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Committee explores ‘legal labs’ to test new ideas for the delivery of legal services

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John Stewart

John Stewart

The Special Committee to Improve the Delivery of Legal Services got its first look at an initial draft of a “legal lab” concept, where new ideas and pilot programs for delivery of legal services could be tested using provisional rules and data collected on the results.

Meeting via Zoom on April 20, Chair John Stewart stressed the draft is very preliminary and most likely will change substantially after the committee has a chance to review it, submit questions, and offer revisions.

“There is a lot of work to do and a lot of details to be filled in,” Stewart said. “But this is a good start, just to get us talking.”

The draft describes the legal lab as “a policy structure that creates a controlled environment in which new consumer-centered innovations, which may be impermissible under current regulations, can be piloted and evaluated. The goal is to allow regulators and aspiring innovators to develop new offerings that could benefit the public, validate them with the public, and understand how current regulations might need to be selectively or permanently relaxed to permit these and other innovations.”

It’s envisioned, Stewart said, the legal lab would be overseen by a Supreme Court created and appointed commission that would allow persons or entities that are not currently authorized to practice law to practice in a limited capacity by making application to this commission.

“We believe the court has the authority to do that,” Stewart said. The application process would involve a person or entity going before the commission to explain their concept and detail why it can’t be done under the current regulatory framework.

“Those would be evaluated by the commission to value the risk of harming the public — which is the court’s primary concern — versus if the risk is modest adding, hopefully, alternative services that the public can take advantage of that aren’t currently being provided,” said Stewart, adding none of this prevents lawyers or law firms from using the lab as well. “This just theoretically provides another avenue for it to happen.”

Stewart said if the lab concept is ultimately recommended to and approved by the Supreme Court, he would like to see the program delegated to the Bar to operate with final authority remaining with the court.

The draft legal lab concept is posted on the special committee’s page on the Bar’s website. The 10-member committee will submit questions and revision about the draft legal lab plan, which is patterned on a similar effort in Utah, and will take it up again when it meets in early May. Stewart said he will also try to arrange for Utah officials to attend that meeting to answer questions about how their lab works and the types of proposals coming before it.

The committee was created in 2019 at the direction of the Florida Supreme Court to examine national trends in delivering legal services, with an eye to improving access, protecting consumers, and maintaining lawyer involvement. Specific areas of inquiry identified by the court include lawyer advertising, referral fees, fee splitting, online service providers, and nonlawyer providers of limited legal services.

The special committee’s final report is due to the Supreme Court and The Florida Bar Board of Governors on July 1. There are no members of the Board of Governors on the special committee.

More information about the committee, including reports on legal reform it has compiled from around the country and Great Britain, can be found on its webpage.

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