In a Zoom interview with The Florida Bar Journal & News Editor Mark Killian, Florida Bar President John Stewart discusses the Bar’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. He talks about the Bar’s position on the stay-at-home order issued by Gov. Ron DeSantis on April 1 and shares where Florida Bar members can find the latest coronavirus-related information and resources during this challenging time.
April 3 President’s Message
Dear Fellow Florida Bar Members:
I hope this correspondence finds you, your families, and friends well in these uncertain times. Although we Floridians are very resilient when it comes to hurricane planning and recovery, this pandemic provides unique dilemmas every day, day after day. Please be assured Bar leadership and our staff are working to the best of our abilities to assure continued member services and Bar operations at the highest level.
Above all, I hope you are observing the health and safety guidelines and working remotely if possible to reduce community spread of COVID-19.
This update covers the recent Safer at Home executive order, the Bar’s resources for members during the pandemic and that status of meetings as of today.
Provision of Legal Services During the Pandemic
We’ve heard from a number of members who have questions about the statewide Safer at Home Executive Order 20-91, issued on April 1 by Governor Ron DeSantis, as to its application to the legal profession.
The Executive Committee of The Florida Bar Board of Governors met on March 23 and took a position that law firms are essential businesses, either entirely or when necessary to assist in compliance with legally mandated activities. The Bar’s position respectfully requested that any state, city and county protective pandemic protocols include a statement that law firms are essential businesses either entirely or when “necessary to assist in compliance with legally mandated activities” especially when time-sensitive legal work is necessary to assist the public in solving urgent needs during these unusual times. On March 27, I sent a letter to the Governor’s General Counsel regarding this request.
The Safer at Home Executive Order 20-91 refers to essential services and activities. Although specifics are not provided regarding provision of legal services, you should carefully review this, and all other relevant orders, and use your best judgment to determine whether your work meets the mandates of the order. The Governor said he has received questions about the meaning of essential activities under his Safer at Home order. “It’s less important what you do, than how you do it,” DeSantis said, and he went on to say that the goal is to avoid close contact with people outside your home to reduce the transmission rate. The Governor also advised that local municipalities can place more stringent restrictions than the statewide order, so we must be vigilant to assure we’re meeting state and local requirements.
We stress that the absolute best course to take at this time is to work remotely using electronic communications and to avoid in-person contact as directed. When that isn’t possible, you should follow the health and safety guidelines issued by national state and local health officials (posted on our COVID-19 webpage) concerning proper hygiene, social distancing, and other recommended protocols.
Also, you should frequently check for current court orders and notifications from the clerks of court. We have links to all of the courts’ and clerks’ websites under Member Resources at www.floridabar.org/covid19.
Member Resources Expansion
Daily updates are being made to the Bar’s dedicated COVID-19 webpage. It now includes sections on court announcements, Florida Bar announcements, and member and consumer resources. Please read more about what’s available in the Florida Bar News story. This is also a good time to follow the Bar’s social media for timely information.
May Board of Governors Meeting
The next scheduled Board of Governors meeting and its individual committee meetings are being transitioned from in-person events to virtual meetings on May 14-15. Board committee chairs will work with staff liaisons to identify pending matters that either need to be addressed or may be deferred.
Section Meetings, CLEs and Other Activities Through May
In the interest of the health and safety of members and staff, section and committee leaders are being asked to postpone, cancel, or transition to electronic or virtual activities any planned in-person events through May 31, 2020. The Florida Bar will continue to work with the section and committee leaders to assist in any rescheduling, cancellation, or moving activities to an electronic format.
In addition, please remember that deadlines for members with three-year cycle CLE reporting in February, March, April, and May, have been extended to August 31, 2020. Although many in-person CLEs have been cancelled, the 24/7 OnDemand CLE catalog is active and LegalFuel offers many free online CLEs that may be helpful.
In closing, please know how grateful I am for your dedication to your clients, our courts, and our Bar during these difficult times. We are all in this together, and together we can recover and restore our legal system to normal operations as soon as possible. Please feel free to contact myself or President-elect Dori Foster-Morales with any questions and above all stay safe.
John M. Stewart
March 20 President’s Message
Dear Fellow Florida Bar Members:
In the midst of the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis, all of our lives, personally and professionally, have been impacted. However, we at The Florida Bar want to make sure that you have the latest information on what our Bar is doing and where you can find important information during this stressful time.
Here is a recap of information Florida Bar members need to know about what the Bar and Florida’s courts are doing regarding COVID-19, as well as a summary of today’s Board of Governors actions.
COVID-19 Information and Resources Page
As a central source of up-to-date information for Florida Bar members, the COVID-19 web page available at www.floridabar.org/covid19 is being constantly updated with lists and links to Supreme Court orders and announcements, and links to a list of trial courts’ emergency orders and directives, including closures and all district court notices. This page should also meet the goal of reducing the volume of email for members while increasing the ease of finding and receiving local information.
Florida Bar announcements are posted, as are resources for practice management assistance, ethics guidance, mental health and wellness tips, free trials and expanded member benefits, and state and federal assistance and information programs.
When the immediate crisis starts to subside, we will send additional communications regarding government assistance programs and Florida Bar member benefits to assist your law firm and staff in getting through the financial, logistical, and emotional challenges the pandemic has caused.
Pandemic Coordination with the Florida Supreme Court, Office of State Courts Administrator, and Clerks of Court
Daily communications with the Supreme Court, the state courts administrator and clerks have been ongoing since the pandemic began so that we are able to post timely information from the courts as it is released on The Florida Bar’s COVID-19 page, social media and on the online Bar News & Journal. We have also provided all of the court public information officers and the 67 clerks access to members’ emails in their circuits and counties so members can receive timely local information while the Bar continues to disseminate information of statewide importance.
Florida Supreme Court Administrative Orders & Announcements
AOSC20-15, issued March 17, details what constitutes “essential” and “critical” court proceedings and directs the state courts to give them priority over other cases. It also requires that proceedings be conducted in a way that minimizes the risk of COVID-19 exposure. It also orders the rescheduling, postponement, or cancellation of nonessential and noncritical court proceedings unless they can be effectively conducted using remote technology.
Chief Justice Charles Canady plans to release new emergency orders over the next days to further extend legal deadlines and to make other changes to court rules necessary to meet the crisis. All emergency orders previously issued will be extended for at least another three weeks. Read the March 20 Florida Bar News article.
This morning, the Supreme Court issued an order governing regulation of the state’s legal profession that suspends the filing and evaluation requirements for lawyer advertisements and addresses all time periods and deadlines in lawyer discipline and unlicensed practice of law cases.
All of the orders, appellate and state court announcements, and links to additional information are posted on The Florida Bar’s COVID-19 page.
Florida Bar Essential Operations Continue
Many Florida Bar staff members are working remotely to carry out essential functions while Bar offices are temporarily closed to reduce exposure to COVID-19. I ask your patience if you experience any understandable delays in responses from our staff and if some services that you are seeking are suspended at this time.
Update on Florida Courts E-filing Portal
Although Florida’s court system operations have been appropriately cut back because of the pandemic, the Florida Courts E-Filing Portal is open and available to anyone who needs to file documents, and the Portal Help Desk remains available during regularly scheduled business hours. The Portal will be down for routine maintenance on March 21.
CLE Reporting Deadlines Extended; Online CLE Still Available
The deadlines for members scheduled to report their three-year cycle CLE reporting in February, March, April, and May, have been extended to August 31, 2020. The 24/7 OnDemand CLE catalog is active, but many upcoming in-person CLE programs have been canceled, and processing orders and shipping CLE CDs and CLE DVDs are suspended.
Board of Governors Virtual March Meeting Summary
The scheduled Board of Governors meeting this month was canceled, and instead the Executive Committee met this morning by teleconference and took these major actions:
- The deadlines for members scheduled to report their three-year cycle CLE reporting in February, March, April, and May, have been extended to August 31, 2020.
- A mental health helpline for members was approved as part of a continuing effort to address the well-being of Florida lawyers. The helpline is expected to be available July 1, 2020.
- Two new member benefits were approved. Smith.ai, a virtual receptionist service for live calls and web chat, primarily serving solo and small-firm attorneys, and Indexed I/O which provides a scalable, cost-effective eDiscovery solution that fits every case size. These benefits will be added to the more than 70 free or discounted products and services — financial services, shipping, practice management resources and legal research — offered to Florida Bar members.
- The Legislation Committee reported that the Florida House and Senate finalized a $92 billion FY 2020-2021 budget that includes $21 million in initial spending for a long-sought Second District Court of Appeal courthouse and more than $3.4 million to fund the certification of 10 new trial judges. Additional details are in this March 19 Florida Bar News article.
- The Bar’s proposed 2020-21 budget was approved without a fee increase. It will be posted online and published in the April 30/May 2020 print edition of The Florida Bar News. The Board will consider member comments and revise the budget at its May 15 meeting before submitting it to the Supreme Court for the last approval.
In closing, while our families, businesses and communities have all been dramatically impacted by COVID-19, it is our top priority to support our judiciary and justice system partners, do what we can to help our members and staff, and continue our essential services so that our collective recovery can occur as quickly as possible.
Thank you for your service to the justice system, legal community and the citizens of Florida. We can all take pride in our profession’s continued dedication to access to justice and the rule of law during this difficult time. We at The Florida Bar are working to help you as we all move forward.
We recognize the myriad of serious challenges this crisis creates for our members. We are here to assist in any way we can. If you have any questions or concerns or believe there is anything we can be doing better, please do not hesitate to reach out to me. Please stay safe.
John M. Stewart
John Stewart: I’m John Stewart, president of The Florida Bar, here in the State Capitol, and this is my February President’s Message.
Q. What is happening during the 2020 Legislative Session?
The Florida Bar is actively monitoring legislation on behalf of the judicial branch and lawyers. Right now, we’re focused on the Court’s primary objective relating to funding for the 2020 budget for the judiciary. We’re looking to increase the salaries for judges. Right now, the trial courts and the DCA judges rank in the lower half among states across the country. We’re also looking to increase security, increase efficiencies, and get general access to justice improved for the judicial system. Right now, the state’s budget for the judiciary is less than one percent of the annual budget, and we’re continuing to work to improve that.
Q. Why is it important that we are here?
We’re here in the State Capitol during Legislative Session. It’s our job to make sure that, not only is The Florida Bar and the judiciary treated fairly by the legislature, but really to protect Florida citizens. There’s only one position in Florida’s Cabinet that is not comprised by a lawyer. So, we have our Secretary of State, we have our Attorney General, we have our Governor, and we have our Commissioner of Agriculture … are all Florida lawyers. So it’s great to be here, we’ll have some interviews coming with them, so be on the lookout for them on our social media platforms.
Q. What are some of the ways the Florida Supreme Court is working to keep Florida’s legal system efficient and accessible?
Florida court systems see over two million civil cases on the annual basis, so the Florida Supreme Court has put together a task force, including two past Florida Bar presidents, to review the efficiency and the way that civil cases can move through the system so that Florida citizens have access to justice. In addition, in conjunction with the law school deans, the Florida Supreme Court has removed two subjects from the Florida bar exam – the intent not to make the bar exam easier, but to allow law students to study core principles that will make them better lawyers. Finally, the Supreme Court has tasked The Florida Bar with studying the issues of the changing legal marketplace including areas of technology and advertising with an obligation to report back both to The Florida Bar Board of Governors and to the Florida Supreme Court with its final recommendations by June 2021.
Q. What can Florida Bar members do to provide input on these matters and keep up with the progress of these studies?
Florida Bar Member dialogue is critical to success of all the studies and projects that The Florida Bar and the Florida Supreme Court is currently engaged in. We make information available on The Florida Bar’s website through The Florida Bar News, through The Florida Bar Journal, all of our social media platforms. It is our job to get the information to you, and it is your job to review the information and provide us your feedback in a professional, educated, meaningful way.
I am John Stewart, president of The Florida Bar, and this is my December President’s Message.
Q. How have you gone about achieving your priorities for the year?
Well, of course, we’ve been working very hard with the Board of Governors, with our local voluntary bar leaders and our members throughout the state to assure that we’re staying on top of the issues that are important to the lawyers of Florida. These include the changing legal marketplace, technology, mental health and wellness, promoting our CLEs, and making sure that we do the two things that we’re obligated to do and that we do best. And that’s one, protect the public, and serve our members.
Q. What do you see as the most noteworthy successes from your presidency thus far?
Well, thanks to our hard-working Board of Governors and our voluntary bar leaders across the state, we have quite a few successes in the early part of this year. First, on December 12, Chapter 23 was filed, the voluntary registration of online service providers. This is designed both to protect the public when utilizing these services, as well as making it clear for our members when they are able to participate with these programs properly and responsibly under the rules regulating The Florida Bar. Additionally, we recently learned that the Florida Supreme Court approved a version of the parental leave continuance rule, which is a rule that was strongly supported by the Board of Governors. It’s something that we are very excited about that we think promotes diversity in our profession and also promotes general mental health and wellness amongst our members.
Q. What’s next for The Florida Bar?
Well, following on the heels of the filing of the voluntary registration for online service providers, the Florida Supreme Court has directed us to look at the broader legal marketplace, the broader legal landscape, and to address a variety of issues that entails, which will be a primary focus. We’ll be drawing in our voluntary bar leaders to help us with that. We’re also going to continue to focus on diversity, diversity within the leadership of The Florida Bar, and also continue to push for diversity amongst the judicial nominating committees, which is an important role and something that we take great pride in. We’re going to continue to push as we have for years for mental health and wellness initiatives. That continues to be a huge priority of The Florida Bar, and I see it continuing to be a priority of the Florida Bar for years to come including following me with my president-elect, soon to be president, Dori Foster-Morales.
Q. How is the legal profession giving back to the community during the holiday season?
Florida lawyers give all year round. I’ve always said that Florida lawyers are often social workers at heart. And I think especially this time of year, as we get closer to our annual Pro Bono Awards ceremony where we recognize the lawyers who have gone above and beyond their necessary contributions in the areas of pro bono and are recognized for those efforts at the Florida Supreme Court, this year to be held on January 30, we’ll continue to give back both financially and in hours of pro bono dedication. We also recognize our voluntary bars around the state who continually strive to improve their communities through various volunteer projects at all levels, so it’s something that we’ll continue to do, and this time of year is a perfect time to highlight it.
Q. As 2019 comes to a close, what are you grateful for?
Personally, I’m grateful for time spent with family and friends. I’m grateful to be able to lead The Florida Bar during this year. I’m grateful for my hard-working Board of Governors members. I’m grateful for everything that Florida lawyers do for our community, and really grateful that the rule of law still governs and that we’re able to provide for the peaceful life of men and women in a peaceful state during this holiday season.
I’m John Stewart, President of The Florida Bar, here in Tallahassee at The Florida Bar headquarters.
Q. Can you describe the proposed Florida judicial parental leave rule? What is the Bar’s position?
I recently had the pleasure of arguing for the Florida Supreme Court on the issue of the parental leave rule. The rule was intended to allow for up to a three-month continuance for anyone subject to parental leave. This rule would promote really three important missions of The Florida Bar: One: Diversity in the profession. Two: Mental health and wellness by allowing lawyers to have some time off during this important period of their life. And three: Protecting the public so that the client can be assured they can have the attorney that they would like. While we recognize, and hearing the court’s questions that the rule is probably not perfect, we think the rule makes progress. Perfection can be the death of progress, and so we’re hoping that we’ll find a way to make progress in this arena.
Q. Can you tell us about the Bar’s proposed new voluntary registration program for online service providers?
The Board of Governors recently approved a voluntary registration for online service providers. This rule still requires Supreme Court approval. However, the idea behind the rule is to provide some regulation in a generally unregulated area. Largely, these companies are providing forms, so the primary regulation comes in the requirement that these forms either be approved by the Florida Supreme Court or approved by a licensed Florida Bar member in good standing.
Q. What is the Bar’s outlook for the upcoming 2020 Legislative Session?
The legislative session for 2020 is starting early. We’ve already had committee weeks this session. The Florida Bar’s primary mission is to assure the advancement of legal profession and to assure an adequately funded judicial branch of government. We believe that we are in a good place to continue to promote those ideals, and we’re continuing to work with our legislators and with the governor to assure that those goals are accomplished.
John Stewart: I’m John Stewart, president of The Florida Bar, and this is my July President’s Update.
Q. Why did you decide to pursue law?
John Stewart: Well, most people think I decided to pursue law because of my father and grandfather are both lawyers. But in fact, primarily, it was after I got my first job, I saw how the patent lawyers were working in the company and decided that autonomy was really interesting to me and I thought I would go back and practice law, rather than continue in the career I had started.
Q. You are a third-generation lawyer. How has our system of law changed since your grandfather began practicing?
John Stewart: Well, in some ways, it really remains the same. My dad calls us counselors at law, and I think that’s what we are. I mean we offer a lot of good advice, helping people out. It been a lot of changes through the generations.
Q. How has your practice changed since you first began practicing law?
John Stewart: I think for me, it’s mostly been the way technology has impacted the practice. And coupled probably with that time frame we became a lot more specialized in the type of work that we do.
Q. What kind of challenges do you think that creates for today’s lawyers?
John Stewart: Running a small law firm is like running a small business. You only have so much time — the pace of change in technology is challenging. And so, keep up with that, while still trying to maintain your business and meet your clients’ needs is really probably the most difficult aspect.
Q. Have you set any goals for your presidency, and what are they?
John Stewart: Well, we going to continue the areas that we been working on, that we’re strong in. We going to continue to push diversity and inclusion in the profession — all different areas. We going to continue to work on our health and wellness initiative; we know how important those are. And we going to work with the legislator, with the governor’s office, with the court on getting a fully funded judiciary.
Waves of Change
Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” — John F. Kennedy
On June 7, 1949, the Florida Supreme Court issued an opinion that created The Florida Bar. The court stated in part, “Growing populations and changing conditions necessarily give rise to social and economic complexes that require wisdom and discretion to cope with. The [B]ar should be the first sector of the population to comprehend this and order its house to meet such emergencies.” Since then, The Florida Bar has grown from 3,758 members to more than 106,000, and Florida’s population has grown from almost 2.7 million to nearly 21.7 million. With that growth in population and the legal profession has come the social and economic complexities that the Florida Supreme Court predicted. In that time, The Florida Bar has established itself as a national leader. Now, 70 years later, we are called upon again to be a leader in shaping the profession and the practice of law for the benefit of both the public and our members. The leadership and members of The Florida Bar must be the architects of this rapidly changing legal landscape.
As a third-generation Florida lawyer, following my grandfather’s start in 1925 and my father’s start in 1970, time hasn’t changed our roles much. We are still counselors at law — always pursuing justice yet guiding our clients on the individual path that is right for them and their businesses. But time has brought with it many changes that have impacted our profession and the ways in which we conduct our business, particularly in terms of technology.
For the past 20 years, I’ve been involved in Bar service. It wasn’t until 2013 that I gained the opportunity to learn the challenges involved with technology — from simple email communication to alternative (often online) legal service providers. Although the advantages of technology are clear, there are many questions that should be asked: How do we maintain past traditions as lawyers with the current trends facing us in terms of technological advances? How do we introduce potential new rules, or change existing ones, that allow for more ethical opportunities for Florida lawyers in this new digital age? How will those changes benefit members and the public? How do we as leaders guide the Bar as change happens at a pace never before experienced?
The Bar has traditionally been in a strong position. It’s a bulwark against the powerful waves of change, standing firm in the protection of the public and ensuring the highest standards of legal professionalism are preserved. But water is forceful. Water finds its way into crevices and can carve a path of its own. We cannot stand idly by and allow the seas of change to erode the Bar’s responsibilities or the profession’s traditional core values. Change happens. Evolution happens. The questions as to how to navigate those changes and how to evolve are at the forefront of my mind.
For years, we have been internally focused. It is time to look outward, to break down our silos and make sure our ship catches this rising tide. The Bar must engage in its social and economic responsibilities to focus the energy carried by these waves of change for the benefit of our members and the protection of the public. This year, I look forward to opening the conversation about closing the access to justice gap by reviewing some of our rules that may impede lawyers from obtaining more business. We must ensure that we do not create a remote island of talented lawyers who are being hindered from efficiently and ethically providing legal services to Florida residents who need them. We have to talk through the value proposition of collaborating both with other industry professionals as well as technology service providers to enhance the practice of law and the provision of legal services without sacrificing the profession’s traditional core values.
It is my honor to serve as Florida Bar president, and I look forward to discussing ways in which all 106,000 Bar members can do their jobs effectively, while also protecting the public for future generations. My goal is to help the Board of Governors and our members make difficult decisions because we’re ready, because we’re leaders.
John M. Stewart, President
The Florida Bar