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Town halls, task force to focus on COVID recovery

Senior Editor News in Photos

Join President Foster-Morales in a discussion on how Florida attorneys are coping during the pandemic and what the Bar can do to assist members in their legal practice and beyond

Virtual Town Hall Meetings

Following up on her inaugural address pledge to focus on rebuilding and listen to member concerns, Florida Bar President Dori Foster-Morales is planning a series of virtual town hall forums regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We don’t know what we don’t know,” Foster-Morales said. “Every jurisdiction is different, and we’re going to get feedback. We need to collect some data points.”

Beginning in August, Foster-Morales will lead panels of Bar leaders, judges, and local affiliate members in virtual forums in each of Florida’s 20 judicial circuits. Bar members are able to view schedules and registration information on the Bar website at www.floridabar.org/virtualtownhalls.

Member concerns and ideas will be collected and forwarded to the board’s COVID-19 Pandemic Recovery Task Force, Foster-Morales said.

“I think that people are looking for direction, and The Florida Bar really needs to give it,” Foster-Morales said. “This is going to be a committee that is going to be there to help our members.”

Chaired by President-elect Michael Tanner, the 13-member panel’s mission statement is to “study the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Florida’s legal profession, identify key issues facing citizens of Florida and Florida Bar members, and advise The Florida Bar president and executive director on how to best address the key issues.”

At the task force’s first meeting on July 15, Tanner said the panel will not function like a traditional Bar task force that studies a narrow issue and develops a white paper.

“We’re going to have to be more flexible than that,” Tanner said. “One of our over arching goals is to identify specific, tangible benefits for members to deal with COVID-19.”

Mike TannerFor example, Tanner said, the task force could help expedite proposed amendments to the Rules of Civil Procedure that may be necessary to facilitate whatever the Supreme Court learns from an ongoing experiment with remote jury trials.

Task force member Sia Baker-Barnes, who is also a board member, said many lawyers are struggling with school closures and child-care issues.

“We’re having the same discussion in our firm,” she said, adding that managers have discussed the possibility of helping firm members obtain tutors.

Tanner gave task force members until July 24 to compile and submit a series of recommendations.

Joining Foster-Morales on the town hall panels will be board member Renée Thompson, who represents the Fifth Judicial Circuit.

An Ocala mediator and former Young Lawyers Division president, Thompson is the immediate past chair of the Board Technology Committee and an adjunct professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law, where she specializes in practice management and technology.

Thompson said the forums are designed, in part, to gauge member concerns regarding the health crisis and to highlight the resources, including webinars and CLEs, that the Bar offers.

“Our president’s hope is to have an active conversation with our Bar members about how the pandemic has affected the practice of law in the state of Florida and to talk about recovery and relief resources, to really get some feedback on what the Bar can do to help our membership, and really just to hear from our members about how they are doing,” Thompson said.

The first town hall is set for 11th Circuit on August 5 from noon to 1 p.m.

The COVID-19 pandemic is surging, with Florida surpassing 300,000 cases on July 15, and reporting an average of 100 deaths per day. The economic fallout has thrown hundreds of thousands of Floridians out of work.

In March, when Chief Justice Charles Canady suspended jury trials and ordered the courts to switch to mostly remote proceedings, scores of Florida lawyers closed their offices and began working from home.

Renee ThompsonThe results of a recent Florida Bar membership survey suggest that much of Florida’s legal community — thanks in large measure, Thompson said, to Chief Justice Canady’s rigorous promotion of remote hearings — is weathering the storm, with varying degrees of success.

“I really think Florida has been ahead of the curve on the technology front, and our Florida Supreme Court did a remarkable favor, if you will, in trying to get all of our judiciary up and running on Zoom very early to allow for remote proceedings,” Thompson said. “So they have really been at the forefront from a technology standpoint.”

Eleventh Circuit Chief Judge Bertila Soto recently reported conducting more than 32,000 Zoom hearings between March 31 and June 30 in Miami-Dade County alone. The 11th Circuit recently participated in a remote jury trial pilot program that Chief Justice Canady authorized in five of Florida’s 20 circuits. The pilot circuits have until October 2 to report their findings.

The 11th Circuit’s hybrid model combined remote jury selection with extensive use of social distancing and protective gear to conduct a non-binding jury trial that centered on an insurance dispute.

The Florida Bar survey suggests that the legal community is welcoming the technology boom.

A June 10 survey of 3,671 Florida Bar members that garnered 877 responses showed that 43% believe the pandemic has had a “slight degree” of impact on their practice area, and more than 36% believe it had a “great degree” of impact.

Another 21% reported that the pandemic has had no impact on their practice area.

The same survey showed that 79% of respondents were working at least partially from home, while nearly 65% were working at least partially from their offices.

The survey confirms that the pandemic is affecting lawyer income, but in different ways.

Some 40% of respondents reported that their firms have implemented or considered a travel freeze. Another 33% report either considering or implementing a hiring freeze, or a delay or elimination of lawyer salary increases and/or bonuses.

More than one-third of respondents, 35%, reported that their weekly billable hours have decreased in the past two months, compared to 12% who reported an increase in weekly billable hours.

About one-third, 30%, reported no change in weekly billable hours.

Thompson said some lawyers are seeing their business flourish while others are facing an economic drought.

“There are some areas of practice that are very concerning to me,” she said. “If you are a criminal attorney right now, your practice area has most likely come to a screeching halt.”

Stress levels in the profession are climbing, Thompson said, especially with schools closed and lawyers working late into the night to compensate for a day spent teaching or caring for young children.

“They’re not getting a lot of sleep, to be honest,” Thompson said. “They’re working as attorneys, and their spouses are working, and they are playing teacher and trying to manage a household and manage children.”

Concerned about the psychological toll, Foster-Morales and former President John Stewart in June accelerated the launch of the Florida Lawyers Helpline, a confidential, toll-free line staffed by mental-health professionals who serve as a gateway to free mental-health counseling, financial counseling, elder and child-care services, and a host of other resources (833-FL1-WELL).

Not surprisingly, 40% of survey respondents cited the closure of the courts as one of the biggest challenges wrought by the pandemic.

Thompson said the Board Technology Committee is focusing on a frustration that remote hearings tend to highlight. Not all circuits, or counties within circuits, use the same technological protocols, and technical requirements differ for such things as submitting evidence.

The survey suggests that Bar members want remote technology to be a permanent feature of the Florida court system.

Nearly three-quarters, 73%, recommended that proceedings continue to be held remotely when “Florida courts return to normal operations and COVID-19 no longer represents a significant risk to public health and safety.”

But a majority of the same respondents said they believe that remote proceedings should be only used “for limited proceedings and cases.”

The town hall forums will stress the resources the Bar has to offer when it comes to adjusting to the new normal, Thompson said.

“The Bar has put on a number of CLEs, there are a great amount of practice resources available to help with technology,” she said. “I think the Bar has been responsive, and I think it will help the state, and I think that’s what Dori wants.”

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