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Bar discipline system subject of UF law course

Senior Editor News in Photos
Scott Westheimer and Brian Burgoon

Scott Westheimer and Brian Burgoon

Two Bar Board of Governors members have just finished teaching an intensive, one-week course for University of Florida law students on The Florida Bar’s grievance system.

Twelfth Circuit board member Scott Westheimer and Out-of-State board member Brian Burgoon, both members of the University of Florida Levin College of Law Board of Trustees, were the adjunct professors for the course, which was among the offerings for the one-week, “compressed” pre-spring-semester courses at the law school.

Law students can pick a class during that week for intensive classroom and study work, and pick up a credit toward their graduation.

“Our goal of the course was to provide an in-depth look at how Florida Bar discipline works at every stage,” Burgoon said.

“In law school, classes teach professional responsibility, which is a multi-state class,” Westheimer added. “There is no specific Florida discipline class. We gave the students. . . a look at how the system works, the participants, the process, the procedures, and the sanctions.

“We also drilled down on some common problems and gave common-sense advice on how not to violate the rules,” he said.

Westheimer and Burgoon, who both earned their undergraduate and law degrees from UF, were drawn to share their experiences as long-time members of the Board of Governors Disciplinary Review Committee. Westheimer is the current chair, while Burgoon has been chair or co-chair five times.

The 18-page syllabus outlined the rigors of the course, including that students could expect to spend two hours reading for each of the 14 hours of class time (although the syllabus and reading list was released a few weeks ahead of the class, which ran from January 11 through January 15). The class met for three hours a day on January 11-14 and two hours on January 15.

The reading list included Bar rules on professional conduct, trust accounts, and disciplinary rules; Florida Standards for Imposing Lawyer Sanctions; Board of Governors’ Standing Board Policies on handling grievances; Bar rules on grievance mediation and fee arbitration; numerous Supreme Court opinions in grievance cases; reports from grievance referees; and resources on the Bar’s website, including on LegalFuel. Cases covered included those for relatively minor trust accounting infractions to a high-profile case that saw three lawyers permanently disbarred for a scheme to entrap an opposing counsel in a DUI arrest.

Burgoon and Westheimer also brought in speakers: Bar Ethics Counsel Elizabeth Tarbert; Bar Tampa Branch Chief Discipline Counsel Sheila Tuma; Board of Governors member Tad Yates who is also a former chair of a circuit grievance committee; former board member Warren Lindsey who defends lawyers in grievance cases; and Supreme Court Justice Alan Lawson who provided perspective on how the Supreme Court handles and views grievance cases.

“It’s not often students get a chance to interact with a Supreme Court justice and I think students got a lot out of that,” Burgoon said.

As for the cases, “We tried to get some cases that had a substantial number of facts and potential grey areas to let the students see and analyze the cases from the perspective of how they might approach it if they were the Bar prosecutors and how they might approach it if they were defense counsel,” he added.

“It was an amazing experience to have this many experts,” Westheimer said. “With Justice Lawson, they were able to see what the Supreme Court does on cases.”

Although both had lectured at CLE seminars, this was the first time in charge of a classroom for Westheimer and Burgoon. Both said it gave them an appreciation for the preparation done by their former law instructors.

“I have a newfound respect for professors who have to put together a new lesson every day and lecture for hours,” Westheimer said.

They also praised UF for its preparations to conduct a class at the height of the COVID-pandemic. Students had a choice to attend in person (with plexiglass shields around desks, masks, and social distancing), or virtually. Two students were in the classroom, and the other five appeared on screens where all were visible to Burgoon and Westheimer. Three of the class guest speakers appeared virtually while two, including Lawson, appeared in person.

“It was an extremely rewarding experience for us,” Burgoon said. “We got a lot out of it and just really appreciate all the support the college of law administration gave us. It was encouraging to interact with the really, really bright students that we have at the University of Florida College of Law.

“The most fun part of it was engaging with the students and seeing how interested they were in the topic and how they analyzed issues.”

Ali Sackett, director of the Bar’s Legal Division which oversees the grievance process, worked with Westheimer and Burgoon on the course and praised its goals.

“Providing education about the discipline process, which includes examples of real-life experiences about how the Rules Regulating The Florida Bar are implemented, is invaluable,” she said, adding the course went beyond theoretical approaches common in many law courses. “Offering these types of classes is helpful to expose students to how ethical violations impact the profession and lawyers’ ability to practice. Additionally, the more we educate, hopefully the more informed new lawyers become and the less we will see in lawyer regulation.”

While not everyone can attend such a class at the law school, Westheimer said lawyers who want more information about the grievance process should check out Burgoon’s article in the January/February Florida Bar Journal, “Florida’s Lawyer Discipline System: What Every Attorney Needs to Know.”

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