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Pandemic underscores special committee’s regulatory review

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John StewartIts initial meetings have been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but Bar President John Stewart thinks the crisis has made the work of the Special Committee to Improve the Delivery of Legal Services all the more timely.

Acting at the Supreme Court’s request, the Bar began setting up the special committee late last year. It is charged with reviewing lawyer advertising, referral fees, fee splitting, entity regulation, regulation of online service providers, and regulation of nonlawyer providers of limited legal services and to “study 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.”

That includes, said Stewart, who chairs the special committee, making legal assistance more efficient and affordable for low- and moderate-income Floridians who now can’t afford lawyers for their civil legal needs.

“The silver lining of this pandemic, if there is a silver lining, is we have accelerated the learning curve of lawyers, judges, and clerks of court to work remotely, to meet with clients remotely, to become more paperless,” he said. “We’ve accelerated that learning curve in the sense we were able to adapt as much and as well and as quickly as we have.

“That’s going to pay dividends. We’re not going to go back entirely to business as usual [after the pandemic].”

COVID-19 has brought about a flurry of statewide and local court administrative orders allowing more video and audio court proceedings, remote appearances, and other ways to accomplish court business without in-person proceedings. There are also new state laws allowing remote notarization and remote witnessing of wills.

The upshot of all that will be saving time for lawyers and clients, which means some of the temporary practices are likely to become permanent after the pandemic, Stewart said, both for court proceedings and transactional lawyers.

“You don’t have to take three hours out of your day to travel to a 30-minute hearing,” he said. “In a lot of instances, you can appear by phone or video…. This is a bit of forced learning, and there are a good percentage of lawyers who are going to embrace it. Lawyers will appreciate the time savings and clients will appreciate the cost savings.”

That can make lawyers uncomfortable because it can be more difficult to read a judge or witnesses at a remote proceeding, but some of the changes will be inevitable, he said. But it also means lawyers can design their practices to take advantage of the efficiencies and provide cost effective services for more people who now can’t afford attorneys.

Citing his father’s 50-year legal career, Stewart said lawyers have become more specialized over that period. With new technologies and practices, that trend might reverse as lawyers find ways to provide broadly needed but not highly complex services, he said.

“Not everything needs a LLM tax specialist, not everything needs to be a federal constitutional case, not everything needs to be a Supreme Court argument,” Stewart said. “If you become good at five or 10 things and you help the general population, you’re never going to run out of work.”

Other members of the special committee include Miami attorney Cesar Alvarez, Palm Harbor attorney Joseph Corsmeier, Miami attorney Josias Dewey, Young Lawyers Division President Santo DiGangi, Lake Worth attorney Adriana Gonzalez, former Bar Executive Director John F. Harkness, Jr., legal technology expert Shawnna M. Hoffman-Childress, former Board of Governors member Lanse Scriven of Tampa, and Sarah Sullivan of Three Rivers Legal Services, Inc., in Jacksonville.

The commission will be making quarterly reports to the court, and is scheduled to deliver its final report, including any recommended rule changes and other actions, to the Supreme Court and the Board of Governors by July 1, 2021.

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