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Committee sets about its work to improve the delivery of legal services

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John StewartFinding innovative ways and regulations that provide more and affordable legal services for Floridians and more work for Florida lawyers, while protecting the core values of the profession, will be the priorities of the Special Committee to Improve the Delivery of Legal Services.

Chaired by outgoing Bar President John Stewart, the committee held its first meeting June 15 at the Bar’s Virtual Annual Convention, and members discussed how it should meet the Supreme Court-set goal of reviewing “the rules governing the practice of law to ensure that our regulation meets the needs of Floridians for legal services while also protecting against misconduct and maintaining the strength of Florida’s legal profession.”

Stewart said that means looking at ways both lawyers and nonlawyer entities provide legal services needed by Floridians — as long as the consumers are protected, and the Supreme Court maintains control over legal services.

“We’re getting more lawyers to more consumers and at the same time we’re getting more consumers the [legal] work they need while protecting them to ensure they’re getting quality work,” he said. “I’ve said many times to our members during the last year. . . to the extent we’re willing to do work, we should. We offer a better product than they can find out there in the marketplace for the kind of work that we do. But to the extent that we’re not willing to do certain work — and quite frankly, there is certain work that lawyers aren’t generally willing to do — if we say, ‘We’re not going to do it then nobody can do it,’ that’s not fair to the consumer.”

That other work also needs to be kept within the regulatory framework of the Bar and under the Supreme Court’s constitutional mandate to regulate the legal profession, he said.

In meeting those needs, Stewart also said he’s a big fan of pilot programs to try novel solutions.

Committee member Cesar Alvarez, senior chairman at Greenberg Traurig, said given the scope of the court’s directive, it’s important for the committee to think “strategically” rather than get too involved in detail.

In creating the committee, Chief Justice Charles Canady said it should look at “lawyer advertising; referral fees; fee splitting; entity regulation; regulation of online service providers; and regulation of nonlawyer providers of limited legal services. Additional topics consistent with the subject of the study may also be addressed.”

“We should be focusing on what are the key strategic things that we ought to accomplish,” Alvarez said. “If we get involved too much in the tactical aspect as opposed to what is the broad basis for how we move the legal profession forward, we won’t accomplish as much.”

Stewart replied that the committee’s ultimate recommendation may include suggested changes as well as areas that need more study.

“If we are guided by looking at access to justice, looking at where the biggest needs are, we will most likely strike the right balance between making sure that people have access to legal services that are affordable to them without harming our profession,” said committee member Adriana Gonzalez, a Lake Worth attorney and president of the Palm Beach County Justice Association. “If we’re guided by looking at where the needs are, where lawyers are not taking the cases, and where people really need [services], I think we can narrow down the area and we might be able to hit all the points as far as how are those services advertised, how are they regulated, what will be the requirements on what can be done by nonlawyers.”

Lori Holcomb, the Bar’s former director of the Ethics and Consumer Protection Division and who is staffing the committee, said anything the committee recommends must be tied into the practice of law where the Supreme Court has control. She also noted that some of the issues outlined by the court have been studied by the Bar for decades.

Holcomb said the committee will have to look at Bar regulations and determine “can a change be made, can a tweak be made to allow public protection, allow greater access at the same time keeping the core values of the profession.”

Stewart said the committee is meeting at a critical time, with major changes coming to the way courts operate and lawyers practice as the justice system deals with the coronavirus pandemic. Some of those changes will be permanent, he said, and will build momentum for further ideas from the committee.

Stewart laid out a tentative schedule for the committee that includes monthly electronic meetings for the committee as well as in-person meetings — if those are resumed in time — at the Bar’s Fall Meeting in October and Winter Meeting in January. Its next meeting is tentatively set for the week of July 13.

Topics to be covered at future meetings are referral fees and fee sharing/splitting; a report on the September oral argument of the proposed Chapter 23 of Bar rules on the Registered Online Service Provider Program; a discussion of online service providers; regulation of entities providing legal services; lawyer advertising; and nonlawyer providers of limited legal services.

The committee has already received reports from panels that studied similar issues in California, Utah, and Arizona. Those along with committee agenda and minutes are posted on its webpage on the Bar’s website: