Revisiting Professionalism Standards: There’s No Better Time Than the Present
It can be easy for lawyers to describe what it means to practice with professionalism. Usually, we can simply describe the conduct of the lawyers we most admire — the most effective lawyers we deal with. But putting those demonstrated behavioral standards into practice across our profession has proven to be more challenging. I believe the time has come for our Bar to once again act systematically to address our ongoing behavioral challenges.
During the upcoming Bar year, when I will be privileged to serve as your president, I plan to shine a spotlight on lawyer professionalism and ethics issues, topics I have taken an interest in during my years in Bar service and on which I campaigned for election to office.
In the January 2021 Florida Bar membership survey, nearly one-third of responding members said the most serious problem facing our profession today is a lack of ethics and professionalism. This response caught my attention. Over the years, in previous Bar surveys, our members put this issue near the top of the list but never at the top. We all know that practicing law is difficult enough without the added burden of dealing with unprofessional opposing counsel. And most of us know intuitively that unprofessional conduct diminishes us in the eyes of the public we strive to serve. It’s time for a comprehensive approach to address these concerns.
Toward that end, I’ve created a special committee comprised of diverse Bar members from across the state who will bring to the table a wide range of experience in ethics, professionalism, lawyer discipline issues, and lawyer effectiveness. The committee will look comprehensively at the following three general areas of concern and make recommendations to the Board of Governors and, hopefully, to our Florida Supreme Court, for improvements:
1) How we define professionalism. Are the integrated standards of professional conduct, which the Supreme Court adopted in 2013 and 2015, in need of modification? These integrated standards include the Oath of Office, the Professionalism Expectations, the Creed of Professionalism, the Rules Regulating The Florida Bar, and decisions of the Supreme Court on ethics and professionalism issues.
2) How and when we teach professionalism. New lawyers are required to take a “Practicing with Professionalism” course when they are admitted, but after that, Bar members must have only one hour of professionalism CLE every three years. Is that enough or should we require something more comprehensive for lawyers throughout their careers? Should there be more systematic instruction at the 5-year, 10-year, 20-year marks, and later, in our careers?
3) The way we enforce professionalism standards. The chief judge in each circuit has been ordered by the Supreme Court to establish a local professionalism panel (LPP) to address professionalism complaints, but can we make the LPPs more robust as an enforcement mechanism? Could there be other methods to enforce professionalism standards outside the LPPs and the discipline system?
Our latest Bar survey results show that these are timely questions. Some say these questions have been made even more timely by the COVID-19 protocols that have forced us all into new modes of how we practice. Yet not since 2015 has there been a major structural change in the standards and methods of enforcement of professional conduct.
I believe we can make a difference in this. We can improve how we behave, thereby lowering one source of stress in the practice of law and at the same time improving how the public perceives us. I hope in the upcoming year you will follow the work of the special committee on professionalism and be ready to consider its recommendations with an open mind.