and 7-year-old Santo standing proudly in near-identical dark blue suits, Rose’s arms sheltering her two young sons.
Two years later, that family unity was shattered when Giuseppe died of stomach cancer.
“After his death, it became my goal to fulfill the dream [of becoming a lawyer] that he couldn’t realize here in the United States and to carry on his legacy,” said DiGangi. “And I always knew that whenever I had a wife and kids, they would have to be my No. 1 priority.”
Rose then took over as breadwinner, obtaining her AA degree while working full time.
“My mom is the strongest woman I’ve ever known,” said DiGangi. “She went from being a stay-at-home wife and mother with only a high school degree to rejoining the workforce and working her way up, starting as a teacher’s assistant and rising to principal’s secretary.”
Rose climbed the ladder in the school district of Palm Beach County, where she and her children moved in 1994 to be with their extended Italian family.
“We lived in a cul-de-sac,” said DiGangi. “Three of the five houses belonged to our family, including my grandparents, aunts and uncles, and my cousins.
“Have you ever seen the show ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’? I could have made so much money selling my story before Raymond [Romano] did.”
Survivor of a 7:25 a.m. Class
DiGangi’s teenage years were spent at the Dreyfoos School of the Arts, a magnet school in West Palm Beach, where he played trombone in band and orchestra, and rose to become an All-State trombonist.
Meanwhile, DiGangi’s grandparents, who had only made it through the first grade in Italy, were gunning for him to get a college education. With limited financial resources but the promise of a Bright Futures scholarship, DiGangi applied to a single school, “the best in the state,” for early acceptance.
“When I got into UF, it was a really big deal, especially for my family,” he said.
As a dual political science and criminology major at UF, DiGangi soaked up political science classes with lecturer Samuel Stafford, who later taught his first law class at Levin College of Law. Stafford’s undergraduate courses – offered solely at 7:25 a.m. – are famous for winnowing out all but the most dedicated prelaw students.
“I vividly remember, on the first day of class, about a quarter to a third of the class drops out,” said DiGangi. “Professor Stafford only wants serious kids in his class, and he teaches in the Socratic method, which is very challenging.”
“He instilled in me a deep reverence for the United States Supreme Court and its historically important role in our society,” added DiGangi. “That solidified in me the notion that, ‘I’m going to be a lawyer, and I want to do everything I can to make a difference.’”
DiGangi likewise made an impression on Stafford, who works full time as a judicial hearing officer for the 8th Judicial Court.
“From the first time I taught Santo, in American Civil Liberties class, I knew he was special and unique,” said Stafford. DiGangi paid rapt attention, he said, “to what was, at that time, some pretty difficult and overwhelming material.”
“He stood out as a consummate, respectful leader, which was unique because he wasn’t arrogant,” continued Stafford. “Those qualities evolved over the years as he grew in knowledge and confidence.”
A big sports fan, DiGangi also played trombone in The Pride of the Sunshine for the 2004-2005 football season and in the pep band for the 2005-2006 basketball season, when the Gators won their first national championship.
“We got to travel with the team all across the country,” he said. “I was in the front row, playing, when we won the championship. That was one of the highlights of my college career, nonacademically.”
After receiving his bachelor’s degree in 2006, DiGangi pursued a law degree at Levin, earning his Juris Doctor in 2009. That year, DiGangi interned at the juvenile law clinic, mentored by UF law professor Meshon Rawls (JD ’98), now a judge for the 8th Judicial Circuit. His role was to advocate for children in delinquency, dependency and other juvenile matters.
“I just loved that,” he said. “It was so gratifying giving kids guidance on how to get through difficult times in their life.”
“I can’t overstate how important UF was to my development, not only as a lawyer, but as a person,” he added. “It’s such a large, diverse place that it really helps you appreciate everyone’s point of view, and it made me a stronger leader.”
Order in the Court
DiGangi eventually landed at Critton, Luttier & Coleman, where he practices a mix of business litigation and personal injury law, for which Super Lawyers has consistently named him a Rising Star. In December 2020, he was made partner.
Prior to joining the firm, DiGangi, like most young lawyers, paid his dues, as a trial court law clerk for the 15th Judicial Circuit, in West Palm Beach, and as assistant state attorney with the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s office.
In the latter role, DiGangi prosecuted all kind of crimes, starting with misdemeanors and progressing to homicides and other felonies, for a total of about 25 jury trials and 100 bench trials. The pace was relentless – up to seven days a week, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. – but the experience impressed on him the seriousness of his profession.
His first trial was that of a man on his third DUI within 10 years. DiGangi and his trial partner secured a conviction, and the judge sentenced him to the maximum jail time, 364 days.
“That night after the verdict, I couldn’t sleep,” DiGangi said. “I know some people are so excited after their first trial and conviction, but I wasn’t. I felt the weight of what I was doing and realized the enormous impact I had on people’s lives.”
“You’re showing people their actions have consequences,” he added. “After that, if I saw a defendant who needed help, whether it was rehabilitation for substance abuse or a mental health issue, my goal was to make that person better.”
True Love at the Tailgate
Joining Critton, Luttier & Coleman (CLC) in 2013 gave DiGangi the opportunity to litigate some important noncriminal cases, including one representing a citizens group against the city of West Palm Beach, accused of permitting illegal overdevelopment. A three-judge panel ruled the city had violated its own zoning codes, and the developer had to pay a $1.1 million settlement, giving the group a war chest to fight future zoning violations.
Equally important has been CLC’s support of service work.
“As lawyers, we are in a unique position to make a difference in our communities; I think it’s irresponsible not to give back when we can,” said DiGangi, who has held leadership positions on the Dreyfoos Foundation board and in the West Palm Beach Kiwanis Club and the Florida Bar Young Lawyers Division.
But an additional factor motivated DiGangi to return to his old stomping grounds: He felt the urge to get married and start a family.
Cue the Florida/Georgia football game of November 1, 2014. DiGangi, who had just turned 30, had been attending the Jacksonville matchups since 2004, enjoying stadium tailgates and weekends at the family home of fellow Gator Pamela Henderson Postell (BSN ’06) and her husband, Doug. That day, Doug’s sister Stephanie – often talked about but never seen at the tailgates – finally showed up. The connection was instantaneous, he says.
A fourth-generation graduate of Auburn University, Stephanie was then director of the Boys and Girls Club in St. Augustine. The couple embarked on a long-distance relationship for several years and married in October 2016. Their first son, Giuseppe, arrived in September 2017. In addition to adjusting to motherhood, Stephanie, with long roots in the Deep South, had to get used to being part of an extended Sicilian family.
“It was a culture shock for her to meet my boisterous Italian family,” he says, “but she quickly warmed up to them, and they loved her immediately.”
“Enough Is Enough”
Despite being with a firm that respects service work, DiGangi still lived the so-called lawyer lifestyle, working long hours and always putting his professional duties first. In nine years of work, he had never taken an entire week off, not even for his wedding or the birth of Giuseppe.
Judicial rules made those sacrifices necessary: If a lead attorney’s case came to trial and coincided with the birth of a child, their case could be handed to another lawyer, regardless of how many months or years of work they had put in. “Continuance” (postponing the trial) was not a right for Florida attorneys.
For DiGangi, the wake-up call came with the birth of his second son, George, in November 2018. Recalling his childhood vow to put his wife and children first, he put out a message stating he was taking one week’s paternity leave.
I can’t overstate how important UF was to my development, not only as a lawyer, but as a person. It’s such a large, diverse place that it really helps you appreciate everyone’s point of view, and that made me a stronger leader.
— Santo DiGangi —
The pushback from some male colleagues was fierce and immediate, as he would write in his editorial:
“I was ridiculed by one counsel for openly admitting that I was on paternity leave. I was told by another attorney that putting paternity leave as a reason for being out of the office was a sign of weakness. And then, of course, I heard from multiple older attorneys that they were back in the office the same day their children were born.”
Enough is enough, thought DiGangi, who penned his essay in 30 minutes and published it in the YLD newsletter for its 27,000 members’ eyes to read, not caring if it made some people angry. A few months later, it was published in the Florida Bar News and on its site.
“I had a platform to let the entire legal community know that this problem is serious,” said DiGangi. “And this is something we need to fix in the legal realm.”
Dozens of lawyers thanked DiGangi for speaking out, from a young lawyer saying, “Thank you, now I have the strength to take paternity leave myself,” to older lawyers expressing regret that they hadn’t been able to take time off for the birth of their children. Other senior lawyers affirmed they would prioritize supporting parental leave for mothers and fathers in their firms.
But the changes didn’t stop there. In 2017, the Florida Supreme Court had rejected the parental leave continuance rule on a technicality, despite its support by the Florida Bar. The years 2018 and 2019 saw a push by the Young Lawyers Division, anchored by DiGangi, to get approval for the rule, first from the Florida Bar Board of Governors and then from the Florida Supreme Court in December 2019.
Made effective January 1, 2020, this rule now requires judges to grant a lead attorney’s request for a three-month continuance for the birth or adoption of a child, if certain conditions are met.
It was a victory for lawyer-parents, their firms and for their clients, as then-Florida Bar President John Stewart said in his presentations to the court:
“This rule…advances the Bar’s mission to encourage health and wellness, and to encourage work/life integration so physically and mentally healthy lawyers better serve their clients. And…[it] advances the best interests in putting the public and clients first in ensuring they get the lawyers of their choice.”
That victory went nationwide when the American Bar Association – using a proposal drafted by the YLD – urged all state and local bodies to adopt the ruling. This guidance potentially affects the nation’s 1.3 million lawyers.
It’s a change that’s been a long time coming, says Professor Stafford, who has long stressed to his UF students the need for a proper work-life balance.
“Unfortunately, in our profession, many lawyers go overboard and build their careers to the detriment of their health and their families,” Stafford said. “So, I am very, very pleased that this [ruling] is part of Santo’s legacy. And he’s still a young man – I know he is going to deliver even more to humanity.”
Which brings us back to the DiGangis and their enmeshed “Everybody Loves Raymond” life in West Palm Beach, complete with doting grandparents, opinionated aunts and uncles, and lively cousins.
On August 14, 2020, Stephanie and Santo gave birth to their third son, Rex Luigi (named after two great-grandfathers).
An email announcing the birth includes a photo of Santo, Giuseppe and George strumming guitars as they give Stephanie and Rex a welcome-home concert filled with Tom Petty classics.
Everyone looks slightly tired but exceedingly happy, which is how it is when a family has time to properly welcome a new addition to the circle.
“Mom and baby are doing great!” DiGangi wrote.
And so, evidently, is Dad.
“P.S.,” he added. “I’ll have you know I’m also currently enjoying my paternity leave!”