New frontier

By: 
Oct. 10, 2014

Fort Myers isn't the kind of town where you might expect attorneys to push the legal envelope, but Luis Insignares is busy doing just that.

Insignares is one of a small group of attorneys considered a foremost expert in Florida on the issue of same-sex family law. The Florida Supreme Court may soon hear the case of a woman he represents in a same-sex divorce case that could set a precedent in the state.

Already considered one of the best family law attorneys in the region, Insignares, with a two-person practice, is candid about representing same-sex couples. “In Fort Myers it's unusual,” he acknowledges. “This is a conservative area.”

Indeed, he doesn't know of any other attorney in the region who tackles this area of family law. Most of the attorneys who specialize in it are located in the Miami area.

But Insignares has a personal perspective, too. The 50-year-old married his longtime partner, Dwayne Bergmann, principal and owner of Dwayne Bergmann Designs and Expotique, in New York last year, and together they are raising twin baby boys.

Beth Littrell, a senior attorney in the southern regional office of Lambda Legal, an organization that advocates for and represents lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people, says Insignares is one of only a dozen “go-to” attorneys in Florida who specializes in same-sex cases.

“He's delightful and brilliant and a really smart lawyer,” says Littrell.

The potentially precedent setting case, Insignares is representing Danielle Brandon-Thomas, a woman who moved to Fort Myers after marrying Krista Brandon-Thomas in Massachusetts, where same-sex marriages are legal. When Krista allegedly left Florida and absconded with their son, now age 3, Danielle sought a divorce and custody rights in Lee County.

But Florida doesn't recognize same-sex marriages, so the case has wound its way through the appellate process and could now be heard by the Florida Supreme Court. “It was the perfect case and she was willing to do it,” says Insignares, who agreed to represent Danielle at no cost to her.

Insignares' customary fee is $375 an hour, and he estimates he's already spent more than 100 hours on the case. “She wouldn't have had the resources,” he says. “I made a commitment to her.”

Surprisingly, Insignares hasn't sought publicity in the case, but his reputation as a leading authority on same-sex family law in Florida could propel his appellate practice. “We're in the process of looking to open a Naples office,” he says. “I would love to have a statewide appellate practice.”

Building a reputation
Insignares was born in Chicago, but his Colombian-born parents moved throughout Latin America; his father was an engineer designing industrial refrigeration equipment systems. Eventually the Insignares family moved to Miami, where Luis got a law degree.

Insignares moved to Fort Myers in 1989 and worked for a time for the Lee County Clerk of Courts enforcing child support and visitation rights. He later worekd in the marital-law division of a firm then known as Goldberg, Goldstein & Buckley. He left that firm in 2000 and obtained an M.B.A. from the University of Miami. “I always wanted to add a business aspect to my practice,” he says.

Also in 2000, Insignares opened his own law practice at the corner of Broadway and First Street in downtown Fort Myers. Family law and appellate law were the two areas of focus for his practice, and he became involved in drafting briefs for the Florida Bar's family law section that led to gay men and lesbians in the state being able to adopt children.

Insignares' work on the state level gave him widespread recognition. “He was very instrumental in moving that issue forward,” says Laura Davis Smith with Greene, Smith & Associates in Coral Gables, a firm that is handling another precedent-setting case in this area of family law.

Attorneys say Insignares and others who are setting new precedents in this area of the law are courageous. “He's not afraid to put his name out there and really challenge,” Smith says. “He's setting an example in his life.”

Into the spotlight
Insignares isn't a publicity hound. “I don't have a PR firm,” he chuckles.

Phyllis Ershowsky of PKE Marketing & PR Solutions in Fort Myers, has been helping Insignares with branding for his planned expansion to Naples, but there have been no efforts to generate publicity for the Brandon-Thomas case.

For example, Insignares says he hasn't sought the help of national gay and lesbian organizations for the case, preferring to go it alone. “We just wanted our case to be heard on the merits,” he says. “We felt that handling it like any other case was a smarter thing to do. I want them to go through the process.”

But Insignares realizes the Brandon-Thomas case is now garnering more attention as it gets closer to being heard by the Florida Supreme Court. “I'm really proud of being involved,” he says.

If the state's high court does agree to hear his case, Insignares says he might coordinate strategy with national organizations with an interest in the issue. “We may ask for help,” says Insignares.
Already, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi announced Sept. 12 she is intervening in the Brandon-Thomas case and three other similar same-sex marriage cases.

While Insignares complains that Bondi's intervention is creating unnecessary delays, he acknowledges her move brings added publicity to the case. “Is she going to make it a campaign issue? I don't think so,” Insignares says.

New business opportunities
Insignares waves off the value of the publicity of the Brandon-Thomas case. “It isn't about business,” he says. “This is my extra curricular activity.”

Insignares is also quick to point out that same-sex marriage isn't legal in Florida, though he believes it eventually will be. “Right now there is no business,” he says.

Fact is, there are few law firms in Florida that specialize in this area of family law, and most of them are small. “I've always marveled that this hasn't attracted more people,” says Elizabeth Schwartz, a Miami Beach attorney whose practice is almost exclusively working with lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people.

Schwartz, who has been doing this kind of work for 17 years, says she's been inundated with requests from younger lawyers who want to practice in this area of family law. “I'm really encouraged that so many people are stepping up and wanting to work with this community,” she says.

Insignares isn't worried that the Brandon-Thomas case might pigeonhole him as an attorney who exclusively handles same-sex cases, but he acknowledges that it's a potentially significant new source of business. “I think it could be 10% to 20% of my business,” he says.

Insignares, in addition to his plan to open an office in Naples, also wants to expand to Fort Lauderdale next year. Then Miami and Tampa are next up for possible future expansion of his appellate practice. “We're thinking about hiring new associates,” he says.

Insignares' reputation as a top-notch marital law expert hasn't been affected by his candor about his lifestyle or the work he's done on behalf of same-sex couples. “It's a non-issue for me,” he says. “I pick and choose the cases I want.”