Lawyer Limelight: Ira Leesfield

For Ira Leesfield, the founder and managing partner of Leesfield Scolaro, when it comes to personal injury law, there’s a heavy emphasis on the personal. Leesfield has crafted his career as a crusade to help the disenfranchised when they need it the most. Leesfield, who was raised by a single mother, is fueled by a deep-held belief that showing up for people in their time of need is not only the right thing to do – but that it can truly make a difference.

Ira Leesfield, a member of the Lawdragon 500 Leading Plaintiff Consumer Lawyers, famously served President Clinton in two significant posts from 1992 to 2000 – the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports and the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets. He was nominated as "Lawyer of the Year" by the Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, after he obtained a $19.8M verdict against Honda Corp.

An ethos of generosity, that Leesfield attributes to his mother, has charged not only his professional work, but also his robust portfolio of philanthropic and community-based work. Over the years he’s been honored with the American Association for Justice Award, the Judge Learned Hand Award from the American Jewish Committee, the Miracle Maker Award from Big Brothers/Big Sisters, the Anti-Defamation League’s Jurisprudence Award, and he’s twice been honored with the prestigious Wiedemann Wysocki medal for outstanding advocacy. 

The list of accolades speaks for itself, but the esteem he gets from receiving wedding invitations from clients and their families long after the cases have closed might be Leesfield’s preferred measure of success. After all, it’s incredibly personal, this business.

Lawdragon: How did your early life lead you to the law?

Ira Leesfield: Growing up, my family didn't have much. The feeling of being without any backup or authority led me to a profession where I could help other people who were also disenfranchised. It's known as the poor man's keys to the courthouse – people with no money, whose rights are not recognized, but who have a legitimate grievance can get to court and have that satisfied.

LD: How did you first realize that law was the way that you could help people? 

IL: My first legal document was an eviction notice on my mother's door. We were evicted as a young family. We saw a big red sign on the door, and my mom was sitting on the floor of the hallway in tears. It occurred to me that the law was a pretty good way to protect myself, and to protect my family.

LD: How did you come to personal injury?

IL: It was quite serendipitous. When I got out of law school, I fell into a law firm here in Florida that had been tracking me through law school, and they did plaintiffs’ personal injury. They represented people who couldn’t afford lawyers who had been injured. I was a natural. My previous work was prosecuting antitrust violators, which was not so satisfying. Once I was representing people, it was a completely different standard. People said, "Thank you," and sometimes shed a tear when you got them a recovery that put their kids into college, or literally gave them financial security.

LD: And just three years later you opened your own firm?

IL: I was always kind of entrepreneurial as a young person. I always had jobs – busboy, dishwasher, short order cook, cleaning, selling clothing at a men's store. I always liked the feeling of making a living and being independent. Owning my own firm was just consistent with that capitalistic feeling of “I can do this on my own.” I was 29 years old.

LD: Was there a vision or founding principles for the firm?

IL: My mother was a great egalitarian. She taught me the importance of treating people fairly, with dignity and respect, regardless of their state of life or whether they're rich or poor. She was a woman with an eighth-grade education and a tremendous sense of right and wrong. And that's all I knew in starting the business – there was the right way and the wrong way and it was just easier to do it the right way, because that's what I was taught. To cast your bread upon the waters. To be generous and to be fair. To share if you have something to share. And to understand that everything you do, that how you treat people, can come back to bring you even greater satisfaction, both financial and personal.

LD: Is there a case that stands out from the early days of the firm?

IL: One of my first cases was a young 14-year-old girl named Katie Reeb. She was riding her bike in Key West and a motorcycle ran a stop sign and just creamed her. At 14, she was left paralyzed and the motorcycle who hit her had no insurance. I went to the scene of the accident, and I happened to meet the motorcycle operator there. I asked him why he didn't see the stop sign and he pointed to some fresh construction on the road and he said, "Well, the asphalt company was there. There was dust and noise, and distraction. I just didn't see Katie."

It turned out that the construction company didn't have the road properly marked. So, I sued them, and recovered several million dollars. And this young girl, who's now probably 50, had financial help, rehabilitation, speech therapy, occupational therapy, and everything else, for the rest of her life.

My mother was a great egalitarian. She taught me the importance of treating people fairly, with dignity and respect, regardless of their state of life or whether they're rich or poor.

LD: What an impact. Can you tell us a bit about the Honda Corp case?

IL: It was a five-week trial in Erie, Penn., against one of the world’s largest corporations. My client's name was Todd Eimers. He was a young man on a motorcycle with a design defect. It was a Honda motorcycle where the kickstand would not retract, and it threw the motorcycle out of control and left him as a quadriplegic – paralyzed from the neck down. It was not an easy case because he had had a couple of beers before he got on the motorcycle and the tires of the motorcycle were bald. We had to overcome a lot of obstacles, and we did.

LD: How did you overcome those obstacles?

IL: Hard work. The defendants made some terrible mistakes during trial. They actually doctored the evidence. And once I was tenacious enough to prove that, it busted the case wide open and it turned the jury and the judge around. It was very satisfying and was, at the time, the largest verdict recorded against Honda.

LD: Can you tell us about any cases that resulted in a policy change?

IL: My clients were staying at a hotel where, instead of hiring a certified plumber or electrician to do the venting of the laundry room – which was powered by gas and created carbon monoxide – they had their own handyman go up on the roof to vent out the poisonous gas. And the handyman pointed the vent right at the direction where the ocean breezes were coming off the water. It just blew the carbon monoxide back into the vent, and back into the hotel where my clients were staying, and caused these horrible and senseless deaths.

Based upon that case, I worked with the Florida legislature to pass a statute that required mandatory carbon monoxide detectors in all public accommodations. They can't force you to put carbon monoxide detectors in your home. But now every hotel room in Florida has a carbon monoxide detector, as part of the fire alarm system.

LD: Wow.

IL: There have been legislative changes based upon a number of things that we've done. I've got 40-plus years of verdicts and settlements. There've been a lot of very rewarding cases. I'm still getting wedding invitations.

LD: Are there any trends currently keeping you busy?

IL: Cruise ship cases. Cruise ships are nothing but a floating city with all the problems of a city, lots of alcohol, lots of danger and no law enforcement. We've worked really hard to help change the law on medical negligence aboard cruise ships. We've had cases where people got very sick during the cruise and the captain and the crews refused to alter the course of the ship to get medical care because they didn't want to delay the cruise. Or they wouldn't authorize a helicopter to come pick up the dying person.

LD: Any other trends you’re noticing?

IL: Security cases are really where we're at today. In Key West this week a young 21-year-old boy was shot in the stomach and killed. He was urinating behind this guy's bar and the guard came along and just point blank, shot and killed him. I'm not a psychologist, but I think some of that is sort of a post-Covid ultraviolent world that we live in.

LD: You’re noticing an influx?

IL: Florida is bustling with lots of new people coming in every single day and there's just a greater sense of lawlessness. We finished a case that was very renowned recently. Our client and her husband checked into a hotel and a hardened, crazy criminal walked into the hotel lobby and went up the hallway, knocked on the door, and dragged this woman and her husband out of their room. He beat her, raped her, and then he bit her head off. He literally chewed her head. We settled that case for $16M in 11 months. But the woman, who lived, is just absolutely devastated.

LD: Of course.

IL: I think people have to be much more alert to their environment. Because there's some real evil out there. Evil in Uvalde, Texas. There's evil in Lansing, Mich., with the recent shooting at Michigan State. There's just evil. And I think we all have to be a little bit more diligent. A lot more diligent.

LD: Agreed. Let’s switch gears here, tell me a bit about the Leesfield Family Foundation. How did that start?

IL: It’s a charitable foundation I started in 1990. We didn't have much to fund it with, but it started out as an effort focused on homeless women and children. Initially we didn't have much, but we did what we could do, when we could do it. And then, as my practice grew, and things got better, I just kept increasing every year. And now we’ve expanded. We support an organization called Live Like Bella, which is all about supporting child cancer victims, some homeless shelters, The Sundari Foundation, which has The Lotus House for women and children, Project Yes, which provides emotional counseling for the LGBQT community, and The Melissa Institute to prevent violence. Nico's Kids, which is a Hispanic organization. The Boys Club. Overtown Youth Center. The Children's Home Society.

LD: That’s great.

He said, "Well, the asphalt company was there. There was dust and noise, and distraction. I just didn't see Katie."

IL: I've been very involved with the Clintons, so we always made the Clinton Foundation a high priority. Then, I got involved with the Baptist Health Center, Baptist Hospital, and the great work they do. I unfortunately had Covid-19 in the summer of 2020. I was hospitalized.

LD: Oh no, I'm so sorry.

IL: It was a little touch and go for a while there. They didn't know if I was going to make it. When I recovered, I wanted to recognize the people who took such great care of me, so we made a contribution of some very sophisticated diagnostic equipment. Then we started a program to feed the frontline health workers when Covid-19 was raging.

LD: How did you start working with World Central Kitchen?

IL: We've been helping after natural disasters – floods in Mississippi, or bad weather in Texas. We helped out after the devastation from the Pulse nightclub shootings in Orlando and Hurricane Maria relief with The Clinton Foundation in Puerto Rico.

LD: Right.

IL: That's where I met José Andrés. I went down there with the Clintons and Lin-Manuel Miranda. He was a big part of it. He is Puerto Rican. His father has a farm. He did a performance of “Hamilton” and it was quite touching, to be honest.

LD: Wow.

IL: Through the Clinton Foundation, we have done some amazing things. When the war broke out in Ukraine, José Andrés, who is the head of World Central Kitchen, went immediately to help feed the Ukrainians. I was so outraged by the invasion of Ukraine. People's freedoms being taken away, murder and genocide. We couldn't send missiles or guns. All we could send was food. So we did. And I, for the first time, solicited funds outside of my own family to get people to contribute to feeding the Ukrainian population. We had contributors from all over the country. The foundation made a decision that we would match every contribution that we got up to $250,000.

LD: Incredible. What’s something you’ve learned through community service and philanthropy?

IL: If you're building a basketball court in Overtown, $5,000 is a lot of money. People don't realize that a little bit of help makes a difference, so they do nothing. That's one thing I've learned with Ukraine is that when you give them an easy way to do it, people want to help.

LD: Tell us about your work under President Clinton.

IL: In '91, he was running for president and I had an event at our house for him, and raised some money and became friendly with some of his staff. The youngest and newest staff member was George Stephanopoulos, who was 28 and he was the first full-time walk-on employee of the campaign in Little Rock. And I worked with him and with the Clintons. In '92 when Clinton got elected, I went to Little Rock, I went to the inauguration, I went to everything that he invited us to. That grew into other things that I did with him for the Bicentennial celebration and that grew into his commissioning me to work for the Holocaust Asset Recovery Commission.

LD: Right.

IL: So, President Clinton and I became, actually, very good friends. He's a warm, personable guy with a huge memory, and great loyalty to his friends, and he always included me.

LD: So what’s next for you?

IL: I've undertaken a new project, the Underline project, which is Miami's version of the Highline in New York. It's a 10-mile ribbon of park from downtown Miami to Dadeland. It's a great project. I'm very happy. I'll be 77 in April, and I get asked on occasion – why are you still working? And my response is always the same – I really enjoy what I do. I enjoy the people that I work with very much and I like coming to the office.

LD: And you're continuing to help change lives.

IL: Well, as they say – if the surf is up and the tide is going out, you can throw the crabs back in the sea one at a time. “You save one at a time." Well, you can do one nice thing at a time. It matters.