Gary Lesser sums up the year that was
'I hereby declare the state of the Bar to be good, very good, It’s been a very, very busy year and my comments today could not do justice to all the hard work done by so many people'
Marking his 25th year of service by delivering the annual “State of The Florida Bar Address,” outgoing President Gary Lesser thanked his family for their support and his friends and colleagues for helping bring his priorities to fruition.
Moments before President-elect Scott Westheimer was sworn in to succeed him at the 2023 Annual Convention, Lesser addressed a morning General Assembly in a crowded Boca Raton hotel ballroom.
“I hereby declare the state of the Bar to be good, very good,” Lesser said. “It’s been a very, very busy year and my comments today could not do justice to all the hard work done by so many people.”
Lesser congratulated Westheimer and President-elect Designate Roland Sanchez-Medina, Jr., saying that with their years of service, he was leaving the Bar in good hands.
He also congratulated outgoing Young Lawyers Division President Irish Elijah, YLD President-elect Anisha Patel, and YLD President-elect Designate Ashlea Edwards.
Lesser said he was dubious 12 years ago when he heard a former president refer to the “Bar family.” But after spending a year in a president’s shoes, Lesser said, “I get it,” and said he wanted to thank his predecessors, many of whom were in the audience.
“I now certainly well understand all of the hard work and choices that come with this position,” he said. “I want to specifically thank you for all of the hard work that you’ve done over the years and setting the path that new Bar presidents can follow.”
Signaling that some presidential projects are too ambitious to be completed in a year, Lesser reminded the audience that the Supreme Court could act soon on the recommendations of a special professionalism committee that former President Michael Tanner appointed Lesser to co-chair when he was still president-elect.
“Together, that committee worked very hard to put forward some good recommendations that will improve the level of professionalism in Florida’s legal profession, and we can expect to hear more from the court on that in the months ahead,” Lesser said.
Turning to his term as president, Lesser said he wanted to highlight three of his biggest priorities — beginning with mentoring.
A few weeks ago, Lesser said, The Florida Bar launched “Counsel to Counsel,” a program that matches lawyers with less than three years of experience and who work in firms of three or fewer lawyers, with mentors who have three or more years of experience.
A recent Florida Bar announcement noted that “Counsel to Counsel,” a first of its kind, will put together lawyers “based on their profiles and cutting-edge matching technology, using MentorcliQ software to create virtual mentoring relationships.”
Lesser thanked former YLD Presidents Zackary Zuroweste and Katherine Hurst Miller for co-chairing the Special Committee on Mentoring New Lawyers that developed “Counsel to Counsel.”
The program is needed now more than ever, Lesser said.
“Mentorship is essential to the professional development of lawyers, especially now when many hearings and depositions are virtual, and you’re not going to meet lawyers in the hallway, and you’re not going to be sitting in the back of courtroom and see how lawyers handle themselves in front of a judge, all of those opportunities are essentially lost,” he said.
The MentorcliQ app cuts the registration process to a few minutes for both parties, and enhances the chances of the match succeeding, Lesser said.
The special mentoring committee developed “milestones” that mentees will be asked to accomplish, and that will help program developers gauge its success.
Lesser turned next to “Life’s Legal Moments,” another priority.
The public awareness campaign will help consumers better understand “what lawyers do to help people,” Lesser said.
“There are people who think they just can’t afford a lawyer, they’ve decided that’s so, so they don’t make the call,” Lesser said. “There are people who don’t realize they have a wrongful termination issue; they just think they have a problem with their boss.”
Lesser said he made presentations to local chambers of commerce.
“We worked hard on communicating with the public with a website with a big push like the Bar has not done before with search engine optimization, banner ads, and partnering with other organizations to help share this important information,” he said.
Veteran Martin County Clerk and Comptroller Carolyn Timmann, outgoing president of Florida Court Clerks and Comptrollers, deserves praise for helping promote the campaign throughout the state, Lesser said.
Turning to a third and final priority, Lesser thanked Tanner for working with him to appoint a “Special Committee on Greater Public Access to Legal Services.”
Co-chaired by board members Jay Kim and Wayne LaRue Smith, the committee developed a series of recommendations for improving access to legal services, “while assuring that lawyers play a proper and prominent role.”
Lesser reminded the audience that the Supreme Court directed the Bar to develop the recommendations after it rejected — at the Bar’s urging — a Supreme Court panel’s previous recommendations.
“The special committee met every other week, and in the intervening weeks, each of the three [subcommittees] met — focused on pro se, or self-represented litigants, pro bono, and legal aid, and finally the issue of overall affordability of legal services in Florida,” he said.
The profession has worked for decades to meet the challenge, and “there is no magic pill or magic wand to solve these long-standing problems,” Lesser said.
In the end, the special committee produced a 274-page report, Lesser noted.
One of the biggest challenges it identified was access by the self-represented, many of whom see their complaints dismissed five or six times, Lesser said.
“We recommended the creation of an entity that could expand and create form civil cover sheets and other best practices and forms to help this process,” he said. “These and other forms would to be used in a consistent, uniform basis across the state of Florida and will also help gather, consistent, reliable data, which will lead to better practices and pro se forms.”
The special committee recommended two strategies for expanding the mission of legal aid organizations, Lesser said.
The first would exempt legal aid organizations from Bar advertising regulations.
“We want legal aid organizations to be able to reach those in need sooner, before those legal needs become too severe or it becomes too late to help,” Lesser said.
The panel also recommended law students be allowed to qualify as certified legal interns after just one year of law school.
“That would give law students more experiential education and would greatly help legal aid organizations across the state to be able to help those in need of legal services,” he said.
The recommendations are backed by research, Lesser said, adding that he is eager to see how the Supreme Court responds.
Summing up his year, Lesser said he visited each of Florida’s 20 judicial circuits, some of them two or three times, and participated in 180 speaking engagements.
“It’s been the greatest honor of my professional life to serve the court and our legal profession as Florida Bar president,” he said. “I have been able to work collaboratively with some really great people to help our legal profession, our independent courts, and the public we serve. Thank you.”