Board plans response to court’s Special Committee to Improve the Delivery of Legal Services report
Fee splitting, legal labs, non-lawyer firm ownership being reviewed
With a commitment from the Supreme Court that it will wait for the Board of Governors’ input, Bar President Mike Tanner laid out a process for the board’s response to the Special Committee to Improve the Delivery of Legal Services’ recent final report.
Tanner said he wants former Bar President John Stewart, chair of the special committee, and other committee members to explain their recommendations at special board meetings.
The special committee is recommending further study on creating a legal lab to test innovative ways of delivering legal services, allowing nonlawyer employees of law firms to have minority ownership interest in those firms, permitting lawyers to split fees with online companies that provide legal services, and allowing Florida Registered Paralegals to perform more services in a law office under lawyer supervision.
“I strongly believe it is our duty, as representatives of all of Florida’s lawyers, to thoughtfully study and discuss the special committee’s recommendations, vote as a board on our responses/comments to those recommendations, and communicate our responses and comments to the Florida Supreme Court so that it will have the benefit of our input when it takes up the recommendations,” Tanner told board members.
Tanner said he recently met with Chief Justice Charles Canady who said the court will wait to act on the special committee’s report until the board gives its input.
With that in mind, Tanner laid out how he wants the board to proceed. First, he said Stewart and other committee members will be invited to two or three special virtual board meetings “to walk us through his committee’s report and recommendations and to answer questions you might have about the report.”
Those meetings will likely be set for September and October.
Next, each board member should seek input from his or her constituents, and Tanner said the Bar will help board members setting up local town hall meetings, in sending out emails, and connecting with local voluntary bar groups in their respective circuits.
“The timing of when you undertake any such efforts is up to you; you may want to begin now or you may want to wait until after our virtual meetings with the special committee in September and October,” Tanner said.
To help get reactions from Bar members, Tanner said the Bar has set up a special email address, which is posted on the special committee’s Bar webpage.
“[A]fter we have heard from the Special Committee and obtained information from our members, we will take up each of the Special Committee’s recommendations at a virtual special meeting of the board in October or early November, discussing and voting on a comment for each recommendation,” Tanner said. “I will then send a letter to the Chief Justice outlining our thoughts as a board about each of the Special Committee’s recommendations.”
Tanner said the Bar will continue to educate Bar members about the report, noting that to date more than 20 Bar News articles have been published about the special committee’s work and shared on the Bar’s social media platforms.
He urged board members to read the final report, which was submitted to the court and the board on June 28, and share it with their constituents.
“The goal is that when the time comes to vote, each of us should know precisely what the recommendations are and what they are not. A further goal, just as important, is for each of us to be knowledgeable about the report when we speak to our members,” Tanner said.
The special committee was directed by the court in late 2019 to study how legal services to consumers could be improved with lawyers playing a “proper and prominent role in the provision of these services.” It was directed to look at lawyer advertising, referral fees, fee splitting, regulation of lawyers, regulation of online legal service providers and nonlawyer providers of limited legal services, and related matters
The special committee made several conceptual recommendations — which would require further work if the court assents — and one firm recommendation to create the legal lab. The lab would allow testing of new ways of providing legal services in a limited setting with close oversight and collection of data to measure the efficacy of the programs.
While the special committee recommended the lab be created, it submitted only a conceptual suggestion for how it would be organized, and which would require further work if the court likes the idea. The framework includes setting up the lab for at least three years initially to be run by a special commission reporting to the court.
Other conceptual recommendations, all of which would require further work, include:
• Allowing nonlawyer law firm employees whose work directly supports the firm to have an ownership interest in the firm. Lawyers would have to retain a majority ownership interest in the firm, the nonlawyer owners would be bound by Bar rules, and lawyer owners would be responsible for the actions of nonlawyer owners. The special committee opposed allowing non-firm employees — such as passive outside investors — to have an ownership interest.
• Testing within the proposed legal lab allowing lawyers to share fees with nonlawyers, such as with online companies providing legal services. That might also require some changes in how lawyer referral fees are paid.
• Testing, again within the legal lab, allowing “Florida Registered Paralegals to provide limited legal services in specific areas and within a law office.” Under the conceptual proposal, that would include filling out and filing legal forms, providing limited information about the client’s legal matter, and providing ministerial assistance on court proceedings, such as scheduling court appearances. The supervising attorney would be responsible for a paralegal’s work.
• Allowing nonprofit law firms, which would basically ratify the existing operation of many legal aid agencies.
• Streamlining Bar advertising rules, while keeping the basic purpose of preventing misleading and false advertising.
Aside from the conceptual recommendations, the special committee also called for improved education about Bar Rule 4-1.2(c), which allows limited scope representation by attorneys.
The special committee’s final report acknowledged its proposals are likely to be controversial, noting a recent Bar membership survey showed overwhelming opposition to nonlawyer ownership in firms and sharing fees with online companies providing legal services.
But the report also noted the continuing and overwhelming evidence that small businesses and most low and medium-income consumers cannot afford needed civil legal services.