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Board to discuss online legal services providers July 19

Senior Editor Top Stories

John M. StewartWhen it convenes July 19 in Key Largo, the Board of Governors is expected to debate a novel proposal for registering online legal services providers.

Fresh from his June 28 swearing-in ceremony at the Annual Convention, President John Stewart is expected to present an amendment to Florida Bar Rules that would, among other things, create “Chapter 23, Registered Service Provider Program.”

Approved by the Special Committee on Technologies Affecting the Practice of Law, which Stewart chaired, the program is designed to strengthen protection and expand economic opportunity for Bar members while promoting cooperative relationships with unregulated providers.

The proposal was noticed to Bar members on April 15, appeared on first reading at the board’s May meeting, and is up for final board action. It would still require approval by the Supreme Court.

Under the proposal, companies would be allowed to promote themselves as “Registered with The Florida Bar” if they agree to comply with certain Bar regulations. Stewart stresses that the program would be voluntary.

“The short version is we feel like these companies aren’t going away, they exist largely in an unregulated space, and they probably serve a useful purpose for certain consumers,” he said. “We think that to protect the public, they should be regulated at some modest level and we think that we’re the entity to do that.”

In other business, the board is expected to debate a request for an ethics advisory opinion regarding the approximately 150 lawyers in Florida who serve as Guardians ad Litem in child dependency and parental termination matters.

The issue traces its roots to a long- standing debate over whether every child in Florida should have the right to an attorney.

A member of the Committee on Child and Parent Representation requested an advisory ethics opinion on whether certain aspects of the Guardian Ad Litem Program violate the Rules of Professional Conduct. Critics of the program claim that GAL attorneys, who sometimes make recommendations to the court that go against a child’s wishes, have an inherent conflict of interest.

GAL Program administrators oppose the request for an advisory opinion. They contend that the GAL’s role, as defined by statute, is to represent the best interest of the child, and is therefore different than the traditional attorney-client relationship. The Board Review Committee on Professional Ethics has debated the request over the course of three meetings, heard from advocates for both sides, and received numerous written comments.

According to Bar rules, the Board of Governors may render an advisory ethics opinion only “when the Board of Governors determines that the application of the Rules of Professional Conduct to a particular set of facts is likely to be of widespread interest or unusual importance to a significant number of Florida Bar members.” Opponents of the request point out that GAL attorneys make up approximately. 0015% of all Florida Bar members.

The BRCPE is scheduled to vote on a recommendation at its July 18 meeting in Key Largo, a day before the board meeting.

In other matters, the board is expected to:

• Receive a report on the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice from Commission Executive Committee Chair Greg Coleman, a former Bar president.

• Decide an advertising appeal from a Bar member who claims Bar rules discriminate against women who hyphenate their names after marriage.