Joseph Landy, Gary Lesser and Michael “Mickey” Smith.
Some boys dream of becoming astronauts or basketball stars.
Gary Lesser dreamed about being a lawyer. As a child, he often visited the firm where his father, Shepard, and his grandfather, Joseph, both worked, a practice that the eldest Lesser founded in 1927. Gary imagined joining his grandfather and father one day.
“I’ve always known I would be a lawyer,” he says. “I didn’t know what that meant when I was age 9, but I always wanted to be a lawyer so I could be like Grandpa.”
He realized his dream in 1992, joining his father and a part-time secretary just days after driving back to West Palm Beach from Miami, where he had earned his law degree at the University of Miami School of Law.
“When I was a kid, I thought I’d work with Grandpa, but I missed him by 10 years,” Lesser recalls. “But I moved into and worked out of what was his office, so I would always joke that I was still working with Grandpa, and I got to work with my father.”
With a roster of 12 lawyers, Lesser, Lesser, Landy & Smith has offices throughout Florida, in West Palm Beach, Stuart, Wellington and Boca Raton. Its three named partners have all been recognized as Lawdragon 500 Leading Plaintiff Consumer Lawyers in America.
The firm’s attorneys have handled numerous multimillion-dollar cases including a $20.8 million verdict for spinal injuries suffered in a drunken-driving crash; $4.5 million for a trucking accident; and $5.3 million for the wrongful death of a young adult. The Firm relentlessly pursues every case it accepts – regardless of size.
“We don’t advertise,” Landy explains. “We obtain all of our cases by referrals. The fact that our reputation and our results are the basis of how we handle our clients’ cases is what makes me the proudest.”
Lawdragon: That’s really impressive. Would you tell me a little more about your backgrounds and how they influenced your careers? Gary, I know you have legal roots. That your father and grandfather were consumer lawyers, too.
Gary Lesser: My father and grandfather were lawyers serving their clients and community before any of these awards and honors existed.
LD: So, they were community lawyers.
Gary Lesser: They won a number of awards over the years in recognition for the work that they did, but the law was different back then. Whenever a local businessperson had a problem, they would be able to take care of them. West Palm Beach was a small town back then, so what you did as a lawyer was you went to work, you worked hard, and you were involved in the community. That’s what was expected.
LD: Sounds like you had some good role models.
Gary Lesser: Most definitely. My grandfather, of course. My father, who was a big believer in, “You do it, and you get it done.” He definitely had a work ethic that I’ve tried to emulate. And my mother. The women of her generation were told to be teachers. So, my mom didn’t go into the family business. She would have been a hell of a lawyer though. And she was very involved in the community.
LD: Growing up in West Palm must have been kind of idyllic.
Gary Lesser: It was a small town, back then especially. You knew all your neighbors.
LD: And what about you, Joe?
Joseph Landy: I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It was a blue-collar town with a hard work, results-driven mentality. People strived to do their best, because it was the right thing to do, it was what they were hired to do, and they were proud of their work. This upbringing had a significant impact on the way I practice law. I want to be certain that I work harder than defense counsel on every case. Never giving up, and leaving no stone unturned, always leads to the best possible result.
LD: And Mickey, you’re from West Virginia, right?
Mickey Smith: Yes. It’s really a beautiful state and the people there are friendly and down to earth. That said, it was important to both of my parents that I get a good education and explore all available options. Neither of my parents had the opportunity to attend college, and it was paramount to them that all their children did. All three kids did, in fact, graduate from college, and two of us have additional degrees.
LD: Did you always want to be a lawyer?
Mickey Smith: From a young age, actually. I thought being a lawyer was the most exciting and fulfilling job a person could have. You get to help people and also have the thrill of courtroom showdowns.
LD: So, what made you decide to study engineering at Virginia Tech? Does any of that knowledge apply to your practice today
Mickey Smith: A fine lawyer in my hometown gave me a great piece of advice: “Major in something you like and wouldn’t mind making your career if you change your mind and decide law school isn’t for you.” I enjoyed math and science in high school, so I thought engineering would be a good fit. The degree comes in very handy in cases involving accident reconstruction and other technical issues.
LD: That’s fascinating. And what played into your decision to go to Duke Law School afterward?
Mickey Smith: I knew Duke was a great school with a national reputation. When they offered me a partial scholarship, I was thrilled to accept. Going there had a tremendous impact on me, both personally and professionally. I thought the education I received there was second to none. The professors were wonderful, and I learned so much from my classmates, who came from all over the country and world. On a personal note, my wife – whom I met at Virginia Tech – and I were married in the beautiful Duke Chapel after my first year in law school. We went back and renewed our vows there 30 years to the minute from when we were married. We are both still huge Duke basketball fans.
LD: Beautiful. And Gary, you got a taste of civic responsibilities in the student senate at George Washington University. Did you go straight to the University of Miami law school afterward?
Gary Lesser: I enjoyed my time in the George Washington University student senate. What I loved about it is that they’re looking for leaders, for doers. And that’s part of the culture of University of Miami School of Law as well. They don’t want people who are just going to sit in the back of the classroom and study. They want to produce excellent lawyers; they want to have lawyers who recognize that they need to be involved in the community and make a difference.
LD: Did you have particular courses that you liked at Miami or that prepared you for what you do today?
Gary Lesser: Well, when I took torts, that clicked, and that made sense to me. Then I worked for a trial lawyer named Tod Aronovitz. That’s when I really knew that’s what I wanted to do. He was in Miami when I was in law school. I worked for him for two years. He was a fantastic boss and a tremendous lawyer and really taught me a great deal.
LD: It must have been hard to leave.
Gary Lesser: It was difficult, but I was set on going back to West Palm Beach and joining my family firm. What’s funny is that Tod and I have never stopped working together. For about 28 years, we’ve referred cases to each other, we’ve co-counseled cases together, and he is just a wonderful lawyer, good friend and a great person to work with.
LD: Were you able to go to court with him and watch him in action while you were in school?
Gary Lesser: I was in court with Tod many times. One thing that I learned from Tod is you have to really know your client. You have to have a relationship with your client. You have to communicate. Trust is the basis of the attorney-client relationship. We don’t make or sell products, though we have our experience and our knowledge. Tod always knows his case, knows every aspect and every fact of the case. Sometimes, people try to get by on faking that, but if you don’t have the relationship with your client and you don’t know your case well, what are you really doing?
LD: It shows, right? It makes all the difference if you actually care about your client. And Joe, you went to Cardozo Law in New York. What effect did that have on your career?
Joseph Landy: I’ve always believed the old adage “actions speak louder than words” is very true. What I found at Cardozo was an academic institution that employed many professors with real world experience. I wanted to learn from those that did it successfully, not just those that taught others how they think things should be done. My contracts professor was the former chief counsel at CBS. My copyright professor helped write portions of the copyright law. Learning from those with real world experiences was invaluable
LD: I know you started your law practice on the defense side. When you switched to your current specialty, what positive lessons did you take from your time defending cases?
Joseph Landy: Our largest clients were the most litigious carriers, which provided me with significant trial experience starting with my first month on the job. In addition, learning how insurance companies and their attorneys evaluate, defend, litigate and try cases was tremendous. Knowing how my opponents think allows me to anticipate their moves before they are made and have an opportunity to lessen their blow.
LD: Was there a particular case or event that prompted you to switch sides?
Joseph Landy: There were several. As a trial lawyer, I always wanted to win for my client, but by the same token, I frequently had a great deal of sympathy for the plaintiffs and believed that they should win. I obtained defense verdicts in two back-to-back catastrophic injury cases that are still etched in my mind. After the last trial, I could see the middle-aged plaintiff at the end of the hallway trying to get to the elevator while using his walker. Although I won the case, my heart broke for him.
Being a plaintiffs’ lawyer means I can help people obtain justice and have a profound impact on their lives. It is an incredibly rewarding job. Another factor was nursing home litigation. I handled nursing home cases all over the State of Florida, and they involved perhaps the most vulnerable portions of our population. Defending nursing homes was emotionally challenging. You can always change your behavior, but you cannot change who you are at your core. It was my inner desire to force nursing homes to put their residents before their profits, as opposed to defending the facilities and allowing their conduct to continue.
LD: That’s really inspiring. It’s such an important area of law. Mickey, you started in defense work, too – with more than 100 jury trials before switching sides. What were the most important lessons you learned?
Mickey Smith: Preparation, I think, was the critical lesson. That is how cases are won. It helps, of course, if the jury likes you, but if you’re depending on that to get by, you won’t. I learned how insurance companies think and what is – and isn’t – important to them. That helps me tremendously today. I also learned it’s easy to “fall in love with your case” and lose all objectivity. If you thought the case was weak when you first reviewed it, be careful of losing objectivity over time. The jury will be looking at your case with fresh eyes – like you did when you first reviewed it.
There wasn’t a particular case that made me decide to move to plaintiffs’ law. It was more a case of “death by a thousand cuts.” One case I won – and shouldn’t have – did make me feel bad, as I would see the plaintiff in the grocery store long after the case was over. She was clearly hurt. But she was classy enough to never say a cross word to me when she would see me.
LD: Those experiences can definitely make you take stock. Is there a particular type of case that moves you the most?
Mickey Smith: To me, when a parent loses a child, that is probably the ultimate loss. There is no word in the English language to describe it. If a husband loses his wife, he is a “widower.” A wife is a “widow” if she loses her husband. If a child loses her parents – and think what a huge loss that is – she is an “orphan.” But there is no word in the English language to describe a parent who loses a child. Why? It’s unnatural. It is not supposed to happen. A parent is not supposed to have to bury a child.
LD: It has to be just devastating. It must be rewarding to be able to offer any kind of assistance or solace to the survivors when that happens. And I’d think that working with your two best friends helps when you’re handling difficult cases like that. How did the three of you meet?
Mickey Smith: Joe Landy and I used to work together, doing defense work. And I think Gary literally knows every single person in our county. I met him early on, once he began practicing, and our friendship makes the practice of law just plain fun. Being a lawyer is very stressful and if you are going to war with your friends, well, what could be better? Unlike a lot of law firms, we don’t have turf wars or ego issues. I love it. I’m proud of our work environment and our morals and ethics. I am proud of our business model, which does not involve billboards or TV ads. I am proud of our entire team, who always puts the client first.
LD: You guys have definitely built something special. Tell me more about your early years here after getting your law degree, Gary. You must have been inspired every time you walked into your grandfather’s old office.
Gary Lesser: Well, I really was. I remember seeing that office as a kid. So, it was interesting sitting and working there as a grownup.
LD: Knowing that it was your office now. How did it go for you as you started taking your own cases?
Gary Lesser: I had to really work to bring in cases. I wanted to do personal injury and trial work, but in the beginning of my legal career, I litigated cases for whoever would hire me.
LD: What were some of your first significant achievements?
Gary Lesser: I’d have to say the first one was when I actually was able to have my own legal assistant. In the beginning of my career, it was just me, and I was staying until midnight or 1:00 in the morning, trying to bring in business, doing hole-punching and photocopying. If you don’t have humility, being at work at 1:00 in the morning and doing your own copying and hole-punching will give you humility.
LD: Real fast. That fancy law degree doesn’t count for a whole lot in the midnight hours.
Gary Lesser: No. So, when I was able to actually have a legal assistant, that really felt key. Looking back on it now, it’s still a great milestone, because it said, “Wow, this thing that I’m doing is working. It’s going to work out.” The first significant case that I handled was referred to me, actually, by a client whose case I didn’t accept, but I had taken the time to speak to the client and explain why I couldn’t, because there was no insurance. There was no way to make a recovery.
A lot of lawyers, once they realize there’s not a case, they do a goodbye letter, and that’s how the client finds out. But I always like to take the time and talk to clients to explain, including when I can’t handle a matter. This time, a client called me and said, “I know you weren’t able to handle my case. Would you mind if I referred someone to you? I really like how you treated me.” And of course, I said, “Sure.”
LD: I love when doing the right thing comes back in a positive way.
Gary Lesser: When people say that nice guys finish last, I don’t believe that to be true at all. I think you always do the right thing, and it always comes back to you. I think it’s helped me in other ways, too. I think that it’s helped me become aligned and have friendships with people who have the same values.
LD: It seems like you’ve built a firm with people who share those values, that allows the group of you to accomplish a lot of good, both in court and in community activities.
Gary Lesser: You know, I had somebody say to me, “Wow, Gary, the community work is smart. That’s your marketing. You must get a lot of work that way.” The truth is we get nominal work from our community involvement. That’s not why we do it. We have a mission to be involved. Work comes from referrals from clients and lawyers and people in the community who know who we are and what our results are.
LD: The notion of engaging in community activities because you can develop business that way is a foreign concept when you actually just like helping others.
Gary Lesser: When we hire lawyers here at our firm, we tell them, “Go pick three places to be involved. A place to be a leader, a place to be a regular, and a place to be an occasional visitor.” That’s fascinating because they decide where they want to get involved, and six months later, the place where they thought they were going to be an occasional visitor speaks to them: the mission of the charity, the people being helped.
LD: That has really become part of your DNA and the firm’s DNA.
Gary Lesser: It has. In terms of community involvement, as much as my grandfather was my role model in so many ways, my mother was my primary role model there. I remember being a little kid and thinking, “Wow, my mom’s having people over at the house again,” for what I thought was a party. It wasn’t a party. My mom was a grassroots recruiter, getting her friends and acquaintances involved. Many of us hear from charities by email or maybe a form or letter that quickly gets thrown away. My mom was a master of taking the time to personally build relationships with people in her life and getting them involved. She was a community leader in many organizations here in town.
LD: Nothing substitutes for that personal touch. Can you talk about some of the cases you’ve handled as plaintiffs’ attorneys in Florida?
Gary Lesser: Sure. A couple come to mind. The first one was about 15 years ago. The clients who were referred to me had lost their daughter in a car accident: four 15-year-olds in the car. The car crashes into a tree, and everyone dies except for the driver. They had hired an advertising lawyer who wrote a few letters and got a small insurance policy, took their fee, and then stopped communicating with the client. I thought it was a terrible way to treat anybody, but especially parents who lost their 15-year-old daughter. They came to me, and they said, “Gary, nothing is going to bring my daughter back. And if that’s all there is, this small insurance policy, I just would like to know, but I can’t get these people to talk to me anymore.”
LD: That’s so sad.
Gary Lesser: I told them that I’d get them the answer, that I would litigate the case forward and see if there were any other assets from which to make a recovery. The boy who was driving got only a slap on the wrist. There was no real criminal penalty. At the time, many people would have thought taking the case was a bad business decision, because there appeared to be no source of recovery, but all I could think of is these folks had a lawyer who wasn’t communicating with them, and they just wanted to know the answer. I litigated the case for about a year and was prepared to go to trial. All of a sudden, the driver and his father hired a lawyer. They had been unrepresented previously, and their attorney called and said, “Can we move the trial date? They’d like to try to come up with some money.” Then I said, “No, we can’t move the trial, but we’d be willing to entertain an offer.” I wasn’t going to give up my trial.
Ultimately, this father and his son agreed to what ended up being a pretty significant settlement that has to be confidential by the terms of the agreement. Much more than I had expected. My clients had no monetary expectation, and I just wanted to push the case forward to get these folks their answer. That reaffirmed for me that even though we make business decisions all day long, we should simply treat clients well. That’s actually the number one obligation. Lawyers are supposed to put clients first over everything and everyone, including themselves.
LD: That’s a powerful story.
Gary Lesser: Now, I’ve handled a lot of other cases over the years. I had a client referred to me whose daughter had been killed in a car accident. He wanted to come in the same day, so my office called me, and I made myself available. He was crying and crying. He didn’t actually come about suing the party at fault. He called a lawyer because he didn’t know what he was supposed to do. It turns out his daughter had been killed at 1:00 a.m. that morning when an 18-wheeler hit the SUV she was in. My jaw dropped inside my head. He was wondering, “Where do I get the body? What do I do?”
LD: He needed somebody to tell him how to function.
Gary Lesser: Exactly. It was just heartbreaking to the point where I was almost embarrassed to mention, “By the way, this is what I do, the personal injury side.” I decided not to bring it up. So, I sat with him for like an hour while he cried. I answered his questions for him. Then, at the very end, I said, “Listen, my firm actually does these accident cases. That’s what we do.” He says, “I know, I know, I know. Just tell me where to sign. You took time with me.” Nice, nice man.
What fascinated me is I’m still in touch with a large number of my clients many years after the fact, including this gentleman. He was a single dad and had raised this young girl all by himself.
LD: But you were there for him in his hour of need. Joe, are there cases that show what the work you’re doing now means to you?
Joseph Landy: A great example is the George Dahmer case. The Dahmer family were very tightknit, hardworking, loving, salt-of-the-earth people. George was the patriarch of the family and cherished by his wife and children. After a career as a professional wrestler, the Dahmers moved to Florida to spend their golden years. Unfortunately, George developed dementia. Despite having no medical background and a limited education, his wife, Patricia, was able to be George’s fulltime caretaker and keep him free of any injury. After an event where he was aggressive, the police suggested that George be hospitalized for a few days in order to adjust his medications. A few days later, the hospital discharged George to Lake Worth Manor for “short-term rehabilitation.” A few months later, George was discharged to another facility unable to speak, unable to walk, 32 pounds lighter, dehydrated, and with wounds down to the bone on his coccyx and his heels.
Florida law requires nursing homes to have insurance but does not require a minimum policy limit. The facility was self-insured for only $10,000 and had gone to great lengths to be asset protected. Moreover, any case would clearly take years to resolve and force the attorney to incur six figures in costs. We agreed to accept the case with the primary goal of forcing the facility to close its doors or change the manner in which it conducted its business. Throughout the case, the facility mistakenly believed that no lawyer would incur the costs and time to proceed to trial as, if the nursing home lost, it would just file for bankruptcy.
We proceeded to trial and obtained a seven-figure verdict. After a lengthy appeal, which we won, I received a call from a prominent bankruptcy lawyer who told me if the case did not settle, they would file for bankruptcy the next day. As we refused to negotiate, a check for the amount of the verdict, costs and interest was delivered to my office the next day. This victory provided justice for my clients and also gave them closure. Moreover, it saved countless lives. The nursing home had a one-star rating from the date it opened its doors until the date of the verdict. While handling that case, I received calls from other families who wanted to proceed with cases against this nursing home as their loved ones had been injured and others had died. Following payment of the verdict, the facility has routinely maintained a four- to five-star rating. Clearly, they made a business decision to invest money into providing better care for their residents instead of paying large verdicts, and that has prevented countess residents from suffering needless injuries and, for some, saved their lives.
LD: What do you enjoy most about your practice?
Joseph Landy: The ability to help people, the ability to take down a corporate bully, and being able to work with my two amazing partners. I’ve also been on the boards of numerous charitable and legal organizations, and I’m currently the president of the board of Oakstone Academy Palm Beach. It’s a unique school, where each classroom has approximately eight children: six “typical” and one to two with autism. The typical children often are from the poorest sections of the county. The school is nothing short of magical: The children with autism mimic the behaviors of their typical peers, instead of the behaviors of other autistic students as in a traditional special needs classroom. The typical children learn that although the children with autism are different, that there is a reason they are “special.” They are kind and do not know how to be mean, jealous, or deceitful. It provides the typical children with a true appreciation for their autistic peers, makes them empathetic and more kind themselves, and will provide them with an outlook of the special needs population that will remain with them for the rest of their lives.
LD: What about you, Mickey?
Mickey Smith: I’m on the boards of five nonprofits and it definitely means a lot to me. I’m particularly moved by organizations that help kids or seniors.
LD: And I’ve heard that you have some amazing hobbies: You’ve done more than 2,800 skydives? Tell me about that. It sounds terrifying.
Mickey Smith: Many skydivers start because of the thrill or the adrenalin rush. As you gain more experience, the nerves leave, and you are then able to take in the beauty. My wife and I did it for many years, and we basically just burnt out on doing it. I’ll tell you, though, as thrilling as skydiving is, it does not even come close to starting a jury trial.
My wife and I also love to travel. We have been to every continent. Everywhere we have been is special for different reasons, but our favorite destination is easy – it’s always the next one. I think travel definitely helps in practicing law, as you get exposed to different people and different ideas. And, let’s face it, that is what law is all about, people and ideas.
LD: So, are there any future lawyers among your children?
Gary Lesser: I have three daughters, and I often wonder if one of them will join the firm and become the fourth generation of the family here.
LD: That would be fantastic. Do you think it could happen?
Gary Lesser: We’ll see. My youngest, Rebecca, has talked about being a lawyer to help people since she could put the words together. My eldest daughter, Lillian, who’s in her senior year of college has been accepted for admission at a number of law schools. My middle daughter Josie wants to go to medical school, so we will see!
LD: Where did she get accepted?
Gary Lesser: University of Miami School of Law, and a few other law schools, but obviously I’m rooting for UM Law School.
LD: How perfect.
Gary Lesser: I was thrilled for her. Plus, getting accepted, whether it’s for law school or college, it takes the pressure off. Everything after that is a bonus. You’re like, “Oh, thank God I’m in.”