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PEC to review Florida Lawyers Assistance program

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Bar's evaluation panel also plans to study the Florida Lawyers Helpline, the duration of voting periods for Bar elections, the role of board liaisons, grievance committee appointments, and the inventory attorney process

Sia Baker-Barnes

Sia Baker-Barnes

The Bar’s Program Evaluation Committee has added a review of the Florida Lawyers Assistance program to its current activity schedule.

Committee Chair Sia Baker-Barnes told the Board of Governors at its July meeting in Palm Beach the PEC is already conducting a review of the Florida Lawyers Helpline and also plans to study the duration of voting periods for Florida Bar elections; better define the Board of Governors members’ roles as liaisons to Bar sections and committees; and see if there is a better way for the board to identify those willing to serve on Bar grievance committees.

Baker-Barnes said the committee, whose mission is to conduct periodic, in-depth evaluations of selected Florida Bar programs, will also see if it can assist with the Bar’s inventory attorney process.

The Board of Governors, at the PEC’s request, also voted to close off new applications to the “Antitrust and Trade Regulation Law” certification area, due to the lack of new applicants.

“We are going to be busy this year on PEC,” Baker-Barnes said.

FLA, Inc.

Florida Lawyers Assistance, Inc., was formed in 1986 after the Florida Supreme Court called for a program to identify and help Bar members who suffer from substance abuse, mental health, or other disorders.

FLA is an independent entity but receives funding from The Florida Bar.

“FLA provides confidential assistance and support to lawyers, judges and law students who have been negatively affected in their ability to function in their careers and lives by alcohol, drugs, mental-health issues or cognitive decline,” according to a mission statement. “FLA fosters identification, intervention and recovery by providing assessments, referrals, education, and maintaining a supportive network of recovering legal professionals.”

Through a partnership with the Mental Health and Wellness of Florida Lawyers Committee, FLA recently launched a working mother’s support group for attorneys. FLA and its professional staff sponsor some 30 weekly support groups with the help of more than 300 volunteer legal professionals.

FLA Executive Director Daniel J. McDermott, an attorney, was appointed in June 2020. Prior to that, he worked in government relations in the financial services and technology sectors in Washington, D.C.

FLA, Inc., has been reviewed twice in the past five years by PEC and the PEC Implementation Subcommittee is still working with FLA to implement past PEC/Board of Governors recommendations. The Bar’s Disciplinary Review and Budget committees will also assist in the review. While most of FLA’s work is confidential, the organization does play a role in the Bar grievance system as some lawyers are referred to FLA and required to enter into rehabilitative contracts.

Florida Lawyers Helpline

With the Florida Lawyers Helpline, the emphasis is on ‘help’Earlier this year, the Program Evaluation Committee agreed to conduct a review of the Florida Lawyers Helpline, 833-311-9355. The Helpline is a free and confidential service that connects eligible Bar members with professional counselors — offering up to three free counseling sessions per year.

The Helpline has been struggling to gain traction, and a recent PEC subcommittee review recently suggested that low utilization rates may be attributed to “lack of awareness, stigma associated with mental health issues, and fear of lack of confidentiality.”

The Helpline had 264 cases — or 264 lawyers who availed themselves of one or more of the three counseling sessions — between May 20, 2020, and August 31, 2021, the subcommittee found.

The PEC has recommended, among other things, that the Mental Health and Wellness of Florida Lawyers Committee create a special subcommittee to focus on promoting the Helpline.

“[T]he efforts necessary to improve Helpline utilization will likely be varied, multi-faceted and effort intensive,” the subcommittee wrote.

The Program Evaluation Committee’s review of the Helpline in the coming year will “focus on the level of Florida Bar member awareness and how effectively the program is functioning,” according to a staff analysis.

Antitrust and Trade Regulation Law

The Board of Governors unanimously approved a proposed amendment to Bar rules that would close the “Antitrust and Trade Regulation Law” certification area to new applicants.

Baker-Barnes told the board that Bar rules provide for closing a certification area if it has had no new applicants in five consecutive years and the area of Antitrust and Trade Regulation Law has not received any new applications in 12 years. She said the area’s nine remaining board-certified attorneys would remain eligible for recertification.

The proposed amendments to Rule 6-22.1 (Generally), 6-22.3 (Minimum Standards), and Rule 6-22.4 (Recertification) would add the sentence, “This area is closed to new applicants,” and remove a section that describes minimum standards for new applicants. Those changes would in turn require technical changes to the related recertification rule.

The Supreme Court will have the final say.

Board Liaisons

Members of the Board of Governors are appointed as liaisons to all Florida Bar committees and sections. Barker-Barnes said the PEC plans to study those liaison positions this year “and perhaps how to better define what our role is as liaisons.” Doing so, she said, may keep the Board of Governors better informed about the work of the sections and committees and better support their efforts.

Inventory Attorneys

To protect clients of an attorney who unexpectedly dies or otherwise becomes unable to practice, the Florida Supreme Court requires members who practice in-state to designate an inventory attorney.

Inventory attorneys take possession of the files of a member who dies, disappears, is disbarred, or suspended, becomes delinquent, or suffers involuntary leave of absence due to military service, and no other responsible party capable of conducting the member’s affairs is known. The inventory attorney has the responsibility of notifying all clients that their lawyer is no longer able to represent them. The inventory attorney also may give the file to a client for finding substitute counsel; may make referrals to substitute counsel with the agreement of the client; or may accept representation of the client but is not required to do so.

Historically, the Bar opens an average of about 41 inventory cases per year and each of the Bar’s five branches spends approximately 120 hours per year searching for inventory attorneys. Given that about 30% of the Bar’s active members are sole practitioners, and that some 45% of the Bar population is 50 or older, the problem in finding inventory attorneys is expected to expand.

“We are going to look at that as well in PEC and see if we can assist in that area,” Baker-Barnes said.

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