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Q&A on the Special Committee to Improve the Delivery of Legal Services

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Rule booksWhy was the Special Committee to Improve the Delivery of Legal Services formed?

Across the country, the legal marketplace continues to change rapidly, and the Florida Supreme Court is monitoring the national trends in the delivery of legal services. In late 2019, the court directed the formation of the special committee and asked it to conduct a study to ensure that current regulations meet Floridians’ access needs while protecting against lawyer misconduct and maintaining the strength of Florida’s legal profession. The study includes looking at innovations to address access to legal services while protecting the public and the core values of the legal profession.

What did the Supreme Court specifically ask the special committee to study?

The court asked the committee to look at lawyer advertising, referral fees, fee splitting, online service providers, and nonlawyer providers of limited legal services. Additional relevant topics may also be addressed.

What is the time frame for the committee’s work?

The special committee was created by the Florida Supreme Court effective January 1, 2020. Meeting agendas and minutes are posted on the special committee’s page on the Bar’s website, along with background materials. The final report is due to the court and The Florida Bar Board of Governors by July 1, 2021.

What are some of the concepts the special committee has studied and formed tentative recommendations on?

Thus far, the committee is considering several tentative recommendations as further study continues on these and related issues:

• Following a longstanding District of Columbia model for nonlawyer ownership that allows minority ownership only by nonlawyers actively assisting in providing legal services. Passive ownership, such as from outside investors, is not being recommended.

• Maintaining rules on solicitation and advertising, but allowing sharing fees with nonlawyers, such as online legal service providers, who are not otherwise nonlawyer partners of the firm.

• Simplifying — but not relaxing — advertising rules, including ending mandatory Bar review of lawyer ads that provide more than basic information. Optional reviews would still provide protection from grievance prosecution if the Bar found an ad compliant with rules.

• Considering a way to have pilot programs or limited tests of innovative regulations to determine if consumers’ access to the legal system improves and whether the pilots have a negative impact on quality.

In addition, the special committee has agreed to recommend that the Bar work to increase members’ knowledge of existing Rule 4-1.2(c), which allows lawyers to limit the scope of their representation and provide unbundled legal services. This rule ensures that clients can get needed legal services and keep costs down by limiting the scope of the services the lawyer provides.

Is there data to support such conceptual changes?

The special committee is balancing a lack of data about proposed changes with the considerable amount of information about the changes already underway in the legal marketplace. The background materials collected and reviewed by the committee are posted on its webpage.

How would nonlawyer ownership benefit law firms when we can already hire nonlawyer employees?

It’s important to remember lawyers would maintain a controlling interest in their firms, but this change helps attract nonlawyer talent who provide useful ancillary services to clients. That could include a key technical support staffer or a doctor employee of a personal injury firm who evaluates claims.

What is the status of the proposed Chapter 23 voluntary registration program for online legal service providers?

The court has deferred consideration of proposed Chapter 23 of the Rules Regulating The Florida Bar until after it reaches a decision on a pending UPL case and receives the special committee’s report.

Who are the members of the special committee?

Chaired by Vero Beach attorney John Stewart, committee members include: Miami attorney Cesar Alvarez, Palm Harbor attorney Joseph Corsmeier, Miami attorney Josias Dewey, West Palm Beach attorney Santo DiGangi, Lake Worth attorney Adriana Gonzalez, Tallahassee attorney John F. Harkness, Jr., legal technology expert Shawnna M. Hoffman-Childress, Tampa attorney Lanse Scriven, and Sarah Sullivan of Three Rivers Legal Services, Inc., in Jacksonville. There are no members of The Florida Bar Board of Governors on the special committee.

How can Florida Bar members learn more about the special committee’s ongoing work, and how can we provide input?

The Florida Bar News regularly covers the meetings of the special committee. Links to past articles are posted on the committee’s webpage.

What are the next steps after the committee submits its final report?

The report will be studied by the court and the Bar’s Board of Governors. The court may act on any of the recommendations, but there is no timetable. Any action to be taken by the Board of Governors, which would require subsequent court approval, will be noticed in The Florida Bar News and on the Bar’s website, and an all-member email will be sent prior to any board meeting with relevant discussions on the agenda. Emails summarizing all board actions will also be sent to members.