by Ramón A. Abadin
In the caves deep under Florida’s Ginnie Springs, a paradise to divers like me, you eventually hit the Henkel restriction.
If it’s your first time there, it tests your courage, as you face a passage more than 3,000 feet into the underwater cave. It tests your resourcefulness and training, as you remove your tank and push it ahead of you to squeeze through a very narrow opening. It tests your trust in the technology necessary to get you there and let you return safely to the opening.
But if you want to enjoy the rewards that lie beyond the Henkel, you first must make it there and through the opening.
As I begin my year as president of The Florida Bar, the legal profession faces its own Henkel restriction.
We face obstructions from outdated rules, inflexible systems, and our own unwillingness to take advantage of the changes technology is forcing on the legal profession. We must remove impediments to creativity and look for opportunities to better serve our customers and give them access to their legal system.
What stands in our way?
The first is the burden of rules, some left over from the horse-and-buggy days, imposed by the Bar and the courts. As my colleague at Sedgwick LLP, Valerie Shea, wrote 12 years ago, “The crushing load of rules under which we labor has not made the civil justice system more moral, more accessible, or more predictable.”
We need a soup-to-nuts review of The Florida Bar, its structure, its rules, and the rulemaking process.
We must emerge from our silos and look at the entire legal profession — in Florida, the U.S., and the world. If we’re going to succeed as a profession, we have to think beyond “my area of law” or “my committee.” In fact, we need to stop thinking that only lawyers understand and can solve the complexities of the law. With the crisis of access to justice and the emergence of nonlegal service providers who are happy to help our customers, lawyers can’t stifle access with high costs, complicated rules, and an unwillingness to change.
Perhaps most important, we need to embrace technology and use it as a tool to better serve our customers.
Our last three Florida Bar presidents — Gwynne Young, Eugene Pettis, and Greg Coleman — saw how technology was affecting our profession. Thanks to their foresight, the Bar began preparing for that change, with the Vision 2016 commission.
Now we know what we’re facing. Now is the time to change — or not.
Emerging technologies promise to displace us from our traditional roles. They lower the barriers to accessing legal information, change the relationship between lawyers and our customers, and threaten to bypass lawyers entirely by delivering needed services directly to our customers at prices affordable to them.
Every day, we hear about nonlawyer legal service providers and compete with LegalZoom, RocketLawyer, Avvo.com, and more. Scores of online companies sell do-it-yourself forms for wills, bankruptcy, and immigration. You can find do-it-yourself divorce services online or even at courthouse kiosks.
It’s been estimated that half of what lawyers do today will soon be done by technology and by nonlawyers — for a fraction of what lawyers charge today. Robert Plant, an associate professor at the School of Business Administration at the University of Miami, says computers eventually will pass the bar exam and represent defendants in court. Far-fetched? Ask the folks at IBM.
If we don’t address these issues — and address them now — we risk becoming obsolete.
Our customers are telling us they want accessible, affordable, and convenient legal services. We need to decide: Are we going to ignore our customers or seize the opportunity?
Here in Florida, 60 percent of the people feel they cannot afford a lawyer or don’t know that they need one. Yet we say we have an abundance of lawyers looking for work. How crazy is that? We must connect lawyers with this under-served population.
What about globalization? Some see it as a threat. Why not look at it as an opportunity?
Technology also can give lawyers the freedom to do the work they need and want to do, any time and any place.
Maybe others will handle routine matters for our customers. Perhaps we will have more time for higher-value work.
Isn’t that really what we’d rather be doing?
The Florida Bar and its more than 100,000 members have a lot in the cart right now. Vision 2016 is making good progress, and I don’t need to add any new initiatives.
Still, I won’t be timid. Throughout this year, I will be motivating lawyers and the Bar’s leadership. I will challenge everyone to think differently, open their minds, and embrace change.
We really have no choice.
In cave diving and in life, there are many risks. But we live in a beautiful and dynamic world. With courage, preparation, and an openness to change, we can preserve our noble profession and the notion of liberty and justice for all.
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