It’s a sunny day in Florida, and Michael Dolce is on his way to meet with a new client. He drives with the convertible top down and the radio volume up. For Dolce, this is therapy. A way to clear his head.
He knows what his first question to the client will be, and he knows the likely response. He’ll ask what the client hopes to get out of the case. And the client will say they want to prevent what they experienced from happening to anyone else.
Dolce, a partner at Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, has spent the last twenty-five-plus years representing adult and child survivors of sexual abuse. “This is hard work,” he says. “But we do it because we can achieve financial recovery so our clients can get the help they need.”
During his time at Stetson University College of Law, Dolce spent twenty hours a week in the legal aid office, where he interviewed domestic abuse survivors. He met dozens of victims, heard their stories, and developed increasing compassion for their experiences. Upon graduation, Dolce settled into private practice. While he took a variety of cases, his desire to help abuse survivors never dimmed.
A 2004 meeting with Patty Robinson changed Dolce’s life and career forever. Although Robinson’s son, Jeff, had been abused by a karate instructor, the boy didn’t immediately come forward. That’s not uncommon. Research shows the average delay in disclosure for child victims is fifteen years. Florida’s statute provided just four. By the time Jeff was ready to tell his story, it was too late. Distraught, Jeff took his own life.
“Patty asked me to make sure her son didn’t die in vain because the courthouse doors were locked,” Dolce recalls. “I told her I would fight to change the law in Florida.” He set out to deliver on his word and convinced Senator Skip Campbell to sponsor a bill that would extend the time limit for filing charges.
To prevail, Dolce decided to disclose his own story of abuse. When Dolce was seven, he fell off his bicycle and sought help from a neighbor. He found a predator instead. That neighbor took Dolce into his basement, restrained him, and sexually abused him at gunpoint with the help of a teenage son. Under threat of death, Dolce returned several times. Like many of his clients, Dolce was too traumatized to report the experience to his parents or the police.
Dolce broke his lifelong silence before the Florida legislature in 2004. The rising lawyer, who had once worked in the statehouse, revealed his story to a room full of reporters, lobbyists, staffers, and lawmakers he knew well. He gripped the podium as he spoke.
What Dolce thought would be a quick process turned into a prolonged battle. He faced skepticism from lawmakers who thought the original statute was sufficient and coordinated opposition from the Roman Catholic church, the insurance industry, and criminal defense lawyer associations. Undeterred, Dolce introduced bill after bill and formed a large grassroots political action committee. Finally, in 2010, after a six-year ordeal, the Florida House and Senate passed House Bill 525 (HB 525) to repeal the state’s statute of limitations for lawsuits regarding sexual abuse and criminal prosecution of those cases.
As Dolce fought for HB 525, he attracted and accepted more abuse cases. Today, he exclusively represents sex crime survivors and victims of domestic violence. Seventy-five percent of his clients are younger than eighteen. A growing number are very young children. Meeting criminal and civil burdens of proof is especially challenging because abuse cases often lack the DNA evidence or eyewitnesses that police and prosecutors expect.
“We fight a fight that can often lead to a disappointing end, but we still have to fight it because what happened to our clients cannot be allowed to continue,” Dolce says.
“Patty asked me to make sure her son didn’t die in vain because the courthouse doors were locked. I told her I would fight to change the law in Florida.”
The support of a large firm helps. Dolce can take advantage of expertise from other partners as he builds a case. Usually, though, he works with his own small team, which includes a former prosecutor, two paralegals, an intake coordinator, and a legal assistant. Together, they advocate for hurting and vulnerable clients.
A few special rules help them cope with the dark nature of their work. “In our corner of the office, you’re likely to hear profanity, yelling, or crying,” Dolce says. “We have to find healthy ways to express anger and disgust. A lawyer who wants to take something inhumane and sterilize it or make it academic won’t survive for very long.”
In addition to taking long drives in his convertible, Dolce sees a therapist at least once a week. He tries to focus his anger and energy on the positive outcomes he can achieve for his clients.
Those positive outcomes have been many. Dolce and his team win large financial returns and multimillion-dollar settlements that their clients use to access healthcare and mental health services. They help send predators to jail, reopen closed cases, influence state laws and public discourse, and target institutions that enable repeated cycles of abuse.
In 2017, Dolce settled an abuse lawsuit for $880,000 after an adult survivor recounted previously repressed memories of childhood abuse. The next year, he recovered $4.6 million for an adult survivor of sexual abuse whose father molested her over a ten-year period. The survivor’s mother was found negligent as well. He has also brought successful civil suits against group homes and other childcare facilities where chronic abuse occurred.
Anyone who talks to Dolce about his work will notice his sincerity. He’s straightforward but warm. He pauses to wipe away tears or quickly respond to a client’s text message. He’s poured every bit of himself into this work for more than twenty-five years—and he’s not about to stop.