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Board discusses pandemic recovery efforts, rules, and discipline matters at October 23 meeting

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BOG SealAt an October 23 meeting, the Board of Governors, among other things, received updates on COVID-19 recovery efforts and the upcoming legislative session, weighed rule changes, and created a “Special Committee on Lawyer Discipline.”

Meeting via video conference, the board listened to COVID-19 Pandemic Recovery Task Force and the Board Technology Committee reports on the status of projects designed to help members navigate the pandemic and its economic fallout.

“We feel like we’ve accomplished a lot, but we have much more work to go,” said task force Chair Michael Tanner.

“All of our work is not going to be for naught, even [when] the pandemic is over,” said Board Technology Committee Chair Jay Kim.

Combined, the chairs detailed projects that include:

• The creation of a new COVID-19 Information and Resources webpage;

• The addition of financial services to the Member Benefits Program;

• Strategies for dealing with a projected 990,000-case court backlog;

• Promoting a Supreme Court remote civil jury pilot program; and

• A nearly completed set of best practices for making remote proceedings more uniform.

Town Halls

President Dori Foster-Morales hinted that future Bar leaders may repeat her series of “Virtual Town Halls,” but not as aggressively as she did when she hosted forums in each of Florida’s 20 judicial circuits over a 50-day period.

“What a huge effort,” she said. “It’s given us a lot of great results, and I think it will yield a lot of goodwill in the community.”

The effort drew 2,581 participants and included 20 board members, 146 panelists, 37 judges, 79 voluntary bar representatives, 50 Young Lawyers Division board members, and three trial court administrators.

The Legislature

In the Legislature, incoming House and Senate leaders have signaled their willingness to continue working cooperatively with the Supreme Court and Bar leaders to help the third branch recover from the pandemic, Foster-Morales said.

“They really have us out in front, and I think that’s terrific,” she said.

The next important milestone arrives in December, when House and Senate leaders announce committee chairs, convene interim committee meetings, and begin crafting a plan for dealing with a revenue shortfall that could top $3.4 billion, said the Bar’s veteran legislative consultant, Jim Daughton.

“It’s all about the budget right now,” he said.

Solid Numbers

Meanwhile, the Bar’s financial outlook remains solid, board members were assured.

The Bar’s Long-Term Fund remains strong, thanks to a risk-averse strategy, Investment Committee Chair Ian Comisky reported.

“We maintain discipline to make sure we get the best performance we can for the Bar,” Comisky said.

The board approved a financial advisor’s recommendation to amend the Investment Policy statement. The move would adjust asset allocations more in favor of domestic than foreign markets, Comisky said.

“These changes are suggested to ensure the policy will conservatively optimize expected performance for the next seven to 10 years,” according to a staff analysis.

Communications Committee Chair Steve Davis reported that the board will be asked in December to approve a new plan to expand commercial advertising on the Bar website.

Approximately 10 of the nation’s 30 mandatory bars do the same, Davis said.

“It’s a way of generating nearly $300,000 in non-dues revenues, going forward,” he said. “That is something that could really help us from a revenue standpoint, and take advantage of the significant traffic that we have on the website.”

The board voted to approve going ahead with $561,000 in needed capital improvement projects to the Bar’s headquarters in Tallahassee that were approved for the FY 2019-2020 budget but delayed because of weather or other reasons.

The previously approved projects included $111,000 to replace windows and another $150,000 for a subterranean reseal of leaking basement walls. Another $300,000 would pay for a main electrical switch gear. The money came from a fixed asset fund, not the Bar’s operating budget.

New Discipline Matters Committee

Program Evaluation Committee Chair Brian Burgoon told board members that the committee voted 19-0 the day before to recommend the creation of a “Special Committee on the Examination of the Process and Procedures for Judicial Referrals of Discipline Matters to The Florida Bar.”

“This was requested by President Dori Foster-Morales,” Burgoon said. “The description of the committee is fairly simple, the mission of the committee is fairly simple.”

According to a staff analysis, the 10-member panel will consist mainly of board members and conclude in June 2021.

The special committee’s mission would be “to thoroughly examine the most effective and efficient process for addressing judicial referrals of discipline matters to The Florida Bar,” according to the analysis.

The board voted, with one objection, to approve the proposal.

In another matter, the board voted to reverse a Standing Committee on Advertising decision that statements made in a Northwest Florida law firm’s infomercial featuring a book about personal injury were impermissible.

The committee had determined that some statements in the infomercial violated Rule 4-7.13(b)(3), which prohibits advertisements from using “words and phrases that characterize a lawyer’s or law firm’s skills, experience, reputation or record, unless such characterization is objectively verifiable.”

But the board agreed that because the statements were qualitative statements about the content of a book, not a lawyer or legal services, that the finding should be reversed.

Other Action

In other action, the board voted 21-18 not to recommend accepting a series of amendments by the Rules of Judicial Administration Committee that have been under consideration for approximately three years.

According to a staff analysis, the proposal is designed to “keep up with the electronic filing, electronic documents, and electronic services technology that are now before the Court in In re: Amendments to Florida Rules of Judicial Administration and Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.020 – Electronic Filing and Service, SC19-2163.”

Board member Laird Lile said the package doesn’t fully address concerns expressed in 10 comments that were submitted after the proposal was publicly noticed.

“There are concerns that I have about this process, and about the paucity of changes that had come from the numerous comments that were received,” Lile said.

Lile said the committee did not consider recommendations from commenters that would have eliminated burdensome filing requirements.

“It’s going to be a huge waste of time for our lawyers, it’s going to cost our clients,” he said.

RJA Chair Michael Korn, who presented the package to the board, said the comments and proposed changes were too numerous to describe at the meeting.

“The comments were certainly discussed,” he said. “Short of going through each rule and describing each thought…we would be happy to provide all of our minutes and perhaps that would give the board some additional perspective.”

Lile said the package would be forwarded to the Supreme Court regardless of the board’s vote.

“I think these changes aren’t enough, and it will help the court understand these process issues,” he said.

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