Mary Kestenbaum Fortson attended law school while she raising her four children—commuting from her home in Sarasota, Florida, to Stetson University College of Law’s St. Petersburg campus. She graduated first in her class in 1997 and began her legal career at an insurance defense litigation firm in Tampa. There, she learned how to write insurance coverage opinions and how to litigate from the defense perspective. She also honed her research and appellate skills.
When the defense firm disbanded at the end of 1999, she joined Chip Merlin’s plaintiff’s practice, representing policyholders against their property insurers. She worked closely with Chip and learned to complement his entrepreneurial style and outside-the-box thinking.
In 2005 as the firm began to expand, Chip asked Mary to become the firm’s managing attorney as her organizational skills, attention to detail, and problem-solving abilities made her well-suited to the position. From then until the end of 2016 Mary managed and supervised the firm’s attorneys and their legal work—overseeing the firm’s growth to more than 40 attorneys and multiple offices in several states. She provided assistance on the firm’s most complex cases and projects as well as litigation and appellate support and guidance.
Mary also advised on matters of ethics and professionalism and coordinated with Merlin Law Group’s regional offices. She obtained an AV Preeminent rating from Martindale Hubbell’s legal rankings.
During this time, she worked closely with several industry groups, acting as general counsel for the Florida Association of Public Insurance Adjusters and the Texas Association of Public Insurance Adjusters for several years. Mary was a member of a Florida Bar grievance committee for three years and the Tampa Bay Inn of Court for five years. She was the conference committee chair for the Windstorm Insurance Network’s annual conference in 2012 and she joined the organization’s Board of Directors in 2015. She was also a member of the education committee for the First Party Claims Conference for several years. She co-authored a number of seminar and journal papers with Chip Merlin and taught several industry courses on the subject of property insurance claims. She also co-authored several appellate amicus briefs for United Policyholders and the Florida Justice Association.
In January 2017, Mary stepped down from her full-time position as Merlin Law Group’s managing attorney to become Office Counsel, working as part of the firm’s management team. She continues to assist the firm’s attorneys with problem-solving and handling matters involving ethics and risk management. She also provides appellate and litigation advice for unusual cases and legal briefings.
Three of Mary’s children are now attorneys and the fourth works for a major television network’s online news division. Mary enjoys spending time with her four grandchildren in addition to staying involved with Merlin Law Group.
Stetson University College of Law
St. Petersburg, Florida
Honors: Magna cum laude
Honors: Class Valedictorian
Honors: Dean’s List Each Semester
Honors: West Publishing Awards for Outstanding Scholastic Achievement
Honors: Corpus Juris Secundum Award for Scholastic Excellence, Civil Procedure
Honors: Lazan & Trute, P.A. Trusts Award
Cedar Crest College
Bachelor of Science
Honors: magna cum laude