The Florida Bar

Florida Bar Journal

At a Lookout Point

President's Page

Photo of John M. StewartIn life and in law, change can occur suddenly like a tidal wave that crashes onto the shore or can happen over time as the waters that carved the Grand Canyon. When it comes to the legal profession, The Florida Bar stands at a lookout point over the seas of change, watching from an advantageous position for signs of major developments as they roll in. Through vigilance, we can be ready to respond to, and be prepared for, the future.

Technology has been a leading force in dramatically altering the way we practice. Highly lucrative and competitive alternative legal service providers have entered the online marketplace. According to the Florida Supreme Court’s Commission on Access to Civil Justice — which was set up to study the unmet civil legal needs of disadvantaged and low- and moderate-income Floridians — people are downloading forms from the internet at a higher rate than ever before to handle their own legal matters. Lawyers are constantly under pressure to remain afloat amid these powerful market forces. So how does the Bar step into the picture? The Bar has always been steadfast in its reputable and effective regulation of lawyers since the 1950s, but will we witness broader and different regulatory models in the future?

The technological innovations and changes within the legal marketplace initially hit the profession like a tsunami. While much of the water from that initial wave receded, smaller inlets remained that over time have carved broader more permanent pathways into the legal marketplace. To date, there has been no regulatory body that has channeled these technological waters into pathways that protect the public while at the same time benefiting the profession and fostering much needed innovation.

The Florida Bar Board of Governors just recently, and cautiously, dipped its toe in the waters of regulatory reform by passing a new chapter of the Rules Regulating The Florida Bar titled, the “Registered Online Service Provider Program.” This program allows for the voluntary registration of qualified online legal service providers to assure greater access to legal services as well as greater protection of the public. The reality of The Florida Bar, under the auspices of the Florida Supreme Court, regulating persons or entities other than lawyers has precedent in the voluntary regulation of paralegals through the Florida Registered Paralegal Program.

The changing legal marketplace needs a unified regulatory framework. The Bar (or we) must look at the regulation of the practice of law to see if changes can benefit both Florida consumers and Florida lawyers. While we hope that consumers will use Florida lawyers for their legal matters, we know that consumers are turning to alternatives when seeking help. We also know the citizens that need legal services who choose not to hire a lawyer need the same or similar protections as those who do. To close the access-to-justice gap, regulatory changes that remove barriers to innovation in the delivery of legal services, protect consumers, and encourage the use of Florida lawyers should be the goal.

The access-to-justice challenge impacts consumers seeking justice and underemployed lawyers. The problem exists across the United States, including here in Florida. Can steps be taken toward new ethics rules that would allow for greater opportunities for Florida lawyers? Could regulation of nontraditional legal entities, like companies that offer online legal services, be in Florida’s future? Could an alternative framework of regulation become appropriate for Florida?

These are all questions worth asking, because the future is right around the corner. In the words of the Utah Supreme Court, bridging the access-to-justice gap is no easy undertaking. We know there are plenty of lawyers who are scrambling to maintain their competitive edge. As an arm of the Florida Supreme Court, the discussion about reforming Florida’s regulatory model to benefit our members and protect the public is worth having. But reform requires vigilance, imagination, and determination. The demands of the future need to be met, and we must assure that Florida is at the forefront of shaping the waters’ path to meet those demands.