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Board hears reports from special legal services panel and Access Commission

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John Stewart

John Stewart

The Board of Governors was briefed on the work of the Special Committee to Improve the Delivery of Legal Services and the Supreme Court’s Commission on Access to Civil Justice at its February 23 interim meeting.

The special committee, chaired by former Bar President John Stewart, was created a year ago by the Supreme Court and is charged with studying “whether and how the rules governing the practice of law in Florida may be revised to improve the delivery of legal services to Florida’s consumers and to assure Florida lawyers play a proper and prominent role in the provision of these services.”

Stewart told the board the court is staying abreast of national trends and directed the special committee to specifically examine lawyer advertising; fee sharing, including with nonlawyers; possible non-lawyer ownership in law firms; and the regulation of online non-lawyer providers of legal services. Its final report is due to the board and court by July 1.

Stewart said the court also has deferred consideration of proposed Chapter 23 of the Rules Regulating The Florida Bar, which could regulate nonlawyer online legal service providers.

The special committee, Stewart said, so far has made or is looking at four conceptual, tentative recommendations, which could change as the panel delves further into the need for possible rule changes and related issues:

• Following a District of Columbia model of allowing law firms to offer partnerships to non-lawyer employees who assist the firm in the practice of law. Passive ownership, such as from outside investors, would still be prohibited.

• Maintaining rules on solicitation and advertising, but allowing sharing fees with non-lawyers, such as online legal service providers, who are not otherwise non-lawyer partners of the firm.

• Simplifying — but not relaxing — advertising rules, including ending mandatory Bar review of lawyer ads that provide more than basic information. Optional reviews would still provide protection from grievance prosecution if the Bar found an ad compliant with rules.

• Considering a way to have pilot programs or otherwise limited testing of innovative regulations or programs that would be tightly regulated, collect data, and report to the board and the court on whether consumers’ access to the legal system improved and whether it had a negative impact on quality of legal work provided or eroded public protections.

Stewart said the special committee is struggling to balance a lack of data about proposed changes with the knowledge that the legal marketplace is rapidly evolving.

“I don’t think there is data out there to necessarily support each and every one of these conceptual changes,” Stewart said. “But in all candor, there is a wealth of data to show that what we are doing is not working.

“Change is happening, change is coming, this is not something to be afraid of. If there is going to be change, and I believe that’s inevitable, then we need to be the architects of that change.”

He also said he welcomed any communication between the board and the special committee as the work continues, and encouraged board members to review the information the special committee has collected, reviewed, and posted on its webpage.

Later in the meeting, the board unanimously approved a motion to appoint a liaison to the special committee to provide updates and information in preparation for the board’s receipt of the report.

Greg Coleman

Greg Coleman

Former Bar President Greg Coleman, chair of the Commission on Access to Civil Justice, reviewed the commission’s efforts to work with business partners to find innovative ways to improve legal access, studies it has conducted, and help it has received from the Young Lawyers Division, especially on creating self-help videos for pro se litigants. He noted that family law matters make up the overwhelming majority of the unmet need for legal services.

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