Lawyer of the Month, Gary Lesser
Lawyer of the Month, Gary Lesser
Bringing Change To Clients & The Community
By Bebe Novick-Brodigan
“Staying at the office past midnight as a young lawyer photocopying and hole-punching papers, will either give you humility, or reinforce humility – and that is a great benefit to carry with you,” says Gary Lesser.
It has been more than 21 years since West Palm Beach lawyer Gary Lesser did that photocopying and hole-punching, but the lessons have certainly stayed with him as the managing partner of Lesser, Lesser, Landy and Smith. And those early experiences have helped him grow the practice into the successful firm it is today.
Despite Lesser’s role as managing partner, he still prefers to share the spotlight with the entire firm. “I don’t like to brag,” he says, “but the lawyers at this firm have collectively over 2,000 trials under their belt. We have some of the best trial lawyers in all of South Florida.” Th at reputation is instrumental in the firm’s continued success. Many cases are referred by current and former clients, some by people the firm’s lawyers know in the community, and a growing number of cases are referred by other lawyers. Lesser explains that those lawyers who bring in our firm’s lawyers is like “bringing in a teammate who can take the case to the next level to get the best result for the client.”
Achieving the best results is the firm’s top goal, as evidenced by the case the firm tried on behalf of the family of a 23-yearold man who was killed in a motorcycle accident. The car that struck the young man made a left-turn in front of his motorcycle, but the driver’s insurance company claimed the motorcyclist was speeding, and therefore at fault. “So this very lovely family lost their 23-year-old son, and we were able to litigate the case, track down witnesses, hire expert witnesses, and prove that the motorcycle was not speeding, and that it was the responsibility of the driver of the car.”
The Lesser firm litigated that case to a $6.3 million jury verdict, after the insurance company had originally denied any payment. “The fact that we were able to get this result for the family is very satisfying,” says Lesser. “Th is young man’s family has invited us to all of their major lifecycle events since then, and that’s what makes being a lawyer very gratifying – to work hard, get a good result, and form a nice relationship with a client.”
Lesser credits all the lawyers at the firm with its reputation for being prepared and willing to take cases to trial. Th at is an important factor when considering what Lesser says is the typical insurance company business model. “They take premiums, and they try to not pay claims in the sense that they pay as little as they can, and take as long to do so as possible, and that’s how they make a profit.”
“An insurance company knows that our firm has significant insurance defense background, and that we file suit and will push a case forward all the way to trial – that’s what will cause the insurance company to take the firm seriously and therefore to take the case more seriously. Ultimately, that’s what gets a better result for the client.”
While profit is a factor in any business, Lesser is quick to explain that for his firm, “it’s not about a quick buck or a quick settle. It’s about how we work really hard for the client to get the best result on the case, and that we treat the client with respect and concern from the moment we sign up the case, until the case is resolved.”
Favorable resolution is what the firm strove for — and achieved — when it helped represent the wife and infant daughter of a 30-year-old man who was shot and killed in West Palm Beach in 1994. Dave Shotkowski was a manager at a soda bottling plant in Illinois, but he had dreams of becoming a professional baseball player. Shotkowski was in West Palm Beach working as a replacement player during the Major League Baseball strike that year, and he asked a hotel employee for directions to the Intracoastal Waterway for his jog. Lesser says the hotel employee drew him a map directing him through what was then a highcrime area of downtown West Palm Beach. Shotkowski was shot and killed during a botched robbery attempt that night.
Nearly 20 years later, Lesser remembers the case well. “We brought a claim for negligent security against the hotel. The hotel said it happened off their premises, so therefore it wasn’t their responsibility,” he recalls. But after two years of litigating the case and two weeks into a four-week trial, they resolved the case by tracking down former employees and gathering other evidence that proved an employee sent him on that dangerous path.
“It was a very hard fight for a very long time,” Lesser adds. “And while we were not able to bring this very nice young man back, we were able to get a good result for the family. We made a real connection with the family, and I’m still in touch with his widow to this day.”
As an added benefit, Lesser says cases like Shotkowski’s “can also have a very positive effect on corporate behavior.” In product defect cases, for example, “by bringing the case to the attention of the manufacturer, ultimately safety measures are improved.”
The emphasis on improving corporate behavior and building connections with families is deeply rooted in how the firm and its partners manage their firm and their community role. Lesser says the origin of the firm’s community-mindedness stems from a conversation he had with his grandfather, Joseph Lesser, who told him, “Every person is born a debtor and they have an obligation to their family, to their synagogue or church, to their community and to their country.” Lesser was just 9 years old when he heard those profound words from the man who founded the firm in 1927. He says that deep respect and gratitude toward his grandfather motivates him to guide the firm into community service, even as its community has expanded to include offices in Boca Raton and Stuart, in addition to the home office in West Palm Beach.
As Lesser explains it, “A lot of people don’t really get involved in the community because they feel like, ‘What can I really do?’ But you don’t have to move mountains. Find a cause to support and make a difference in someone’s life.” Making a difference is just what happens when the entire firm participates in the Autism Speaks fundraising walk each year. It is a cause with deep meaning for the firm’s partner, Joe Landy, whose son has autism. Lesser explains, “We have a huge team of people from the firm and family and friends who walk every year.” Lesser’s wife, Jennifer, and their three daughters join him for many of the community events he participates in. He feels strongly that he is creating a path for his daughters to follow in the future. “If you teach a child to give to the community,” Lesser says, “that is a tremendous lesson that has a great ripple effect in the years going forward.”
Gary Lesser also credits his mother, Staci Warshaw Brenner, as a guiding force in his civic involvement. He says his mother, who passed away in March 2012, believed that that you can really teach by doing. The firm backs up that ideal by supporting organizations like Jewish Federation, the United Way and the Salvation Army – not only financially, but by actively participating in the groups’ efforts.
Another influential force in Lesser’s work life was his first boss, Tod Aronovitz, of Aronovitz Law in Miami. Lesser says, “I learned a lot from him about how to be a good lawyer and how to be a good boss.” Two pieces of Aronovitz’s advice have been particularly meaningful to him: Take time to talk with the lawyers in your firm about their families and their cases; and if you have a lawyer who wants to work and grow, help them reach their potential.
So what does it take to be an lawyer at Lesser, Lesser, Landy and Smith? Gary Lesser says in many ways West Palm Beach is still a small town, and in many ways the firm runs like a family firm — but with some hard-and-fast rules for its lawyers.
Lesser’s first rule for his lawyers is to care about the clients.
“These are people who come to us in pain and distress and need our guidance,” he says. His second rule is that each lawyer needs to maintain a serious work ethic. “Anyone who knows me knows I am a serious workaholic,” Lesser jokes. “Lawyers who work here have to be prepared to put in the time to get the job done right.” Thirdly, his lawyers must commit themselves to giving back to the community. He says, “It’s something they have to believe in and it’s something that the firm actively supports financially.”
Lesser says he’s still enthusiastic about going to the office every day, “People who come to our firm are nice people, who are really hurt, who want to win their case. But, they want to be guided through the process, and they want to know everything is going to be OK. That’s the part of the job that I really enjoy.”
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