by Eugene K. Pettis
My term as president has been one of the most rewarding, fastest moving, years of my life.
When sworn into office last June, I spoke about bold leadership, and I challenged us to greater heights with the hope of making lasting change and advancements toward equality for all people.
The foundational principles guiding my presidency are that inclusion is the pathway to unity, and that the strength of our profession can only be realized when we invite everyone to the table of opportunity.
We completed the inaugural year of the William Reece Smith Leadership Academy. Rarely is reality better than the dream. In this case, the experience of the academy fellows surpassed imagination. I wish space permitted me to recite some of the participants’ personal testimonies of life-changing growth as lawyers and leaders. Through their enhanced understanding of our profession and development of network relationships, I expect this class to chart new paths for our profession. As we welcome Class II, I’m certain their experiences will be equally rewarding.
We are at the crossroads of major evolutionary changes in our profession. We must acknowledge a changing world, driven largely by technological advancements, and be willing to adapt. That led me to establish the Vision 2016 Commission. The commitssion is charged with studying the future of our profession in the areas of legal education, technology, Bar admissions, and access to legal services, in order to ready our profession to meet the needs of our clients and the public through new efficiencies, while preserving our core principles.
The work of the commission is well under way, with the creation of a framework for in-depth analysis that we hope will lead us toward some solutions to modern challenges. These words of former President Jimmy Carter sum up our challenge: “We must adjust to changing times and still hold to unchanging principles.”
We have also addressed the challenge of making sure that our judicial system recognizes that a part of being fair and impartial is being reflective of the communities it serves. Our Task Force to study the Enhancement of Diversity on the Bench and the Judicial Nominating Commission has completed its work, providing the blueprint to achieve a judiciary reflective of the rich diversity that Florida offers.
This undertaking highlights the importance of continuity of committed leadership because this issue of judicial diversity is not new. It was the focal point of a commission established by Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Ehrlich in 1989. In the commission’s 1991 report, many of the current recommendations were cited, and that tells us the challenge is not finding the solution, but having the resolve and commitment of leadership to drive change.
To fulfill our obligation to educate the public about our democracy and the rule of law, we have strengthened the Bar’s “Benchmarks: Raising the Bar on Civics Education” Program. By mid-summer, a new technology platform will unite the Benchmarks Program, the Speakers Bureau, and Law-Related Education. This will allow citizens in need of speakers to engage participating lawyers within their jurisdictions.
When crisis erupts in our democracy, we cannot just react. Rather, we must be steadfast in educating all citizens on the founding principles of our country, and why it is critical to their quality of life to maintain a fair, impartial, and independent judiciary.
One other issue is essential to our profession: improving access to justice. It is unacceptable that we continue to allow upwards of 60 percent of Floridians seeking legal aid to be turned away because of lack of funds, and half to two-thirds of middle-income Americans’ legal needs go unaddressed because they cannot afford legal services. We must tackle the legal services delivery crisis with the use of committed lawyers who serve in the public interest areas, as well as greater use and development of technology.
But this cannot be resolved by the legal profession alone, so it is important to urge community stakeholders to take ownership of this crisis, too. Therefore, my successor, Greg Coleman, will be heading up a Summit on Access to Justice that will be led by incoming Chief Justice Labarga.
At the table will be representatives from Florida’s Cabinet, executive office, legal services, The Florida Bar, The Florida Bar Foundation, and the business community. Together, we are going to find solutions to delivering legal services and guidance, so that every Floridian can enjoy the promise of justice for all.
My heart has been humbled by the awesome privilege of service as your president. It is my prayer that the Bar’s efforts to truly lift all of its members will continue, and we will stand as one Bar!
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