Gary S. Lesser: President of The Florida Bar
During the 1920s Florida land boom, Americans came from all over the country to seek opportunity in the Sunshine State, and one of them was legal pioneer Joe Lesser — the attorney grandfather of new Bar President Gary S. Lesser, managing partner of Lesser, Lesser, Landy & Smith in West Palm Beach.
Joe Lesser went to work in the historic Citizens Building 95 years ago, and his son, Shepard Lesser, joined the firm in 1960. Thirty years ago, Gary Lesser fulfilled his lifelong dream and joined his father’s solo practice, which now has branch offices in Stuart, Boca Raton, and Wellington.
Lesser, a history-loving father of three, who maintains a friendly sense of humor and keeps a regular eye on what’s happening at the Florida Capitol, grew the firm into what it is today.
There are answers to what makes him an outstanding professional success, but one important part of his life story includes his dedication to service beyond the workplace.
“I’ve always been a community guy,” says the 54-year-old Bar leader, who has kept busy his entire adult life with multiple charitable causes and volunteer activities.
Having grown up in a family that encouraged community service for the greater good, Lesser made sure that the lawyers at Lesser, Lesser, Landy & Smith were on board with the same values.
Twenty-one-year partner Joe Landy and Mickey Smith, an 18-year partner, are determined to maintain those deep connections within the community.
“We all have very similar ideals, and we want to accomplish the same things with our lives,” Landy says. “It’s contagious. Every lawyer in this firm is out there doing things.”
Calling Lesser “the ultimate do-gooder,” Smith says the new Bar president has service in his DNA.
“Gary is just as involved in the community and has been on multiple boards and good causes.”
With Lesser’s heartfelt spirit of giving back, his list of causes is long. His service on The Florida Bar Board of Governors for 10 years preceded his term as Bar President-elect and now, President.
“The Florida Bar is a really great intersection of being able to help our lawyers and ultimately the public that we serve,” he says.
“We’ve got ethics advice, member benefits, and CLEs, and we’re trying to help our lawyers, but we’re also trying to help the public that we serve. It was a great opportunity to be involved in those ways, to try to work with some very good lawyer leaders and make a difference.”
Former 2018-2020 Senate President Bill Galvano (R-Bradenton) who has maintained close ties with Lesser since week one at the University of Miami School of Law in 1989, noted Lesser as a law student was not only interested in academics, but social and extracurricular activities.
Lesser wasn’t in law school long when he became active in the Bar & Gavel Society, part of UM Law’s International Law Section, and became the editor-in-chief of the law school periodical, Res Ipsa Loquitur, while Galvano served as the opinions editor.
“He even chaired the Barrister’s Ball one year,” Galvano added.
“I was not surprised to see him doing things to support his community and the Bar throughout his career,” says the lawyer-legislator, who has kept track of Lesser’s progress in the Bar and supported his rise to the top. When in Tallahassee, they sometimes would meet up in Galvano’s Capitol office and chat about various issues. “I think he’s going to bring a brilliant skillset to the presidency,” including reinvigorating participation and helping the practice continue to be a profession with respectful discourse between attorneys.
“Gary is honest, respected, dedicated, and friendly,” says 2002 Bar President Tod Aronovitz of Aronovitz Law in Miami.
Calling Lesser’s accomplishments “truly special,” Aronovitz — a former boss, mentor, frequent co-counsel, and very close friend of Lesser — says his success in the law is directly linked to his trustworthiness. Lesser was a law clerk at Aronovitz’s firm in 1991, and they have continued to work on cases ever since.
Lesser’s 95-year-old firm, which runs on referrals and word-of-mouth only, “was grown based on determination, his personality, and trust,” says Aronovitz. From the very beginning of Lesser’s career, “clients trusted him, they still trust him, they still refer their family members to him and his partners.”
But what precisely is in the secret sauce to maintaining the longevity of a reputable firm?
“You’ve got to be a good lawyer,” says California attorney Bill Lutz, who’s known Lesser since their dorm-room days at George Washington University in D.C.
The duo were heavily involved as officers in campus political activities, and Lutz says as editor, Lesser breathed new life into the GW Journal, a quarterly political publication. Lesser also interned for long-time Florida Sen. Lawton Chiles on the Hill. Lutz and Lesser have kept in touch ever since, with both serving as groomsmen in their respective weddings.
“You’ve got to be competent. You have to get good results. You have to have satisfied clients. You have to have peers who recognize your abilities and your accomplishments and your integrity. You’ve got to have people willing to come work for you — maybe people who have other choices.”
Ultimately, Lutz says, you must have a solid practice as a foundation.
And that’s where a little bit of history comes in.
Little Bit of History
On many given evenings, the socially active Lesser — who ordinarily keeps a full calendar of community, Bar, or professional events — may be found doing the opposite: sitting quietly with a history book in his hands. Having early in life considered a career as a history teacher, Lesser gave kitchen-table history lessons to his three daughters, Lillian, 25, Josie, 21, and Rebecca, 16, as they grew up. From the late 1400s Spanish Inquisition (Howard Sachar’s Farewell España being one of his favorites), to the period of the American Revolution, World War II, and general European history, Lesser is fond of learning as much as possible from the best literary sources.
But his own historical background began in small-town Rome, Georgia, with grandfather Joseph Lesser, born the son of a shopkeeper in 1899, who worked as a struggling attorney knocking on law firm doors in nearby Atlanta asking for piecework. Being a solo practitioner in 1920s Rome was tough. Lured to Florida by a sense of adventure and the promise of a land boom that did not last, Lesser said his grandfather asked to join a three-lawyer firm in West Palm Beach. The firm wasn’t hiring, but the lawyer-landlord offered to rent him a small office and agreed to be paid only if Joe Lesser found work, but to vacate the premises if he didn’t. Joe Lesser would charge clients on a sliding scale and sometimes accepted barter, including corn and other agricultural products.
“That is how my grandfather started our firm in 1927,” Lesser says about the University of Georgia graduate. “That was on Clematis [Street]. We didn’t move to Dixie [Highway] until the 1960s.”
Lesser as a child “wanted to work with Grandpa,” who passed away when he was 14.
“Back then, my grandfather did a general practice. He represented anyone who would come in the door. He often represented people with little or no charge. He believed that lawyers were supposed to help people. If a client would pay more money on the next one, then he would do better on the next one,” says Lesser.
Lesser’s father, Shepard (“Shep”), who passed away in 2020, practiced probate, real estate, and transactional law, and continued the tradition of helping clients on very much a “sliding-scale fee.”
“When my dad was sitting down with someone, he would often offer a very low fee because he didn’t want the client to think he was getting a handout,” Lesser adds.
“Shep did a lot of wills and advance directives for our clients,” says Robert Bertisch, Executive Director of Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County.
Bertisch says the pro bono coordinator reported that Shep was always available, and the well-respected Palm Beach County attorney instilled in his son the importance of legal aid and equal access to justice for all.
Lesser continues in his father’s footsteps supporting the same organization. During the height of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, Legal Aid virtual-livestreamed the largest event in the legal community — the Annual Pro Bono Recognition Evening — in Palm Beach County that Lesser helped emcee, raising over $250,000 for Legal Aid. Lesser again helped emcee the in-person event with 2017 Bar President Michelle Suskauer in May.
When Lesser joined his father at the family firm, he knocked on the door to ask when pay day was and was advised there would be no “pay day.”
“And I realized I’d been there three days, and I hadn’t seen any clients, and the only person calling me was my fiancé at the time. We had no clients and almost no revenue,” Lesser admits.
Although Lesser’s first couple of years practicing was an eat-what-you-kill kind of affair, supported by a part-time receptionist that doubled as a secretary, they never believed in lawyer advertising and still don’t.
“I took whoever came through the door. I did wills and divorce, and anything a paying client would hire me to do, and I learned a great deal in the process about serving clients.”
Today, Lesser, Lesser, Landy & Smith assists individuals and families who have experienced life-changing trauma due to negligence or careless behavior. The personal injury law firm devotes its time and resources to helping regular people who have sustained serious injuries and assists in recovering financial, physical, or emotional losses.
Back in those days, “I wasn’t looking to grow the firm, I was just looking to be a good lawyer and do a good job,” Lesser says, adding how important his two equity partners are and the high level of friendship, trust, and respect they have for each other.
The multigenerational firm “was something very important to him,” recalls law school friend and Assistant State Attorney Michelle Bamdas, who helped launch Lesser’s Boca Raton office. Lesser gave an impassioned speech about his father and grandfather before hundreds at an anniversary party for the firm, Bamdas remembers. Shep Lesser had a delighted twinkle in his eye watching his son address the celebrants.
“You could see the love and gratitude and sheer respect for those two men who assisted him to getting him to where he is. You could tell that he never took any of that for granted and was very grateful and thankful and proud. Proud to be part of that legacy and to make the firm what it has become. And I remember his father being very proud of him. It was a very emotional time,” Bamdas recalls.
The desire to engage in community service activities, not just the law, runs in the family’s veins. Lesser says his mother, Staci Warshaw Brenner, who passed away a decade ago, shaped him the most.
“She wanted to be a lawyer, and she would have been an exceptional lawyer,” asserts Lesser about his ever-smiling, ever-positive mom.
Brenner was president of the Palm Beach County Jewish Federation Women’s Division and one of the founders of Jewish Family Services in West Palm Beach, which provides social services for those in need. Lesser’s wife, Jennifer, is First Vice President on Jewish Family Services’ executive board. The organization’s mission “is to serve the community and fulfill its obligation of tikkun olam (repairing the world).”
As a boy, Lesser would watch a collection of people coming through the house, and think, “Why is my mom having another party with her friends here?” What she was really doing was hosting a meeting for one cause or another.
“She knew and I learned from example: If you want something done, you bring people together, and I remembered that my whole life. I’m definitely like my mom in that way,” he says.
For Brenner, volunteering was a way of life. She taught her son “to love outreach, to love getting involved,” he says.
“I’m a believer in hope, and that motivates a lot of who I am and what I do. That came from my mom,” Lesser explains. “She was always a believer that things can be better, and we should work toward that. There is no room for cynicism, there’s no time for giving up. If we can identify how to make things better in any given area — the law or community — then we should do that.”
Closest to My Heart
Of the charities and causes he supports, Lesser confesses, “I’ll always have a soft spot for the Salvation Army.”
A “50-year medal of involvement” given to his grandfather by the organization sits in his office. Salvation Army was once the only entity that helped people on the margins of society — the homeless, down-on their-luck veterans, and others — and that appealed to his grandfather, who was general counsel at one point, for decades, Lesser explained.
“Because of that it was very meaningful to my dad and me. We have continued without interruption supporting the Salvation Army.”
Lesser is also involved in the Jewish Federation (with which he has traveled extensively, including to Russia), Legal Aid, the Homeless Coalition of Palm Beach County, and The Lord’s Place in West Palm Beach, dealing with complex homelessness issues. He also sat for 20 years on the Meyer Jewish Preparatory School board, including serving as Legal Vice President.
Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition of Palm Beach County, a nonprofit that provides prenatal care to improve birth outcomes, is also of great importance to the new President of The Florida Bar.
“When a woman shows up at the emergency room to give birth as her first prenatal or any medical care relating to her pregnancy, that’s going to make it hard on mom and the baby,” Lesser says.
“I’ve gone to events. I’ve helped organize events. My oldest daughter, Lillian, interned there one summer.”
The Bar leader’s daughters grew up community service-oriented as well.
The youngest, Rebecca, a vocal major at A.W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts in West Palm Beach, volunteers at the Loxahatchee River Center, which features live aquatic tanks, interactive exhibits, and touch tanks that represent the river system. She also volunteers at “Jewish Student Union” and “Quantum House,” a hospitality house for families of children receiving medical care for serious conditions in Palm Beach County. She has played music on the guitar for the children and families there.
Lillian, who just finished her second year of law school at Hofstra University in Long Island, also found volunteer work meaningful. “Community service is something my parents stressed my entire life,” Lillian says. “At Thanksgiving, we would serve meals to people” who didn’t have the money or people with whom to spend the holiday. Lillian, like her sisters, also served as a “Teen Trainer” with the Jewish Family Services.
Josie, a pre-med junior at Washington University in St. Louis, volunteered at Jupiter Medical Center as a high schooler. She delivered flowers, shared in small-talk with convalescing patients, and escorted discharged patients to their cars.
“I really enjoyed connecting with people that way,” she says.
Your job and what you want to do means nothing if you’re not connecting with people, Lesser once told her.
“Gary worked at a homeless clinic while in law school. It was something that attracted me to him right away,” says Jennifer Lesser about her husband. They were students two years apart at UM Law when they met, and have been together for 30 years, married for 28.
“We both come from very charitable families. My mother was in family services, my dad gave back to many organizations. That’s why we were attracted to each other. We both had similar moral fibers. Charity starts in the community. What you give back to others comes back to you because you create a nicer place to live. It’s a responsibility we all have, to heal the world around us, not just ourselves. We had similar values.”
Introduced by a mutual friend at the law library, one of their first dates was assembling stuffed pasta shells and having a ricotta cheese food fight. Afterward, they attended Shabbat services at Temple. But sharing a common religious bond wasn’t the only draw to her newfound life partner.
“It was his intellect I fell in love with. If there was anything, that was it. He amazed me with his knowledge, and he never made anybody feel like what they have to say isn’t important.”
Jennifer Lesser was an assistant public defender for a few years, but is currently not practicing.
“I always saw my husband as motivated to give back,” she said. “When he was younger, they’d call him ‘governor’ because every building we went to, he would stop and talk to everybody and see how everybody was doing, and how he could make people’s lives better. I think that it’s a natural extension of his belief that he can give back as a lawyer and not just give money. The best part of his job is helping people, and now I think he wants to help other lawyers help people.”
“Humor Can Give Us Perspective”
As a 40th birthday gift from his wife, standing in Lesser’s office is a 5-ft cardboard cutout of Homer Simpson, the patriarch of the internationally famous American cartoon family, The Simpsons. Super-fan Lesser occasionally uses humorous analogies from episodes to explain relatable concepts to clients and colleagues.
Homer acts as an icebreaker for visitors.
“This makes it less intimidating and more personal,” says Lesser. “For people who have never been in a law office before, they say, maybe this guy has a sense of humor, maybe he’s a nice guy.”
One of Lesser’s favorite episodes is “Bart Sells His Soul,” in which Bart sells his “soul” for $5 and then has a profound crisis of faith. His sister, Lisa, helps him get his “soul” back, and he pledges to be a better person, but at the end of the episode he is back on the couch eating potato chips and watching TV. “I think we all have times where we have questions about life and faith,” Lesser says. “And at its best, years ago, The Simpsons could talk about these issues without taking itself too seriously.”
“He does have a huge ability to be silly, and he used to love to watch old Bugs Bunny cartoons with our daughters,” Jennifer Lesser says. “My husband enjoys humor as a way to communicate with people and to have a good laugh. My husband is a positive person.”
Rebecca Lesser’s fondest early memories include watching old episodes of Scooby Doo late at night with her dad and sisters. Each of the girls at some point in their upbringing were treated to a St. Augustine road-trip with their father.
Lesser’s favorite city in Florida because of its rich historical significance, St. Augustine was the first landing place for the Spaniards in the mid-1500s and served as the capital of Spanish Florida for 200 years. With Lesser’s passion for history and for being a father who likes to learn with his daughters, it was the perfect vacation spot to instill a sense of knowledge and belonging. Lesser took the girls to Castillo de San Marcos, the 165-foot-tall lighthouse, and shopped around the old town. Lillian Lesser remembers sharing “breakfast for dinner” with her dad at the Casa Monica Hotel and browsing crystals at “Notions and Potions,” just a two-minute walk from the Lightner Museum. Also a crystal enthusiast, Rebecca purchased a green Malachite, a copper carbonate hydroxide mineral, from the shop on her trip.
“I was meant to be a father of three daughters,” Lesser says, adding fatherhood made him a better lawyer and person.
“When my first daughter was born, I held her, and I thought: This is all I wanted. My daughters look after me, they worry about me. We tell jokes. We talk about history. It’s really been absolutely wonderful and has shaped me as an adult.” Being close with his mother and sister, Tami, made it natural for Lesser to raise girls in a positive way.
Growing up in West Palm Beach when it was a “small town” gave Lesser that perspective toward life. He and childhood best friend Kevin Albury used to walk or bicycle everywhere — to the local movie theater, toy store, or the intercoastal where they would try to skip rocks on the water. Lesser still values a small-town, community-based approach. “That’s harder to get these days, but worth the effort,” says Lesser.
Lesser attended the Arthur Meyer Jewish Preparatory School through middle school and graduated from Forest Hill High School, where he served as the newspaper’s sports editor.
Friends for 50 years, Albury, a defense contractor at Tampa’s MacDill Air Force Base, says Lesser saved him from making the wrong choice on some tricky decisions.
“He’s by no means a foreigner to advising. You don’t get to where he is without having wisdom of his own,” Albury explained.
Years ago, Albury took a new job overseas thanks to Lesser’s advice — and six months later witnessed the company he left behind collapse. The one time Albury didn’t take Lesser’s advice, he paid a significant price. Albury calls it wisdom, but said it seems there’s some “spiritual” or intuitive element involved.
“He’s not only a tremendous source of friendship and support, but he’s also an amazing source of good guidance,” says John Malloy, managing partner of Malloy & Malloy in Miami, who has maintained a friendship with Lesser since law school.
“If you go to Gary for personal advice, he will always give you the high road as the best course. It’s going to have some ethical bone structure.”
Malloy says Lesser’s ideals and core goodness are perfect to lead a profession that can sometimes be maligned as lacking those things.
“You can find him volunteering to give naturalization speeches when people are becoming U.S. citizens. He’ll pop up going to a 5K or serving hot dogs at some fundraiser event and later that evening, he’s attending one of his daughter’s school events with one arm around his wife,” Malloy says about the “tireless” Lesser.
“His ethical standards and his genuine human kindness — he’s an excellent leader for that. He’s not the kind of guy that brings acrimony or shortcuts to the table,” Malloy says. “So, I think to have Bar leaders who are good humans — who practice law ethically and fairly — is an important thing.”
“A Proven Leader”
Lesser is not only good at giving advice, he’s also a consensus builder who gives up the floor for everyone and anyone to express their thoughts, says 2016 Bar President Bill Schifino, managing shareholder at Gunster in Tampa.
When you have 52 members on the Bar Board of Governors, you have divergent ideas, divergent perspectives, explains Schifino, and Lesser has wonderful relationships with people on all sides of an issue.
“He has an amazing moral compass. I could go on and on about Gary. He’s a hard worker, he’s very thoughtful,” Schifino says.
“Gary is always one to make certain that everyone has a chance to be heard,” he asserts. “There’s always ideas percolating on committees wherever they may be, and sometimes an idea may not be a popular idea, but Gary is never one to stifle discussion. Gary is going to say, ‘OK, let’s hear about that thought or opinion. No, it may not be mainstream today, but let’s hear it out. That unpopular cause needs to be debated and discussed regardless.’”
There’s no question, the citizens of Florida will be well served with Lesser’s steady hand on the Bar’s helm, Schifino adds.
“He’s a proven leader. I’m honored to call him my friend,” Schifino says.
After a couple of difficult years dealing with the pandemic, and the growing isolation among legal professionals, Lesser is “the perfect president to bring people together, to inspire people, to teach,” says close friend Suskauer, of Dimond Kaplan & Rothstein, in West Palm Beach. “He genuinely wants people to succeed. It’s never about him. He’s always about the greater good.”
“Gary is a people person,” longtime friend and mentor Aronovitz informs. “He is a true believer in the importance of the rule of law. The Florida Supreme Court and the Board of Governors will see that — with a warm smile and sincerity — he will advocate for all Florida judges and lawyers during his year as president.”
Lesser’s service on the Board of Governors and as president-elect has been noteworthy, Aronovitz says.
“He has a deep-seated belief in the importance of supporting the judiciary and will advocate for every Florida lawyer once he’s president of The Florida Bar,” says Aronovitz.
“As we have more and more lawyers, as the world is becoming more and more fast-paced — and frankly acrimonious on so many levels, starting in politics — it’s important to have a leader like Gary…who cares about civility in our profession, and I think he’ll do a lot in that regard,” says Sen. Galvano.
For Lesser, Florida Bar involvement goes back 24 years. He applied, at the recommendation of then-board member Aronovitz, to the Professional Ethics Committee in 1998, and was appointed. During his 10 years on the Board of Governors, Lesser has chaired the Legislation Committee three times.
“Ultimately, our focus is an independent, properly funded judiciary. That will always remain The Florida Bar’s focus,” Lesser said, regarding legislative priorities.
Two main Bar priorities Lesser has set out for the upcoming year include: 1) creating a mentoring program geared for young lawyers (the focus is three years or less experience with lawyers in firms with three or fewer lawyers); and 2) expanding access to justice and evaluating new and innovative potential solutions to address the gap in legal services for under-served Florida citizens, including creating a public education program that explains the advantages of hiring a lawyer.
“We’re collecting data, we’re brainstorming,” Lesser said on that front.
“There are a large number of folks that aren’t hiring a lawyer,” he explains, including an estimated half a million people who engage in real estate transactions without reviewing contracts with an attorney, and an estimated 75% of people who are going through life without a will.
The program will educate Floridians about the value and impact of hiring an attorney to help guide them through important “Life Legal Moments,” including those they might typically handle without legal counsel. Examples include real estate, business transactions, bankruptcies, marriage and family law issues, wills and trusts, and landlord-tenant issues. The initiative will provide the public with information about Florida Bar-supported programs that can assist them with legal issues, including the Lawyer Referral Service, Florida Free Legal Answers and other pro bono services, and the Citizen Advisory Campaign’s “How to Hire a Lawyer” resource. The initiative will also work to generate support and buy-in for the Life Legal Moments campaign from Bar members and encourage them to become ambassadors “in the public square” by participating in programs, such as the Speakers Bureau.
On ethics issues, Lesser will work to strengthen local professionalism panels. The Special Committee for the Review of Professionalism in Florida that he co-chairs recently made recommendations aimed at improving and prioritizing professionalism for Florida lawyers, including a more uniform use of “local professionalism panels” in each circuit. If a proposed “Code for Resolving Professionalism Referrals” is adopted, that would increase the informal “peer-to-peer mentoring process” for addressing instances of unprofessional conduct in local professionalism panels, which is separate and apart from instances of misconduct that require the formal grievance process.
“The court has made it very clear that professionalism and lawyer regulation are their top priorities for the practice of law in Florida, and the court is right,” Lesser said.
Lesser also believes mentorship would help with ethics issues and says 82% of Bar members said a mentoring program would be “a good idea.”
“We can’t move mountains, but we should really try to move the needle.”
If the past is a good indicator of the future, Lesser will continue to be active as president and beyond his year at the helm.
“I like outreach. I like getting people involved,” Lesser says.
“We’re not here to live and die. We’re here to make things better. My grandfather always used to say: ‘Every person is born a debtor, to their community, to their church or synagogue, and to their country, and nobody should die leaving that debt unpaid.’”
Another Joe Lesser quote: “The time we have on this earth, we have the opportunity and obligation to make a difference in some way.”
Besides inheriting a multigenerational law firm that he turned into a great success, Lesser takes heart in the values instilled in him throughout his life, and “to get involved” has been the greatest reward. Connecting with people is the aim.
“I’m very lucky. These were very clear expectations: Giving back,” Lesser says. “And it makes sense to me. I find it very rewarding to try to help people.”