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Committee set to recommend legal lab for innovative legal services

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John Stewart

John Stewart

A proposal for a legal lab, where lawyers, companies, and other entities can offer innovative approaches to offering legal services, will be in the final recommendations of the Special Committee to Improve the Delivery of Legal Services.

The committee on June 10 voted 5-1 to include the idea of a legal lab, which has also been referred to as a regulatory sandbox, in its final report, which is due to be submitted to the Supreme Court and the Bar Board of Governors by July 1. Committee members have previously said they liked the idea of a lab in Florida, but the vote means it will almost certainly be in their final report.

The committee also heard the results of a Bar survey of Florida Registered Paralegals on whether an FRP should be allowed to provide more services to clients.

The panel is charged by the Supreme Court 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.”

Committee Chair and former Bar President John Stewart said the committee’s recommendation is not that the court finally approve a legal lab, but rather that it approve the idea with the nuts and bolts worked out once the court has indicated it is receptive to the idea.

“Our ask of the court is in part going to be to send this back to the committee, with the court’s tacit approval that they want to know what this would look like in all of the detail that would be necessary,” Stewart said. “This lab will require so much more detail that if the court decides it isn’t interested, we shouldn’t spend any more time on it.”

At the same time, the report should provide enough information that the court has an idea of how the program would work, he said.

Utah, Arizona, Great Britain, Canada, and other countries have approved similar legal labs. They allow lawyers, companies, and other entities to propose novel ways of providing legal services. If approved to be in the lab, any conflicting Bar rules would be waived in return for providing data on how the program operates and showing that consumers benefit and are protected from harm.

Committee members are still reviewing drafts and tweaking the proposal, Stewart said, but among the ideas so far:

• The court, if it approves the lab, should set up a special commission reporting to the court to oversee it.

• The lab should be initially approved for three years to allow enough time for its efforts to be evaluated.

• The commission should be housed and operated, under the court’s auspices, at the Bar, similar to the way the court delegates lawyer regulation to the Bar.

• The operation would be supported by application and licensing fees, although the Bar might have to provide initial staffing and office space support.

“The way the commission would work…is to allow anyone — it could be an existing law firm, it could be an individual, it could be a technology company, it could be an alternative business structure — to complete an application on what they want to put in the marketplace,” Stewart said.

That would include what Bar rules would have to be waived, protections for consumers, and how the service would work.

“The commission will make a recommendation on whether they should be approved or not approved to operate in the lab for a specific period of time,” Stewart said, with the final decision being made by the Supreme Court.

A key, he said, is any project approved would remain under the court’s jurisdiction both while it is in the lab and, if it is successful and approved, afterwards.

“Once a company or an individual or a law firm received a license to do this type of work…there is still a regulatory component that works through the commission, much like lawyer regulation works through the Bar,” Stewart said. “If you cause a certain level of public harm, you’re still under the regulation of the commission and you’re going to have your license revoked.”

Committee member Adriana Gonzalez cast the sole vote against recommending the legal lab.

She said it might attract nonlawyer entities to the most lucrative types of cases, such as personal injury, and leave others with legal needs underserved.

“I don’t know that Utah’s model [which the committee has extensively studied] has a good grasp on consumer harm,” she said. “This proposal is really broad on that as well….

“I have concerns about consumers, I have concerns about our private practices, and I have concerns this doesn’t really lead to access to justice.”

Stewart said there is no guarantee the lab will work, but he added the current system not only fails to meet the needs of the poor but also of the broad middle class of families and businesses.

“I don’t think anyone believes there’s no risk involved to anything we do,” said committee member Josias Dewey. “If we don’t take some risk, we’re never going to improve the access to the legal system for consumers….

“I think our approach is necessary if we’re going to find real solutions to some of these problems. As a profession, we’ve tried to address some of these things on the edge for decades and it’s not working.”

“If every attorney were required to do pro bono, that still wouldn’t fulfill the need,” said committee member Sarah Sullivan. “If every attorney donated money, that wouldn’t fulfill the legal services to meet the need. We need to look at other alternatives.”

Sullivan reported on a survey the committee conducted of Florida Registered Paralegals over the committee’s recommendation that the court consider — either as part of a legal lab supervised program or independent pilot — allowing paralegals to perform an extended scope of work for people who otherwise would not be able to get legal services.

Of those responding to the survey, 29% strongly favored the idea, 16% were somewhat favorable, 12% were neutral, 21% somewhat opposed the idea, and 9% were strongly opposed. Thirteen percent said they needed additional information.

Asked if such services would help clients, 37% said yes, 18% said no, 24% were unsure, and 21% said they needed more information. The survey can be found here.

Aside from the legal lab and paralegal issues, the committee is suggesting a streamlining of Bar advertising rules.

In response to a question, Stewart said the final report will be submitted simultaneously to the court and the Board of Governors, and board approval is not needed before it reaches the justices.

“We will submit our final report, as per the court’s letter [creating the special committee]…to the board and the court,” he said. “It’s going to go to both places and they will do with it independently as they see fit.”

The committee is scheduled to meet again June 17 and 24 to finish its report.