The Florida Bar

Florida Bar Journal

A Rising Tide Raises All Ships

President's Page

Photo of John M. Stewart

In my speech at the General Assembly at the Bar’s Annual Convention, and in my first President’s Page, I discussed the waves of change currently affecting the legal marketplace. These changes are part of a natural evolution that, at times, feels unnatural simply because the pace of change is not in tempo with the evolutionary cycles previously affecting our profession. I discussed our responsibility in protecting the public and benefiting our members, which means that we must be the architects of this change while protecting the core fundamental values of our profession.

Since its establishment 70 years ago, The Florida Bar has been a trusted, reputable, and financially sound organization that has served the people of Florida and its members well. The Bar historically has been a national leader when it comes to applying innovations to meet the demands of the profession and the needs of clients. The unified Bar, under the active oversight and management of the Florida Supreme Court, understands the profession better than anyone else. We have always been trailblazers, and we’re now forging ahead with a critical mission: To facilitate the profession’s evolution.

Through mandatory membership, The Florida Bar effectively and efficiently unites diverse attorneys across the state in a shared mission to ensure high ethical and educational standards, consistent lawyer regulation, advocacy for a well-funded judicial branch, and the promotion of access to justice for all.

As we approach the 70th anniversary of the first meeting of our now 107,000-member Bar, we can’t simply look back with satisfaction and pride at our accomplishments, but must instead look forward to designing an architectural plan for this evolution.

Part of this plan includes making sure Florida citizens who need lawyers and lawyers who need work get connected. Every resident of Florida should have access to the legal system, and we know that a person’s access is enhanced by the assistance of a qualified lawyer. But Floridians often encounter difficulty in identifying and locating lawyers who are willing and qualified to consult with them about their legal needs. This necessary connectivity is greatly enhanced through the Bar’s Lawyer Referral Service, which now uses artificial intelligence to instantly connect users from their computer or mobile devices with participating Florida Bar members for any legal situation. It is a system that is easily navigable by lawyers and consumers alike, with potential clients being connected to lawyers with no charge for that initial contact. Moreover, this program is yielding excellent results. In the first six months, more than 25,000 requests resulting in more than 1,000 engagements has generated more than $1.185 million in attorneys’ fees.

While we can be proud of past accomplishments and substantial improvements to existing programs, we must not simply improve on past successes. We must also look forward to a construct that assures access to justice for all while designing the regulatory framework to guarantee those services meet the standards Florida citizens have come to expect.

There is a value proposition and, frankly, a responsibility for The Florida Bar to work through collaborations with other industry professionals and technology service providers so that Florida’s citizens legal needs can be met. This includes a myriad of possibilities open to discussion and study.

For years, we have had in place the enormously successful Florida Registered Paralegal program. And now, the Florida Supreme Court Commission on Access to Civil Justice is working on a possible iteration of that program whereby an advanced registration could allow qualified paralegals to meet additional needs of Florida’s citizens under the supervision of a Florida lawyer. In turn, that would free the lawyer to focus on high-level legal work.

Another area that Florida Bar leaders are discussing is taking a serious look at the regulation of online legal service providers and others appearing in the legal ecosystem. To help close the access to justice gap and increase work for lawyers, we must study the regulation of legal services in such a way as to promote appropriate collaborations and innovations while recognizing that not every legal service can or should be provided by a lawyer. Carefully controlled pilot programs could be used to test innovative legal service models and delivery systems and to collect data to assure we are always vigilant in protecting the public and the profession’s traditional core values.

So, why must we take these actions? Why must we design the profession’s future now? Why must we think in nontraditional ways? First, as an arm of the Florida Supreme Court, we have a constitutional responsibility to work toward access to justice for all. Second, as the title of this president’s page makes clear, a rising tide raises all ships. The United States legal services market is estimated to be about $437 billion. Conservatively, 80% of households that can afford legal services and have legal problems do not seek legal assistance; more than 10 million small businesses do not consider hiring an attorney for a significant legal event; and those two factors alone add about $100 billion of annual revenue to the U.S. legal market.

This rising tide is a unique opportunity to elevate our practices, use a growth mindset along with technology and proper regulation of the broader legal services market to increase access for Florida’s citizens, to deliver more work to Florida’s attorneys, and to provide the invaluable service of protecting the public through a reasonable broader scope of regulatory authority.

Only a single organization like The Florida Bar can ensure uniform high standards, effective broad-based regulation, and cohesive advocacy for the third branch. We can meet challenges head-on and provide innovative solutions because of the expertise, scope, and resources available. Our Bar has been a leader of change for 70 years — now is not the time to try to stop the tide, but to rise with it.