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Questions for the Bar president-elect candidates

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The following questions were posed by the News to Bar president-elect candidates Lorna Brown-Burton of Ft. Lauderdale and Scott Westheimer of Sarasota. Ballots for the election will be mailed or emailed around March 1, and must be returned no later than 11:59 p.m. March 21. Voters will have the option of voting online in lieu of returning their paper ballot.

1. What are the top three issues facing Florida lawyers and what can the Bar do to address them?

Lorna Brown-Burton: a. Adequate Resources to Facilitate the Growth, Enhancement, and Sustenance of the everyday working Florida Lawyer’s business and daily practice as well as physical and mental well-being for their quality of life.

The Florida Bar can readily address this in two ways. First, by supporting and strengthening the programs, resources, and tools that will grow and sustain a law practice for the solo/small firms (which makes up at least 70% of The Florida Bar) as well as firms of all sizes up to the Big firms along with our Government Lawyers (another 16% to 20% of our Bar) as well as the in-house Lawyer. For example, technological software and case management software as well as continuing cyber-security education. The Bar can and must proactively and effectively communicate with all Florida Bar Members about ALL member benefits by partnering and working collaboratively with our divisions, sections and committees who are on the frontlines. This should include consistently receiving feedback on what is missing so we can put that in place for the success of every member.

Second, The Florida Bar must increase its investment in tools and resources that support our members’ mental and physical well-being while providing the appropriate behavioral and cognitive coping techniques to persevere through challenges that may arise in an ever- changing practice environment. We should also expand programs that address physical health and care-giving services due to the continued blurring of lines between home and work.

b. Maintaining Professionalism and Ethics in the Age of Technology and Remote Practice and striking a balance between virtual proceedings and in-person appearance.

The Florida Bar has successfully worked to launch a best-practice guide to remote proceedings, through its Standing Committee on Technology as well as the Boards Committee on Technology. The next step will be to carry out the recommendations on a uniform comprehensive definition, along with the education and enforcement of professionalism that is standard across all of Florida for Florida Lawyers, from the efforts and recommendations of the professionalism special committee.

Further the Bar will need to promote and educate our members on the rules of ethics and professionalism at the highest level through the Henry Latimer Center of Professionalism which has already developed a guide and partnership with all stakeholders (attorneys, judges, court administrators and staff attorneys) and work collaboratively with law schools so we can impact law students and new attorneys at the early stages of their career with an ongoing proactive process for every stage of our legal career on legal professionalism and what that looks like in the electronic age.

c. Protecting the Independence of the Judicial branch of government and the Integrity of our Legal system along with ensuring adequate funding for the court system.

It is critical that the Bar remains unified to assure support of our lawyers and the courts as well as the integrity of our legal system. With that as the driving force, The Bar must work collaboratively with all stakeholders at all levels to include the Legislature to advocate for adequate funding for our court system so that we can function and operate at the highest level consistent with being a co-equal branch of government that is entrusted with all of our Florida Citizens fundamental rights as granted by the constitution that includes access to justice. This further includes addressing funding, technological advances, upgrading our facilities as well as having the necessary staff and judiciary to handle the backlog for the access and in the end the delivery of legal services.

Scott Westheimer: a. Maintain Professionalism and Connectivity through Remote Technology

Throughout the pandemic, remote platforms have been highly effective, convenient, and efficient for certain hearings and meetings. However, they cannot replace all in-person interactions and proceedings, particularly jury trials. Using only virtual platforms leads to a lack of connectivity. As a result, professionalism, mentoring, and our wellbeing suffer. The Florida Bar must help achieve a proper balance between virtual and live interactions to maintain our tenets of professionalism.

b. Defend our Mandatory Bar and the Integrity of our Profession

Defending the independence of the judiciary as a co-equal branch of government and continuing the Bar’s existence as a mandatory, self-regulated bar is crucial to our core responsibilities and mission. The impact of Janus and other nationwide lawsuits threaten the Bar’s existence and could upend the values of our legal system. Recent proposals to consider non-lawyer ownership of law firms and fee splitting with non-lawyers are dangerous to the public, would negatively impact the integrity of our profession, and could undermine the independence of the judiciary. We must be vigilant to protect our status as a mandatory bar, remain informed about these threats, and strongly oppose similar challenges and proposals.

c. Ensure Access to Justice

The extreme backlog of cases resulting from the pandemic is putting an enormous strain on the entire judicial system, has dramatically impacted the fundamental right to a jury trial, and has blocked access to the courts for many, especially those who cannot afford representation. The Bar can leverage its resources to work with the courts and advocate to the Legislature and Governor’s Office for increased funding for additional resources, including new technological advances, alternate facilities, increased pay, and additional staffing to help with this recovery.

2. First technology and then remote practice have massively changed the legal profession; what would you do to promote ethics and professionalism as those factors continue to affect the practice of law?

Westheimer: We must lay the proper foundation for new lawyers, so they start their career with an understanding of their professional expectations and the impact of their actions on themselves, the public, and the profession. Due to the growing lack of connectivity between attorneys and less live mentoring, we need a more proactive and concerted effort to educate new attorneys about the discipline system, the ethical rules, proper trust account management, and professionalism. We also need to provide all attorneys continued and updated resources throughout their careers to reinforce this training. I will push for the Bar to provide tools and resources to lawyers like free trust accounting, case management software, and practical tools that will help them to avoid common violations. I have extensive experience with the lawyer discipline system, including chairing the Disciplinary Review Committee, which oversees lawyer regulation and the disciplinary process. I also teach a class on lawyer regulation and discipline at UF Law. I will draw on this experience to create innovative solutions in this area.

Brown-Burton: While the Special committee on the Review of Professionalism in Florida is still hard at work with final recommendations pending, I believe the forthcoming recommendations will serve as a catalyst in moving the needle forward. However, we will need to make sure the recommendations are carried out as well as develop a communication strategy and plan with our partners at the voluntary bars, sections, divisions and committees for programming that educates, empowers as well as provides tools and resources on the rules of ethics, along with professionalism as the cornerstone which unifies across all sectors of practice, circuits and jurisdictions and allows for the enforcement of professionalism that is consistent across the Bar. It is imperative that this include the continual upgrading and measuring of the resource guide as already exist at the Henry Latimer Center for Professionalism and alike for effectiveness.

3. What do you see as the danger and benefits of remote technology and what do you see as its proper role in the practice of law?

Brown-Burton: Remote Technology does have a place in the practice of law as it increases efficiencies and lowers litigation and client costs. For example, however, we must proceed with caution as the danger that exists is that we can also lose that sense that the practice of law is a profession and with that comes a certain level of decorum that still must be adhered to, from how we approach communications with our client, opposing counsel, the judiciary, court staff, witnesses and alike and how we present a professional appearance. It also limits our ability to build relationships with opposing counsel which may negatively impact our ability to best serve our clients. As such, we need to be cognizant of the fact that remote technology is another resource or tool in our tool kit that will allow the legal system to operate and function effectively, efficiently, as well as aid us in the streamlining of our practice as well as the court system to better serve our clients, in our delivery of legal services, as well as fulfilling the Florida Citizens right for access to justice.

Westheimer: The pandemic has affected the practice of law in ways that no one could imagine. It also advanced the legal profession’s use of technology in new, innovative ways that may have taken decades otherwise. Remote technology is highly effective, convenient, and efficient for communications, meetings, and certain proceedings. I believe technology can lower the cost of legal services, negate the time and expenses of travel, provide increased access to the courts, and is an extremely efficient way to conduct less complex proceedings. We should utilize remote technology for shorter proceedings like case managements, docket soundings, and many proceedings under 30 minutes. A balance of remote and live work can be cost effective for many firms and advantageous for some of our members. For some Bar activities, providing a remote technology option (hybrid) fosters inclusion.

As to the dangers, the fundamental constitutional right to a jury trial cannot be satisfied through remote technology and it is not well suited for a vast amount of evidentiary, lengthier, or complex proceedings. Exclusively utilizing remote technology intensifies unprofessional conduct, increases isolation and anxiety, and presents cybersecurity threats. This lack of connectivity and personal contact negatively affects our mental health and wellness, our relationships with other lawyers, professionalism, and the mentoring of young lawyers. Our profession is built upon relationships and we need to continue to foster them in this new “hybrid reality.”

4. We often hear about the “vast unmet legal needs,” what actions should the Bar be taking to make legal services more accessible to more people?

Westheimer: We are charged with providing pro bono legal services and it is an integral part of our service to society. The most vulnerable members of our society need access to the courts, and we must explore new and innovative ways to provide this access. I believe the increased use of technology and its efficiencies will make certain legal services more cost effective. We need to revisit the idea of expanded use of law students and Certified Legal Interns in Legal Aid settings to provide practical training for young attorneys while helping the public. We should also collaborate with the Courts, Legal Aid Organizations, and The Florida Bar Foundation, to analyze the areas of law with the most significant access issues, then we can tailor specific solutions. I have been a member of the Bar’s Pro Bono Legal Services Committee for the last seven years, previously served as its liaison to the Board of Governors, and am well-qualified to lead this effort.

Brown-Burton: The Bar should prioritize access by leveraging all of it resources to include the Voluntary Bar Liaison Committee working with all the various voluntary bars, as well as the substantive sections of the Bar and the Bars Citizen Advisory Committee, to promote and educate the community on how the hiring of a lawyer can be essential in preserving their rights and to their well-being, and the value of the legal system to democracy and society in general. Furthermore, the Bar should continue to advocate, educate and facilitate the use of technological advances that can streamline the practice as well as the court system, to lower the cost of legal services across the board along with advocating and educating on public funding of Legal Aid services.

5. What would you do to continue pursuing the Bar’s diversity and inclusion goal?

Brown-Burton: As President, I will continue to cultivate a climate that promotes and facilitates diversity and inclusion in The Florida Bar. I would do so in three primary ways — first, by encouraging the creation and implementation of policies and processes that incentivizes every members’ full participation at all levels of Bar leadership; second, by encouraging and incentivizing member participation across the full spectrum of legal practice areas of interests; and lastly, by encouraging the collaboration of sections, divisions, committees, and voluntary bars with the Florida Bar Leadership Academy to ensure development, integration and participation of young lawyers.

Westheimer: The Bar must ensure equal opportunity for ALL members, including those who are racially, ethnically, and culturally diverse, women, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and persons with disabilities. A diverse and inclusive justice system enhances the public trust of lawyers which is critical for society. Since I began practicing law, and years before I even thought about the Bar presidency, I have had a passion for true diversity and inclusion for our profession. Some of my past work includes, co-creating and chairing the Sarasota County Bar Association’s Diversity Committee and helping create a scholarship and internship program for diverse law students. The Bar must create and foster pipelines from our local voluntary bars, FAWL, CABA, Virgil Hawkins, the Florida Hispanic Bar Association, the nearly 300 other statewide and local bar associations, the Leadership Academy, the YLD, the Bar’s divisions, the Bar’s sections, and government lawyers. These pipelines to Bar service will increase diversity, equity, and inclusion within the Board of Governors, the Bar’s Committees, and the Committees’ leadership positions. We must intentionally bring everyone to the table, from all backgrounds, geographic areas, and practice areas to truly succeed as an organization. I believe developing these concrete, definite initiatives are critical to our path forward.

6. What drew you to Bar work?

Westheimer: I initially grew up in the voluntary bar world with the Sarasota County Bar Association YLD. I remember being “voluntold” by our local Executive Director, Jan Jung, that I would be chairing our local YLD Christmas in July for less fortunate kids. As soon as I started to interact with other attorneys and judges and saw firsthand the positive impact we had, I was hooked. My local bar service helped me foster relationships, develop leadership skills, receive, and provide, mentoring, and allowed me to give back to the community and profession. I realized service to The Florida Bar would provide greater opportunities to benefit people’s lives in tangible ways and to better our profession. This allowed me to lead teams that developed and the IT Tech Support Hotline, which provides free tech services to members. This has also led to other real-world opportunities to positively impact people’s lives. Before the pandemic, I traveled to Tegucigalpa, Honduras, two years in a row with a group of judges and attorneys to build houses for families and children that live in some of the most impoverished conditions imaginable, yet are so kind, gracious, and appreciative. I have never done anything more impactful, emotional, and fulfilling in my years of service. These opportunities and relationships are why I was drawn to Bar service and why it is an important part of my life.

Brown-Burton: My passion for service and making a difference in my chosen profession drew me to Bar work. My service to the Bar offers multiple opportunities to help improve the Bar and the practice experience for the everyday working lawyer.

7. What advice would you give to a recent Bar admittee, fresh out of law school and just sworn-in?

Brown-Burton: The advice I would give a recent Bar Admittee, fresh out of law school and just sworn is that “You still have much to learn and do not think that you know everything about the law and being a lawyer because you passed the bar. You should fully commit to all forms of learning and becoming your own best lawyer which can be through involvement with the Bar’s substantive sections or even voluntary bars. Your reputation, trustworthiness, reliability and positive coping skills are all important for your success in life and the law.”

Westheimer: Always be yourself. Certain styles may work for some lawyers, but not for everybody. Just because one lawyer you observe is successful using certain mannerisms, that does not mean you should emulate them. You should develop your own style, be genuine, and make sure you are comfortable in your own skin. Judges, attorneys, clients, and juries know when you are genuine, and those are the attorneys that are successful. Stay true to yourself, and it will lead to a happier personal and professional life.

Also remember that your professional identity and reputation are created from your first day practicing law. Your reputation is developed and impacted by every relationship you make and every interaction you have. While our Bar is over 110,000 lawyers, it is actually relatively small, particularly in your geographic or practice area. If you develop a reputation of being unprofessional or dishonest, that will follow you throughout your career among fellow lawyers and judges. However, if you are known to be honest and trustworthy, then you will go far.

Finally, I strongly encourage you to get involved with your local voluntary bar, specialty bar, The Florida Bar and our divisions or sections. These organizations offer substantial mentorship opportunities that will help you develop your practice, and you will develop lifelong friendships and professional relationships. Our profession is about relationships and the earlier you start investing in those relationships the more well-rounded and successful you will be as an attorney and person.

8. What made you want to be a lawyer?

Westheimer: When I decided to go to law school, I honestly had no idea in what area I wanted to practice. However, I knew I wanted to make a positive impact on people’s lives and make a difference. As a history major, I appreciated the vital role lawyers and the courts have historically had in society and in protecting the rights that are guaranteed by our Constitution. My grandfather, who was not a lawyer, always told me to get a law degree. He said that no matter what I did, a lawyer was someone that was a counselor, was a respected professional, and was someone who can help make a difference and impact people’s lives in a positive way. After over 25 years practicing law, I know now more than ever how right my grandfather was.

Brown-Burton: As part of my foundation my parents instilled in me the importance of service, the value of hard work and making a difference. I grew up believing that advocacy is important, impactful and necessary to access justice. Being a lawyer encapsulates my foundational principles and my belief in advocacy.

9. Tell us about one defining moment in your legal career when you stopped to say, “I am proud to be a lawyer.”

Brown-Burton: While there have been many moments in my legal career where I have been proud to be a lawyer, one that stands out to me involved an older couple in my church experiencing hard financial times and defaulting on their mortgage. They believed homeownership was one of their greatest achievement and losing their home would be like the end of all they had achieved. After conducting numerous teleconferences with their mortgage company, I was able to save their home. Now this was all done pro bono and the greatest payment, as there was no money exchanged, was the joy and happiness on their face with a renewed sense of hope. The wife then asked what was my favorite cake which I shared and the next time I saw her she had baked me that cake. This experience was worth more to me than all the money I could have ever received.

Westheimer: Throughout my career, I have been able to help individuals and families who have been in catastrophic situations and are in the worst moments of their lives, whether they are horribly injured, have lost loved ones, or have businesses or careers on the line. It always makes me proud to provide a positive, life-altering, difference in their lives. Early in my legal career, I was lead counsel in a case, representing a husband and father that was horribly injured after being hit by a car. His family had very limited financial resources, so I knew how pivotal the case was for them. At the jury trial, I was waiting with him and his wife during the jury’s deliberations, which were going on for a long time. As I was pacing the hallway waiting for the verdict, he looked at me and told me that God put me in his life for a reason, that no matter what happened he knew I did my absolute best, and he would not have wanted any other attorney, regardless of the result. (We did eventually receive a good result) To have someone’s future in your hands like that and to be so trusted, was humbling and made me extremely proud to be a lawyer.

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