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An Ounce of Prevention

Scott Westheimer, the new president of the Florida Bar, says education, mentoring and other proactive approaches can keep attorneys out of trouble.

In his first term as president of the Florida Bar, Scott Westheimer aims to improve the legal profession’s service and standing in Florida by improving things for lawyers — particularly by helping them avoid running afoul of the Bar’s disciplinary system.

His answer to enhancing the discipline system runs toward the positive: Providing attorneys resources, trust accounting tools, education, financial counseling — even attention to health, wellness, stress and addiction, as many failings in the practice of law stem from personal troubles.

The Baltimore native grew up in Sarasota, graduated from local Riverview High, attended the University of Florida for his undergraduate and law degrees and clerked for two summers for Syprett Mshad in Sarasota where he’s been for 28 years. Primarily a trial lawyer for plaintiffs in personal injury cases, Westheimer also does commercial litigation. AV-rated by Martindale-Hubbell, he has been honored as among the top personal injury and trial lawyers in America. He took office as Bar president in June, succeeding West Palm Beach attorney Gary Lesser.

Westheimer says every profession has its bad apples but the number of unethical lawyers is minuscule, though they “become very high profile.”

The Bar already has tools and services, such as Legalfuel.com with practice management advisers, and trust accounting education and IT help that are free to members — and it’s investing in more help. “We need to build on those and really communicate better on what we have,” he says. “If you educate attorneys early and often, it will help them stay out of the system. That does help our end goal of protecting the public.” 

Aiding Refugees

After Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, Hollywood immigration attorney Irina Shabetayev — who is fluent in Russian and Ukrainian — turned her attention to the refugees fleeing the conflict for the safety of Florida. Shabetayev organized a series of pro bono community events for refugees in which attorneys and paralegals explained the Temporary Protected Status process, answered questions and helped refugees fill out necessary paperwork. She partnered with the Russian American Bar Association to lead the initiative, which helped hundreds of refugees in the first months of the war, and even collected food and water for them. The effort also was personal: Her own extended family was trying to leave their native Moldova due to the risks of the war. The Florida Bar recognized Shabetayev with the 2023 Young Lawyers Division Pro Bono Service Award earlier this year. — By Vickie Chachere