Gary Lesser sworn in as president of The Florida Bar
'The Florida Bar is going to focus on a public education program about the importance of hiring a lawyer versus the dangers of going without, and the need for increased greater access to legal services in Florida'
Building the best mentorship program in the country, expanding access to justice, and working to ensure an independent court system and vibrant legal profession are the goals of newly sworn President Gary Lesser.
Addressing the Annual Convention in Orlando, Lesser, the 74th president of The Florida Bar, said another priority will be a public education campaign, “Life Legal Moments,” that will emphasize the importance of hiring a lawyer.
“The current trending data of people not even realizing that they need a lawyer is very concerning,” said Lesser, managing partner of Lesser Lesser Landy & Smith in West Palm Beach, adding the goal of the program will be to reach and teach the public that hiring a lawyer in many of their “life moments” is the best way to protect themselves and their families.
Former Bar President Tod Aronovitz said when he asked Lesser’s partners to describe his mentee and good friend since Lesser was a law student at the University of Miami in the early ’90s, they emphasized his commitment to family, to community, doing the right thing, and putting others first.
“Gary will tell you that his family is his finest achievement,” Aronovitz, president in 2002, said.
He’s devoted to his wife Jennifer, a Florida lawyer, and their three daughters: Rebecca, a vocal major at A.W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts in West Palm Beach; Lillian, who just finished her second year of law school at Hofstra University in Long Island; and Josie, a pre-med junior at Washington University in St. Louis.
“He is dedicated to his family, to his clients, and to following the rule of law,” said Aronovitz, who encouraged Lesser to apply for his first Bar committee 24 years ago and prompted him to run for the Board of Governors 12 years ago. “The Florida Supreme Court, the Florida Legislature, the governor, the Board of Governors, and Florida lawyers who come in contact with Gary will see that he will advocate for all Florida judges and lawyers with determination.”
Former Florida Senate President Bill Galvano, who has maintained close ties with the new Bar president since their first year together in law school, said these are unique and challenging times in Florida, the nation, and around the globe.
“Frankly there is a lot of ugliness in the world today. A lot of acrimony, bitterness, and a lack of civility,” Galvano said. “True in our profession, too. And now more than ever we need leaders in every aspect of life that will lead us to civility, to working together.”
He said lawyers have an additional challenge in that they are part of a profession that is based on adversarial proceedings.
“But I can tell you I’m very inspired and very enthusiastic here this morning because of our soon to be president — President Gary Lesser,” Galvano said, noting his commitment to integrity, decorum, and civility.
He’s encouraged that Lesser has prioritized mentoring new lawyers and the need to instill in them the “higher ideas” of the profession.
“I have every confidence, based on Gary’s reputation and his relationships, that he will carry this example already on The Florida Bar to other aspects of life, business, politics, [and] governance,” Galvano said. “I know with him all of us working together will achieve those higher ideals.”
Lesser said he would not be where he is today without the help of great mentors like Aronovitz and others, and to make sure the newest generation of lawyers has those same resources, his first priority is the creation of a statewide mentoring program.
“The Special Committee on Mentoring has been appointed and the members will be hard at work on the details of the program, with the goal to have the work completed this calendar year,” Lesser said. “And I am pleased to announce that I have appointed Zack Zuroweste and Katherine Hurst Miller, two outstanding Bar leaders and former Young Lawyers Division presidents, to serve as co-chairs.”
The mentoring programing will focus on Florida lawyers with three or less years of experience, working at firms with three or fewer lawyers, a group Lesser says often goes without meaningful mentorships.
“In recent years, many law school graduates have not been able to secure employment, so instead they’ve hung up their own shingles or maybe went to work with a friend, but in doing that they are missing out on the experiences of mentorship that many of us have taken for granted,” Lesser said. “There is often no one they can regularly turn to for advice on ethics and professionalism, substantive case law, or the path of their legal career.”
The benefit to mentors is also immense, Lesser said, noting the opportunity to pay it forward, to pass on knowledge and positively impact the next generation of lawyers is a great honor.
“This is going to be a very great investment for the legal profession,” Lesser said. “We’re going to build a program that prioritizes regular two-way communication and accountability, and a meaningful curriculum dealing with ethics and professionalism, law and life advice, and more,” he said.
Additional information about the initiative will follow in the weeks and months ahead, and Lesser encourages members to sign up as mentors and recruit mentees into the program.
“Make no mistake, this is going to be a huge lift, but worth the effort and very much needed,” Lesser says in his first President’s Page in the July/August issue of the Journal. “We owe it to these newer lawyers to be able to be their best selves, to be the best lawyers at this stage of their careers. This investment will increase professionalism and will help these lawyers and the public we serve for years to come.”
Life Legal Moments
Lesser said he learned, like so many others, that life can change in a moment and having the right professionals at your side can profoundly impact your life.
While he’s never talked about it publicly before, Lesser said his “moment” came 32 years ago when he was in a bad car accident and his injuries worsened over the years.
“I ended up having five jaw surgeries over the next 18 years,” Lesser said. “By the time of my fifth jaw surgery, I couldn’t really chew any more, it was challenging to talk, and I did the best I could to try to get through each day.”
Fortunately, his fifth surgery — a complete bilateral jaw reconstructive surgery performed by one of the “best doctors in the country” — was a success.
Lesser said, while people understand they need to find a doctor, the best professional equipped to get the best outcome for a serious medical issue, they often don’t understand that lawyers can help guide them through the legal system for a better result.
“For that reason, The Florida Bar is going to focus on a public education program about the importance of hiring a lawyer versus the dangers of going without, and the need for increased greater access to legal services in Florida,” Lesser said.
“Life Legal Moments” will focus on when people really need a lawyer for significant life moments — such as having a properly prepared will or trust, having legal guidance when they buy or sell a home, and other life challenges that greatly affect those in need and their family if they don’t have representation.
“Increasingly, people look at these as life problems not legal problems — so who do they turn to for advice in their life? Parents or children or friends, and they don’t understand the possible serious repercussions of not protecting themselves and their family by hiring a lawyer,” Lesser said.
• Only one in five people 18-29 years old and just 36% of Americans 30-49 years old have a will.
• 80% of low-income individuals don’t know if they can afford the legal assistance they need. The middle class doesn’t fare much better, with up to 60% of their legal needs going unmet, depending on the issue, Lesser said.
• Despite various barriers to hiring a lawyer, most Floridians believe that doing so is beneficial. For example, 91% say that retaining a lawyer would help protect their rights or interests; and 84% believe that hiring a lawyer results in a better or more equitable outcome.
“So, on the one hand, people are increasingly not hiring lawyers, but on the other hand, people realize the great benefit of hiring a lawyer to protect themselves and their families,” Lesser said. “It’s time to connect these dots.”
Lesser said the numbers demonstrate clearly that the legal profession needs much greater connection with the general public.
“I firmly believe that we can move the needle and help more families with their legal needs,” Lesser said.
The public education program also dovetails with the longstanding and increasing challenge of greater access to legal services. The Florida Supreme Court recently tasked the Bar with coming up with concrete recommendations on how to increase access to legal services in Florida.
Toward that end, Lesser said the Bar will provide solutions for pro se litigants to make it easier for them to access the court system when they are without representation; the Bar will expand the availability and accessibility of legal aid and pro bono resources across Florida; and will propose plans so everyday Floridians who think they can’t afford a lawyer or don’t need a lawyer will be connected with proper representation to help with important legal issues in their lives.
“To the lawyers of Florida, thank you for your trust and helping me get here to this day to serve our legal profession,” Lesser said. “To my amazing fellow members of the Board of Governors, I’m grateful for your friendship and your service, and we will work very hard together in the coming Bar year.”
“We have a lot of work to do, and we will get the good work done to help the legal profession, the court, and the public that we serve.”
(Editor’s Note: Learn more about President Gary Lesser by reading his profile in the July/August edition of the Journal.)