LAND O' LAKES — Nikki Alvarez-Sowles admits she's gone from know-it-all lawyer to humbled public servant.
That's what happens when you switch from practicing real estate law to a job in a county clerk and comptroller's office.
"As an attorney, I thought I knew what the clerk's office did. And how hard could the job be,'' said Alvarez-Sowles, 45, of Land O' Lakes.
Then she found out. First as director of branch court services for the Palm Beach County Clerk & Comptroller, and for the past dozen years in Pasco where she did strategic planning, directed criminal courts and served as chief operations officer under Pasco County Clerk & Comptroller Paula S. O'Neil.
"I had a real humbling experience about how complex that office is. It's not just about courts. ... It's just eye-opening, the complexity of the office,'' she said.
On July 1, Alvarez-Sowles added another line on her resume. She assumed the top spot as Pasco Clerk & Comptroller — albeit with the title "interim'' — following the June 30 retirement of O'Neil. Gov. Ron DeSantis has yet to name a permanent replacement, so Alvarez-Sowles is interim as designated by Sixth Circuit Court Chief Judge Anthony Rondolino. The new job became effective just after midnight Monday morning.
As comptroller and auditor, the clerk administers the county government's $1.3 billion budget. That means the office issues the checks and wire transfers for everything from employee mileage reimbursements to paying vendors such as road-paving contractors and the funeral service handling indigent burials. A one-week print-out of those transactions totals 51 pages of paper.
On the court side, the clerk's office must process tens of thousands of court cases filed annually, arrange jury pools for two full-service courthouses, staff each court hearing, collect the fees and fines, and ensure the 6 million on-line documents and official records remain easily accessible to the public while protecting information exempt from disclosure.
"I'm sorry to see Paula leaving, but Nikki is the perfect individual to fill this spot,'' said Pasco Tax Collector Mike Fasano. "She knows her stuff.'' Nichole Alvarez-Sowles, called Nikki by nearly everyone, grew up in Hillsborough County, where her father was a city of Tampa police officer and the family had a mortgage company. She attended Gaither High School and then the University of South Florida, where she was active in student government before graduating in 1997 with a degree in political science. As a junior, she was a goalkeeper on the inaugural Division 1 intercollegiate USF women's soccer team.
She headed to Lansing, Mich., and Western Michigan University to attend Thomas Cooley Law School. She picked it, she said, because it offered a 60-plus, elder law clinic that provided real-world experience. Law students were allowed to meet with clients, make court appearances and practice law under the bar license of a mentoring attorney.
Still, it meant a second-year law student sat at the table by herself before a judge and opposing counsel. The mentoring attorney sat in the rear of the courtroom and was not allowed to participate. Alvarez-Sowles remembers her first time in court on a guardianship case.
"I didn't know when to speak,'' she said, "so I just kept clearing my throat like 'I have something to say' ... I was kind of annoying, I think.''
Annoying, but effective. She won, and her client was allowed to remain financially independent, rather than having a court-appointed lawyer pay the bills — and collect a fee to do so.
She'd met Kevin Sowles as a 19-year-old socializing in Ybor City. They dated until she delayed her final semester of law school to get married. They moved back to Florida and built a house in Land O' Lakes after Alvarez-Sowles graduated and accepted a job with a private firm doing real estate law and foreclosures. Five years later, she said, she didn't find the work fulfilling and began thinking about public service.
The first place to offer her a job was the Palm Beach County Clerk & Comptroller. The family's plan was to sell the house in central Pasco and relocate. The Great Recession, however, changed their thinking. They were unable to find a buyer for either the house or her husband's home-restoration business. She took the job, and he remained in Pasco in what became a commuting marriage separated by a weekly four-hour drive.
But in a serendipitous moment, she attended a clerks' conference and ended up seated at a table with a handful of people, including O'Neil, from the Pasco Clerk & Comptroller's office. Three months later, O'Neil called and asked Alvarez-Sowles to interview for a job in Pasco. She's been here since.
She helped to develop a call center so people telephoning the clerk's office talked to a live person rather than an automated system. And she led the effort for the clerk to take over the two law libraries, now called legal resource centers, from Pasco County to increase availability to the public. Now, she said she wants to follow a model used by both Palm Beach and Pinellas counties to make a low-cost private attorney available to assist customers seeking simple legal advice.
When she's not at a courthouse or government building, she and her husband are parents to two children. They spend most of their free time, she said, doing the things that parents do: taking the kids to martial arts classes, music lessons or the BMX track. When there's time, she rides her mountain bike.
Spare time, though, could be at a premium. Alvarez-Sowles said she will run for the clerk's job in the 2020 election. A non-partisan candidate already has filed for the seat, as well. So fundraising and campaigning are on the horizon. Mostly, she said, she wants to continue the legacy of O'Neil and the clerks who have preceded her.
"You talk about purpose,'' she said. "That would be such a wonderful purpose.''
Contact C.T. Bowen at email@example.com or (813) 435-7306. Follow @CTBowen2.