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1. What authority regulates the practice of law in Florida? Is there any public involvement?
The Florida Bar is charged by the Florida Supreme Court with lawyer regulation as its core function. The Florida Supreme Court has the constitutional authority and responsibility to regulate the practice of law and oversee the lawyer discipline system. The court makes all of The Rules Regulating The Florida Bar and imposes discipline. The grievance system applies many perspectives and involves non-lawyers in the key phases of investigation. Those perspectives include:
– The person who is complaining;
– The lawyer who is the subject of the complaint;
– Professional Bar regulatory staff;
– Volunteer members of local communities and the legal profession who serve on 80 Bar grievance committees which are composed of at least one-third non-lawyers and two-thirds lawyers;
– Volunteer members of the legal profession on the Board of Governors, which also has two non-lawyer members;
– Members of the judiciary who serve as referees and make recommendations for discipline to the Florida Supreme Court.
2. Does The Florida Bar regulatory process take place in secret?
The Florida Bar has one of the most open systems in the country and among regulated professions in Florida. Files closed with no discipline imposed are retained for one year from date of closure. All files are public record after a grievance committee concludes action. Files pending at the staff or grievance committee levels are confidential. A pending file can be confirmed as active if an inquiry includes specific information about the case. In addition, The Florida Bar website lists a 10-year discipline history for lawyers and makes public documents available to the public.
3. Don’t most lawyers get away with bad behavior and, if disciplined, receive only a slap on the wrist?
In the five years from 2011-12 to 2015-16, more than 1,700 lawyers have been disciplined by the Florida Supreme Court including 430 disbarments/disciplinary revocations, 820 suspensions and 258 reprimands. The severity of the discipline is based on the seriousness of the misconduct.
4. It seems that only small firm and solo practitioners are typically disciplined.
It is the responsibility of The Florida Bar to regulate individual lawyers, not law firms. The Bar has prosecuted hundreds of cases involving multiple lawyers at the same firm and has taken swift action for the emergency suspension of high-profile lawyers in large firms who have misused client funds.
5. Does the number of complaints against a lawyer reflect on his or her character and integrity?
Certain areas of the law tend to generate more complaints against lawyers. For example, family and criminal cases can be very emotional and often result in many complaints. It is important to consider not only the number of complaints filed against a lawyer, but also a lawyer’s disciplinary history and the facts of the cases.
6. Does The Florida Bar do anything to help clients deal with problems with their lawyers before a complaint is filed?
Yes. With the Attorney Consumer Assistance Program (ACAP), The Florida Bar provides assistance through a toll-free hotline to resolve attorney-client issues in many cases before a complaint is filed. This program opens more than 24,000 requests for assistance each year and was able to resolve about one-third of those requests.
7. What does The Florida Bar do to protect the public from unethical lawyers who have not yet been disciplined?
The Florida Bar moves quickly to petition for emergency suspension of lawyers who misuse client funds or who have been convicted of a felony. Even in cases in which the Bar does not pursue discipline, lawyers can be ordered to complete remedial programs to improve their practices. These programs include ethics school, professionalism workshops, advertising rule workshops, trust accounting workshops, stress management courses, law office management consultation service and a myriad of CLE courses in specific areas of practice. The Bar may require that a lawyer be referred for treatment regarding alcohol/chemical dependency and/or mental health counseling.
8. Does The Florida Bar’s lawyer regulation staff have experience in the practice of law?
The majority of the members of the lawyer regulation staff have private practice experience as well as court, state agency, legal aid services and military service totaling hundreds of years. For cases that require further inquiry, staff perspectives are balanced with the involvement of practicing lawyers in the community who serve on grievance committees.
9. Does The Florida Bar look only for technical violations to punish lawyers? Does it do anything to prevent bad behavior?
The Florida Bar has many proactive programs designed to assist its members in abiding by the rules of professional conduct. All new members must complete a basic skills course requirement within the first year of practice that emphasizes professionalism and ethics. In addition, an Ethics Hotline provides guidance for lawyers regarding dilemmas unique to the profession and written ethics advisory opinions may also be requested. Also, recognizing that many practicing lawyers lack fundamental training in business and practice management principles, The Florida Bar Practice Resource Institute (PRI) provides advice, assistance and support to members of The Florida Bar through a variety of services.
10. Does The Florida Bar take action against judges and elected officials? Does it try to prevent admission of applicants who are not fit to practice law?
No. The Florida Bar’s jurisdiction is limited to attorneys who practice law in Florida. The Florida Board of Bar Examiners, an administrative agency of The Supreme Court, is the admissions authority. The Judicial Qualifications Commission oversees the conduct of judges, and constitutional officers may be sanctioned by the executive branch or other entities such as the Florida Ethics Commission.