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Board of Governors sets stout agenda for March 5 meeting

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Joseph “Jody” Hudgins

Joseph “Jody” Hudgins

When it convenes March 5 via videoconference, the Board of Governors will weigh a host of issues, from new member benefits and an advertising challenge, to a proposed rule change that could generate significant income for the Bar Foundation.

The latter was suggested by public member Joseph “Jody” Hudgins — a Sarasota banker — and is contained in a Disciplinary Procedures Committee proposal to amend Rule 5-5.1 Trust Accounts.

The proposed changes to subdivision (g) Interest on Trust Accounts (IOTA) Program, would require eligible financial institutions to provide a minimum interest rate for IOTA accounts and tie the minimum rate to specific indexed rate points.

At an interim board meeting in November, Hudgins, who is also a Foundation board member, said that most lawyers have become oblivious to the interest rates being paid on their IOTA accounts.

“Why are banks paying such a low fee? Because we can. Why can we pay such a low fee? Because you guys don’t ask. Why don’t you ask? Because it really doesn’t have any economic effect on your practice of law or on your well-being,” he said. “It has a tremendous effect on the access to justice for the low-to-moderate income folks around Florida who need access to justice.”

The proposed rule change would set the minimum interest rate on IOTA accounts at 25 basis points [the current rate averages 11 basis points] and allow it to rise when interest rates increase.

Hudgins noted that every extra basis point paid on IOTA accounts yields an extra $670,000 for the Foundation and its grant programs.

In other action, the board is expected to review a Standing Committee on Advertising decision that a Palm Coast area lawyer’s website that prominently displayed “500” is “merely a URL and not being used as a trade name, where the firm’s name…appears in a disclaimer at the bottom of the page.”

When the lawyer voluntarily submitted the webpage for review in October 2020, Bar staff concluded that the page did not comply with Rule 4-7.21 (c), which requires, among other things, that if a lawyer advertises under a trade name, it must be the name the lawyer practices under “including on letterhead, business cards, office signage, together with the lawyer’s signature on pleadings and the like.”

The committee voted 9-3 on January 14 to overturn the staff opinion. A board member has asked for a board review of the committee decision.

In an unrelated matter, the Board Review Committee on Professional Ethics is also expected to present, on first reading only, proposed amendments to advertising rules.

A proposed amendment to Rule 4-7.16 (Presumptively Valid Content) would expand that definition by adding social media contact information.

“Lawyers frequently add social media icons for Facebook or Twitter to their advertisements and, in electronic media, the icon also often contains a link to the lawyer’s social media site,” according to a staff analysis. The analysis goes on to state that as in a URL to a lawyer’s website, the information is “common and presumptively non-misleading.”

Also on first reading, the BRC is presenting a proposed amendment to Rule 4-7.13 (Deceptive and Inherently Misleading Advertisements). The proposed change would give advertising lawyers more discretion to decide whether to post, and how to state, a disclaimer when using actors to portray a person in an occupation or profession, or using a dramatization of an actual or fictitious event.

The Standing Committee on Advertising “has reviewed advertisements in which it was clear that an enactment was a dramatization or that actors were merely actors,” according to a staff analysis. “Requiring a disclaimer in those circumstances is unnecessary.”

The analysis adds that lawyers should “have some discretion to appropriately word disclaimers as long as the chosen disclaimer adequately addresses the circumstances.”

In other business, the board is also expected to weigh additions to the Member Benefits Program, as approved by the Member Benefits Committee at a January 14 meeting.

• Ally Bank digital home mortgage: Company material describes the service as “competitive pricing at all mortgage tiers for new and refinanced mortgage loans.” Florida Bar members are eligible for $500 off closing costs, and the Bar will receive non-fee revenue quarterly based on traffic on the co-branded Florida Bar and Ally landing page on the Member Benefits pages of The Florida Bar website.

• Axel Go private file sharing platform: According to company material, Axel Go is a private file-sharing platform supercharged by blockchain. “Axel Go helps attorneys comply with Professional Rules of Conduct by mitigating breaches and preventing the inadvertent or unauthorized disclosure of, or unauthorized access to, information relating to the representation of a client.” The company is offering complimentary access to AXEL Go “Basic” accounts and discounted access to higher tier subscription plans. Axel is offering promotional allowance non-fee revenue to The Florida Bar equivalent to 10% of subscription sales and will also provide an education component to Florida attorneys to assist in the development of best practices related to privacy and security.

• LawMatics Client Intake and Marketing CRM: Company material says the product helps lawyers with such things as the automation of any part of the intake and marketing process, online custom forms, email marketing, SMS/text messaging automation, e-signatures and document automation, as well as marketing analytics and custom reporting. LawMatics will offer Bar members a 20% discount on all LawMatics subscription pricing. The company will pay a quarterly marketing fee to the Member Benefits Program.

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