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Questions for the Bar president-elect candidates

first_img Jan 25, 2021 Top Stories Steve Davis and Gary LesserThe following questions were posed by the News to Bar president-elect candidates Steve Davis of Miami and Gary Lesser of West Palm Beach. Ballots for the election will be mailed or emailed around March 1, and must be returned no later than 11:59 p.m. March 22. Voters will have the option of voting online in lieu of returning their paper ballot.1. The pandemic dominated 2020 and is expected to continue well into the new year. What has the Bar learned and how can it continue to assist its members and the public during these difficult times? Steve Davis: The Bar has reacted well to the pandemic and keeps learning to improve. First, the Bar staff has kept providing service at the levels Florida lawyers need. Currently 80% of Bar staff works remotely. Second, all Board of Governors (BOG) meetings have been virtual since March. The BOG has worked hard during this time. The sections and committees have also functioned well with most only meeting virtually. According to a survey of section and committee chairs, most felt the section and committee work was done well virtually. While everyone would prefer in-person meetings, the virtual platform has enabled a great many to participate that did not do so before. The BOG approved moving the Fall Meeting to being totally virtual in the future. The 2020 Annual Convention was held virtually, and it broke attendance records. All these show that there is a place for the virtual platforms to supplement the in-person meetings and we will use this technology to help all of our members and to increase participation in the future.I do believe — as we see the isolation for our members during the pandemic — the Bar needs to make sure we are doing all we can to help our members succeed.The Bar created a special COVID-19 webpage that highlights important information and resources members need during this crisis. That webpage compiles information from all over the state as well as the information collected from the COVID-19 Pandemic Recovery Task Force lead by President-elect Mike Tanner.Gary Lesser: COVID was a wakeup call in so many ways. None of us were equipped to deal with the magnitude of a pandemic. There was a terrible loss of life, and many businesses — including many law firms — suffered significant losses of clients and income. I think the Bar “upped” its level of communication with our membership like never before. This needs to continue and expand. We should listen and provide open, direct communication with our members on a regular basis. We’ve developed incredible resources and tools to help lawyers in their everyday practice of law. I think we’ve learned that we were not up to speed on emerging and existent technology. This is an opportunity for us to help our members understand and use our amazing, free services and programs. With increased communication, we can help them access the tools they need to move forward with their practice.2. Other than the pandemic, what are the top three issues facing Florida lawyers and what can the Bar do to address them?Lesser: The biggest issue facing Florida’s lawyers is maintaining their practices and their livelihood. It’s been harder for small firms and solo practitioners, and now we have so called “qualified providers” (many continue to not register with the Bar) who compete with our lawyers who must follow ethics and other rules, unlike these other non-lawyer referral sources which are increasingly present, including a growing social media and internet presence. We should help level the playing field. We must better serve our members with practical help, articles, and services to facilitate networking, mentoring, technology, and other assistance. We already have these in place, and we need to increase member access to these services.Another big issue concerns is the disconnect some lawyers feel with respect to The Florida Bar. In the last contested election, despite very good candidates, only 18% of our membership voted. This should be a huge wakeup call that we need to take active steps to better engage our membership, making them more aware of the amazing free CLEs, tools, and programs to help with their everyday practice of law. We need to more actively collaborate with our amazing voluntary bar associations all over Florida to further connect and assist our members.Finally, lawyers are concerned about the future of the law, what will things look like in the years ahead, especially in terms of communication and technology. Unfortunately, some of the “guidance” provided is from a 30,000-foot perspective, not necessarily helpful to the everyday practice of law. We have a very active and forward-thinking Technology Committee, whose work should be directed to identifying what affordable law practice serving technologies can be brought to the most lawyers, and offering free or low-cost technology seminars to make sure that we best serve our lawyer members.Davis: The pandemic has applied a lot of pressure to all of us, making being a Florida lawyer challenging, and will forever impact the practice of law in Florida. I do not believe you can separate the effects of the pandemic, but I believe the three top issues facing Florida lawyers are:• Sustaining a thriving law practice — Florida lawyers consistently list that there are too many lawyers. In the environment today, there are also nonlawyer service providers. There is a Special Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services looking at possible rule changes that should be implemented. It is the Bar’s responsibility to advocate for our lawyers so they can successfully practice in the changing world. My priority is to defend the independent judgment of the lawyers so that Florida lawyers are representing Florida clients.• Professionalism ­— Pre-pandemic surveys showed this was a problem many Florida lawyers identified as impacting them. There are many professionalism programs and initiatives, but the Bar needs to devote more resources to programs such as Proactive Management Based Regulation (PMBR). PMBR is a way we can help our members, protect the public, and advance professionalism.• Mental Health/Isolation — No one likes the pandemic, and it has led to isolation and stressed mental health for everyone. Unfortunately, the pandemic remains and this problem will only increase. The Florida Lawyers Helpline is an available, and to date, underutilized resource that members should freely use.3. How can the Bar better work with the Executive and Legislative Branches of government to support the Judicial Branch and achieve its goal of a timely, fair, and impartial judiciary? Davis: The Florida Bar has significant restrictions on its political activities. The Bar is funded by mandatory fees from our members. The U.S. Supreme Court in Keller v. State Bar of California, 496 U.S. 1 (1990), held that lawyers can be required to join a bar association so long as the bar limits its activities to “regulating the legal profession” and improving the “quality of legal services.” That means The Florida Bar — which spends more than half of our money on lawyer regulation — must be disciplined on any political activities. The Florida Bar has done well in restricting its political activities to avoid matters that would be divisive among our members. Accordingly, the Bar must be an objective and consistent advocate for Court funding, providing accurate detailed information to make sure the Judicial Branch gets the necessary funding, but cannot be partisan or advancing any political agenda. The Bar will work well with the Executive and Legislative branches by being a credible, authoritative, and accurate source on the needs of the judicial branch.Lesser: This is where the Bar has excelled for many years. As Legislation Chair, serving three different Bar Presidents, I worked with leadership to safeguard our independent and properly funded judiciary. This included ensuring the independent legal profession free from outside regulation. I learned a great deal working on these issues for many years. First, like most things in life, it’s about relationships, and building on those relationships to reinforce why the independent judiciary is the bedrock of our system of government. I believe we’ve done this well with the Legislative Branch, and I have worked many years with the leadership in both parties and both houses. But the old adage rings true — today’s success is tomorrow’s challenge. This is an ongoing effort and heavy lift. As Bar leaders engage more with lawmakers, we try to grow that open line of communication.We have worked tirelessly with the Executive Branch, and there are issues where we would like more agreement, most notably on the JNC process and the importance of funding civil legal assistance programs, which have been proven to financially benefit Florida taxpayers. There are opportunities for us to engage more and maintain a good line of communication.An impartial judiciary is the bedrock of a healthy functioning democracy, and citizens must have access to justice (this is made even more clear in the age of COVID). The judicial branch receives an extremely small percentage of our state budget. We must ensure that our court system has the proper funds to serve citizens and business with enough judges and robust technological infrastructure. This is vital to our work and supports everything we do for the legal profession and citizens of Florida.4. Are the Bar’s diversity and inclusion, health and wellness, and increasing professionalism efforts making a difference? Lesser: As to diversity and inclusion efforts, the short answer is “yes, but we need to do more.” I think society was way behind (understatement) on addressing these issues. But I believe the Bar was ahead of the curve. We must keep the momentum to achieve real diversity in committee appointments, leadership, and the judiciary. In my 22 years of Bar involvement, the Leadership Academy is one of the best things implemented, and we should expand and strengthen it. The success speaks for itself in terms of its alumni who serve as Bar leaders, on Bar committees, and the Board of Governors, and many members of the judiciary. But we need more than slogans. Our active Diversity and Inclusion Committee, and their great work should be evaluated, strengthened, and supported. We should connect with the programs at voluntary bars, law schools, and elsewhere to improve and increase our efforts.On mental-health issues, I think the Bar is a national leader. We were early in addressing the unique mental-health issues of the legal profession. Kudos to Presidents Michael Higer and Dori Foster-Morales for making this issue a visible priority. I also thank and acknowledge the Young Lawyers Division for its significant, meaningful work with surveys, webinars, and especially the outstanding #StigmaFreeYLD program.The Bar has always excelled at professionalism programs, messaging, and services, so we lawyers are our “best selves” in the practice of law. “Pro Tip Tuesday” is one of the many great programs and initiatives of the award-winning Henry Latimer Center for Professionalism. It’s a vital tool for Florida lawyers.Davis: The Bar’s efforts are making a difference, but the Bar must remain vigilant in these issues. This year we saw social justice issues tell all of us that the work on diversity and inclusion must be a fundamental core of everything the Bar does. The focus should be on inclusion — so that diverse voices have real input on all Bar activities. Programs such as the #YLDisME is an example of how the Bar should approach these items.Health and wellness initiatives efforts have brought awareness for all Florida lawyers to take care of themselves. The YLD’s #StigmaFreeYLD provided examples that seeking help is a positive step. In May 2020, we launched the Florida Lawyers Helpline to provide an available resource lawyers in need can use. The Bar will build on these programs.Professionalism — the Bar has many excellent professionalism programs that should be reviewed to make sure we are focusing resources in the right areas. The Bar should evaluate PMBR programs to make sure we are reaching the lawyers who are in most need of support. 5. What drew you to Bar work?Davis: I love being a lawyer and have always cared about how the profession works. I started with committees and enjoyed working with lawyers who also love the profession. I then worked my way through leadership in the Dade County Bar, working from committee chair to board member and to ultimately become president. Nothing is better than working with the lawyers and judges who lead our profession. Collaborating with these leaders gives one a very encouraging and optimistic view of our profession. That view has only expanded as I have served on the BOG since 2013 and the BOG’s Executive Committee since 2016. There are many great lawyers, judges, and justices in this state who I have had the privilege of working with these past eight years.Lesser: I was very lucky. I was very involved with The Palm Beach County Bar Association and enjoyed that work, especially on professionalism issues. My mentor at the time, Bar President Tod Aronovitz, strongly encouraged me to apply for my first committee appointment over 22 years ago. He encouraged me to seek to become chair of the Professional Ethics Committee. He was one of the people who encouraged me to run for the Board of Governors almost 11 years ago. By that time, I was hooked. I liked the policy work, helping lawyers and the legal profession. I enjoyed interacting with and learning from my fellow committee members. I highly recommend Florida Bar committee involvement.6. What advice would you give to a recent Bar admittee, fresh out of law school and just sworn-in? Lesser: As much as many things have changed over the years, some basic advice remains the same: “Work hard, ask for advice, and get involved with the community.” You can make a difference right away as a new lawyer with your involvement and build relationships that will carry you forward on your journey. It’s a long, rewarding path.Davis: I think the most important advice is to make sure you become a good lawyer. Try to find someone — whether a boss or an experienced lawyer — to mentor you. I also think a new lawyer should avail herself of the many resources The Florida Bar offers. There are 74 committees, 22 sections, and two divisions. As a new admittee, the lawyer will automatically be a member of the Young Lawyers Division. There are a multitude of resources from LegalFuel, to Professionalism, to resources in technology, marketing, finance, and other aspects of practice management. It is worth spending time identifying meaningful resources based on the lawyer’s interest and needs. It is also worth checking out the local voluntary bar associations in the lawyer’s community. There are literally dozens of options a new lawyer should consider.7. What made you want to be a lawyer? Davis: I always looked up to lawyers. I was the first person in my family to go to college, and the work lawyers do in helping people, dealing with complex issues and fighting for clients, is a noble calling. What greater role can one serve than protecting legal rights? Law is fascinating, fulfilling, and rewarding. I have been fortunate to try many cases — jury and non-jury and argued appeals — and I can think of no other profession to offer such great challenges and rewards.Lesser: I had a few people in my life who really directed me to the practice of law. My parents were always supportive, my father telling me that working hard will help me with whatever I wanted to do, and my mother teaching me the importance of helping others through her community involvement and leadership. But my biggest influence was my grandfather, who I spent a lot of time with growing up. He started our firm in 1927 as a solo practitioner, and he really did what they now call “door law.” He often represented clients for little or no fee, sometimes being paid in corn or other agriculture. He firmly believed the lawyer had an obligation to help the client and the community. He had a positive, warm, and sincere way about him. He was my first role model and I hoped to grow up to be like him and practice law. But kids don’t compute mortality of their grandparents, so I missed him by 10 years. I believed then — and still believe now — that lawyers can make a unique difference with their clients and their community.8. Tell us about one defining moment in your legal career when you stopped to say, “I am proud to be a lawyer.” Lesser: I was a young lawyer, and referred a tragic case involving a 15-year-old killed in a car accident. The parents hired a lawyer who had secured what appeared to be the only recovery which was limited, and then stopped communicating with the clients, which I thought was terrible. I called and wrote the lawyer asking him to speak with the clients or advise where things stood with the case. No response. I told the clients that they had a right to know the outcome of their case and that I would move it forward even if any additional recovery was not certain or even possible. Over a year later, a few days before trial, we resolved the case financially, but more so the clients were relieved to have answers and a resolution of their deceased daughter’s case. That was almost 20 years ago and I am still in touch with the parents to this day.Davis: From 1998-2001, while a partner at a 10-person law firm, we were representing the State of Florida in an antitrust case on behalf of Florida citizens. As such, I was appointed a special assistant attorney general. The case was tried in the Middle District of Florida before Judge Harvey Schlesinger. I lived in Jacksonville for three months and was one of the lead trial lawyers in the courtroom every day for seven weeks until the case ultimately settled. The case was vigorously contested with excellent lawyers on both sides advancing sophisticated legal arguments. The case resolved through Judge Schlesinger persistently trying to bring the litigants together. I was proud to have participated in a case where we benefited Florida consumers, while working non-stop for months. I saw great lawyering, before an outstanding judge, obtaining an excellent result. It was a privilege for me at every professional level. Questions for the Bar president-elect candidateslast_img read more