Florida Bar members sound off on the state of the profession
A vast majority of Florida lawyers think the COVID-19 pandemic will forever alter the way law is practiced in the state, according to the 2021 Membership Opinion Survey.
More than three-quarters of all respondents to the Bar’s annual survey foresee permanent changes when it comes to remote working policies (85%); technological resources used by the courts (83%); and technological resources used by firms or legal offices (79%).
After the pandemic is under control and it is deemed safe to resume in-person hearings, 85% of respondents who participate in civil proceedings say, “Calendar Call/Sounding” (85%) and “Motion Calendar” (79%) should continue via Zoom or a similar virtual platform. For the criminal bar, the numbers are not quite as high, but a majority of respondents think “Calendar Call/Sounding” (68%) and “Arraignment” (61%) should continue virtually.
“All non-evidentiary matters should be heard without requiring in-person attendance,” one civil practitioner commented. “It saves significant time and client funds in not having to travel to the courthouse (sometimes across the state), wait to be called, etc. I have saved clients literally four hours on a single hearing by attending via Zoom/Microsoft Teams.”
Others are not so sure: “At a minimum, the plaintiff in contested non-jury trials and hearings should be required to appear in person for trials, especially where there are numerous exhibits. I have found Zoom trials and hearings in contested non-jury cases with numerous exhibits to be untenable.”
Nearly half (47%) of respondents who participate in appellate proceedings report that oral arguments should continue virtually after the pandemic.
“Zoom is perfect for oral argument,” one appellate lawyer wrote. “I’ve argued to the Second, Third, Fourth DCAs and Eleventh Circuit appellate panel. Smooth and functional.”
Of those applicable respondents who participate in family law proceedings, over three-quarters report that “Uncontested Final Hearings” (76%) and “Case Management Conference/ Status Conference” and “Pre-Trial Conference” (76%) should continue virtually after the pandemic.
A large majority (86%) of all respondents also agree that their firm/legal office has taken appropriate action in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, compared to only 4% who disagree.
The 2021 Membership Opinion Survey was emailed to 3,758 randomly selected Bar members, and 34% of the surveys were returned, according to Mike J. Garcia, the Bar’s director of Research, Planning & Evaluation.
The survey also found:
• 46% of respondent say they occasionally encounter lawyers they characterize to be “disruptive” or “unruly.”
• 47% of respondents agree that the legal needs of Florida citizens are being met, compared to 29% who believe those legal needs are not being met.
• 57% of all respondents indicate they are likely to provide pro bono services in the next 12 months.
• 79% of all respondents rate the general quality of Florida Bar CLE seminars as excellent or good, compared to 64% who rate the general quality of seminars from non-Florida Bar providers as excellent or good.
• 87% of all respondents agree that their firm/legal office is appropriately adapting to changes in legal technology.
• 68% of respondents agree that their employer supports lawyer/staff health and wellness.
Florida Bar members also think the lack of ethics/professionalism is ticking upward, while those who say there are too many lawyers in the state is dropping dramatically. High levels of stress and balancing family and work are also top personal concerns.
The survey found 27% of all respondents say the oversaturation of lawyers will have the greatest impact on the profession over the next five years (down from 41% in 2017), while 19% of respondents say technology will have the greatest impact, followed by a lack of appropriate judicial system funding at 10% and competition from non-attorneys, 8%, which is down from 18% in 2017.
Over two-thirds (70%) of all respondents agree that their work and personal life has good balance, compared to 16% who disagree.
Over one-third of respondents list high stress (36%) as a significant challenge or concern that they face as attorneys, while just under one-third (31%) list balancing family and work as a significant challenge or concern.
Half of all respondents agree that support staff has resulted in time saving for them and their firm/legal office, compared to 13% who disagree.
While 70% of respondents report the profession is becoming somewhat or much less desirable as a career, 52% of all respondents agree that the legal profession will change to a more flexible work/life balance over the next few years.
Asked about the most serious problems faced by the profession today (respondents could list up to three), about one-third (32%) of all respondents report that a lack of ethics/professionalism is one of the most serious problems faced by the legal profession today, while 29% report too many attorneys as being one of the most serious problems.
Other concerns included:
• Court overload, 25%
•COVID-19 pandemic and recovery, 25%
• Affordability of legal services, 23%
• Frivolous lawsuits, 19%
• Poor public perception, 16%
• Difficult economic times, 15%
• Lawyer advertising, 15%
• Quality of the judiciary, 15%
• Client expectations, 14%
• Lack of appropriate judicial system funding, 13%
• Over-emphasis on billable hours, 12%
• Threat to judicial independence, 10%
• Emergence of online legal service providers, 8%
• Public access to the courts, 7%
• Quality of beginning attorneys, 7%
• Other, 6% (The most frequently mentioned problem under the “Other” category involves the “quality of all attorneys.”)
Since 2017, the percentage who cite lack of ethics/professionalism has increased from 25% to 32%; too many lawyers has decreased from 54% to 29%; and court overload has gone from 19% to 25%.
Over two-fifths (44%) of all respondents list “continue to monitor the evolving needs of Florida lawyers and provide members with high quality educational opportunities, ethics guidance, member benefits, services and other needed resources” as the most important strategic planning priority of The Florida Bar.
The survey found other priorities include:
• Continue to develop lawyer proficiency with technology and help lawyers understand and successfully adapt to the ever changing legal environment, 24%
• Evaluate new and innovative potential solutions to address the gap in legal services for under-served Florida citizens, 12%
• Continue to promote The Florida Bar’s mental health and wellness awareness initiatives, 9%
• Continue to develop creative and dynamic messaging to effectively communicate The Florida Bar’s message to its diverse membership, the general public and targeted groups, 6%
• Support and promote programs that encourage diversity and inclusiveness in the legal profession, 5%
Asked about the competence and fitness of judges in their region, 70% of respondents rated their judges as either excellent or good, up from 58% three years ago.