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Silhouettes profiles Erin Smith Aebel

Originally published in the july 17, 2020 edition of La Gaceta
Erin Smith AebelBy Tiffany Razzano

Erin Smith Aebel is probably the happiest attorney you’ll ever meet.
“It’s true,” said the partner at Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick, LLP. “I’m one of the very few happy lawyers. And I’m one of the few women who has lasted 20 years in a big law firm.”
Ask her the secret to her happiness and success, and she’ll be quick to tell you that the autonomy to do her job well has kept her going all these years. “The key to making me happy is that I’ve always had my own clients,” she said. “I bring in money and do my own thing, and that gives me some degree of protection and freedom.”
A board-certified health care attorney, she’s co-administrator of the firm’s health care practice. Aebel fell into health care law 20 years ago when she happened to be assigned a few cases in the field. “I was working with other lawyers and they said, ‘Here, take care of this doctor,’” she said.
She was drawn to the “really complex laws” governing health care covering everything from HIPAA to kickbacks. “It’s a very technical area and very difficult and constantly changing,” she said. “Every year there are new federal, state, and local laws.”
In her role, she works closely with those in the medical field, such as physicians and dentists, “to try to boil down complex laws in a way that’s affordable and makes sense for them.”
Though she has some larger, national clients, her “passion” is working with small business owners. With small businesses, it’s about cultivating long-term relationships, she said. “I’m not replaceable with many of my clients. They know me. I know them. I know their dogs and I know their children. These longer client relationships are the most rewarding.”
Aebel, a fifth-generation Floridian and St. Petersburg native, didn’t set out to be an attorney. Instead, the Gibbs High School graduate thought she would become a history professor.
She attended Loyola University in New Orleans on a full scholarship, majoring in history and French. Then, she began to think about her future more practically. “My history professor made $30,000 a year and had to get a Ph.D. and live somewhere they might not want to, like South Dakota, to get tenured,” she said.
So, she turned her sights to law. She got into some impressive law schools, including the University of Florida. “I actually turned down UF twice. I don’t want to go to school in a swamp and I don’t like football,” she said.
She decided to attend law school at Loyola because she loved her undergraduate experience there and thought she could excel in the program, making it easier for her to find a job after graduating.
After earning her law degree, Aebel decided to return to the Tampa Bay area. Though she loved New Orleans, she knew it wasn’t the city for her to grow roots. “I think there’s a lot of opportunity for people in Tampa Bay,” she said. “What I learned about living in an old, Southern city is everyone wants to know who your daddy was and how many lawyers your family has. It’s hard to break into there, but in Tampa Bay, it’s easy to come from anywhere and get very involved easily… People are very welcoming here. They’re not judgey or snotty.”
She started her career working in litigation, but she never enjoyed it. “I like to prevent problems and work behind the scenes and make deals happen,” she said.
Though she didn’t enjoy trials, “what does appeal to me is finding justice for your clients and advocating for other people,” Aebel said. As she began growing her client list and working with them outside the courtroom, she found her niche and began to enjoy being a lawyer.
In addition to her career, her other great passion is community involvement. She sits on the state advisory board for Ruth’s List, which encourages pro-choice, Democratic women to run for office. She’s also served on the boards for Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida, the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg and the local chapter of the American Diabetes Association.
In recent years, she’s started working with organizations that “focus on marginalized people in healthcare” and sits on the boards for the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay and Brain Expansions Scholastic Training, which encourages disadvantaged youth to pursue careers in medicine.
Aebel is a leader in other ways, as well, and is vocal about her political beliefs. “I believe political action is important,” she said. “You want to see the world change in the way you want to see it change.”
This means being educated and involved at a local level. “It means knowing your city council members, knowing your school board members, knowing your local representatives,” she said.
For decades, she’s made it a point to be “a very informed voter,” ever since she returned to the Tampa Bay area after law school. But in 2016, with the election of Pres. Donald Trump, she “decided, clearly, that was not enough.” She wanted to do something more.
Aebel and her friend, a fellow lawyer, Mary Elizabeth Lanier, started a Facebook group, Surly Feminists for the Revolution.
The purpose of the group was to create a safe space for positivity, inclusiveness, progress and feminism, a space that rejects misogyny and prejudice. The name was a play on the phrase “nasty woman,” which was used by Trump to reference his opponent Hillary Clinton. “I came up with the name (Surly Feminists,)” she said. “It’s indicative of its time but also timeless and continues on.”
Today, the group has nearly 13,000 members and has hosted everything from book clubs and other live events to a radio show that airs on WMNF.
When they created the group, Aebel never anticipated its popularity. “That wasn’t my intent,” she said. “It just spontaneously happened. I wasn’t trying to get attention on myself or the group or anything.”
The timing was right for progressive women, stung by Clinton’s loss as a female presidential candidate, to come together to speak out about their own experiences. “What happened with a lot of women, especially middle-aged women, was they had enough, and they said, ‘This is bullsh*t. We need to get more representations. We need to talk about me, too,” she said.
On the political spectrum, she tends to fall further to the left than many Democrats, she said, so, Clinton wasn’t her top candidate in 2016. She did vote for Clinton, though, and was disheartened by her loss. “It was still sad that a woman couldn’t get to that position of power in the United States,” Aebel said.
After the election, discussing the outcome with her family, she was moved when her mother noted that she likely wouldn’t see a woman president in her lifetime. Aebel knew she needed to do more politically.
The 2016 election and creating the Surly Feminists changed her life. “(Women my age) have lived through a lot of sexism and things and survived them. We learned what we’ll put up with and what we won’t. We’re not naïve anymore,” she said. “Normally, I’m a very upbeat, optimistic person, but I am tired of this sh**.”
In January 2017, the day after Trump’s inauguration, she attended the first St. Petersburg Women’s March. “It was the first march I ever did,” she said. “It was the most thrilling, fun and great experience.”
Now, she doesn’t hesitate to march for causes close to her heart. Since 2017, she’s participated in the second St. Petersburg Women’s March, the local March for Science and various Black Lives Matter gatherings.
“Once you do that a few times, you realize that a protest is very powerful,” Aebel said. “You want to have the energy of the moment and connect with people and use that energy and connection to go to the next steps, which for me, in my position, is to make procedural change and legal change. (Protests) really can spur on change. I’ll never take it for granted.”

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