Special Committee on Greater Public Access to Legal Services study underway
The Board of Governors also heard from it Technology and Communications committees at its July meeting
The task is tall and time is short as the Bar’s Special Committee on Greater Public Access to Legal Services races to meet a deadline to provide recommendations to improve the delivery of legal services to Florida consumers while continuing to assure lawyers play a proper and prominent role.
Reporting to the Board of Governors at its July 29 meeting in Palm Beach, Co-Chairs Jay Kim and Wayne LaRue Smith said the panel is studying the expanded use of certified legal interns; the use and promotion of prepaid legal services plans; simplifying and standardizing court divisions; acquiring more funding for civil legal aid; intensifying the use of court navigators; and leveraging technological assets to improve access.
Kim emphasized these are only “early ideas” that are being fleshed out and nothing is yet settled.
The Board of Governors also heard a report from its Communications Committee on a “toolkit” that is being implemented to assist the board on how to better engage with the membership, and a report from the Technology Committee, which recently updated its Best Practices for Remote Court Proceedings guide.
Justice Jorge Labarga was also on hand and thanked board members for their services and, referencing a number of Supreme Court workgroups, said as the profession goes through “some changes” over the next few years, “we hope that you will work with us and we trust you will.”
Justice Labarga said whenever he speaks at law school graduations, he reminds students that 25 lawyers signed the Declaration of Independence and 32 of the framers of the U.S. Constitution were attorneys. He noted lawyers have been involved in every significant aspect of the country since its founding.
“And if it had not been for lawyers, I don’t know if we would be where we are today,” Justice Labarga said. “So, you are an important feature to our society, to our democracy, and without you I don’t think it could exist.”
Access to Justice
Bar President Gary Lesser said improving access to legal services is the most important issue now facing the legal profession and it’s imperative that the Bar succeeds in these efforts to increase legal access for Floridians.
When justices earlier this year declined to adopt most of the recommendations of its Special Committee to Improve the Delivery of Legal Services — including proposals to test nonlawyer ownership of law firms, fee splitting with nonlawyers, and broadly expanding the work paralegals are allowed to perform — they gave the Bar until December 30 to propose its own recommendations to “improve the delivery of legal services to Florida consumers and . . . assure Florida lawyers play a proper and prominent role in the provision of these services.”
“We knew we did not want nonlawyer ownership of firms or fee sharing with nonlawyers [because] we knew that would be the end of the independent legal profession and the ethical duty we owe our clients as we know it,” Lesser said. “We dug down on this so seriously, so they now have given us the football and we will deliver recommendations that make an impact.”
Kim told the board that as the committee began looking at solutions to solve the access issue “that has not been solved in decades,” the first task was identifying what exactly was limiting access and concluded the judicial system is perceived to be:
• Too expensive
• Too slow
• Overly inconvenient
• Difficult for pro se litigants to navigate
• Too unpredictable
• Seen as unfair by a segment of society
Kim said the panel is reviewing past access efforts from across the nation, consulting with experts in the industry — including legal aid organizations and the pro bono legal services community — and reaching out to other bar groups and national organizations for input and data.
“Because of the short timeline, we are also at the same time starting to brainstorm on early potential ideas,” said Kim, stressing the study is still in its early stages.
A key aspect of the study will focus on affordability, Kim said. A recent survey commissioned by the Bar found that while 76% of self-represented litigants perceived the cost of hiring a lawyer to be prohibitive, 43% also said in retrospect they wish they had retained a lawyer.
How to remedy that?
One idea being considered, Kim said, is expanding the use of certified legal interns — something already permissible under Bar rules — for civil legal work under the supervision of licensed attorneys.
Another is the promotion and expansion of prepaid legal services, many of which are designed to help middle-income individuals obtain legal services that might otherwise be cost-prohibitive and to encourage preventative legal services, like document preparation and review, which can help resolve smaller legal issues early. The plans attempt to remove barriers and offer accessible in-roads to the legal system.
“Very underutilized” at the moment, Kim says prepaid legal services are affordable, noting some available now run from as low as $12 a month for basic plans or $75 a month for a basic business plan. A number of businesses and organizations currently offer such plans as part of their employee benefit packages, he said, including The Florida Bar.
“So, we are not talking about pro bono, this is middle America that just has a lawyer on retainer for civil legal services,” Kim said. “That seems to me to be a very high potential area in need of study.
“We are not talking about taking a case from soup to nuts, we are talking about initial consultations, certain demand letters, maybe simple wills,” Kim said.
Smith said the committee is also focusing on self-represented litigants.
“We basically have two goals here,” Smith said. “One is to put more of those folks with lawyers to get legal representation. . . and two, to enhance their ability to represent themselves by perhaps leveraging technology, providing other tools to them, and providing a process that is more amenable to pro se participation.”
Right now, Smith said, there is a lack of uniformity from courthouse to courthouse in Florida and in many circuits a different set of rules of procedure for each individual judge.
An idea to look at, he said, is “simplifying court divisions” for self-represented litigants in exactly the opposite way that complex business litigation divisions are set up in some large circuits.
Smith said making the system more consumer friendly and easier for people “to do it themselves” could benefit everyone, lawyers included.
The committee is also exploring the expanded use of “court navigators,” whose job is to guide self-represented litigants through the process, along with the greater use of legal document preparation services.
Other areas of study, Smith said, include the creation of videos, websites, and other instructional materials to smooth access issues.
“And the [Bar’s] ‘Life Legal Moments’ public education campaign to help members of the public better understand how not only that they can afford legal representation, but that in the long run it is probably cheaper to have a lawyer than not have a lawyer,” Smith said.
Life Legal Moments is a priority of the Lesser administration that is in development, focusing on when people really need a lawyer for significant life moments — such as having a properly prepared will or trust, having legal guidance when they buy or sell a home, and other life challenges that greatly affect those in need and their family if they don’t have representation.
Kim said greater use of paralegals should also be on the table, even though it was a concept promoted by the former special committee and rejected by the Board of Governors.
“We have to study how we might be able to improve on that idea to address the Board of Governors objection to that concept,” he said.
And, the co-chairs agreed, securing public funding for civil legal aid — admitting it may be a heavy lift — should be in the mix, as well. Florida is one of only a handful of states that doesn’t provide any state dollars for civil legal aid.
“In the 20 years I have been involved with the Board of Governors, this is the most important work we are doing right now and if we fail, the legal profession might look a lot different — and not in a good way,” Lesser said.
Joshua Chilson, chair of the board’s Communications Committee, said the panel is undertaking a number of initiatives this year, including developing a “toolkit” to provide members of the Board of Governors more resources to help them communicate more often and more effectively with Bar members in their circuits.
“We need to do a better job reaching out to our constituents and filling them in on all the good things that are going on at the Bar and the resources available to assist them in their practices,” Chilson said.
While still a work in progress, Chilson said the toolkit provides information such as a guide to best practices for social media; listing of voluntary bar associations by circuit, including key contacts for each group; PowerPoint presentations to educate Florida lawyers about the Bar’s objectives and goals; tutorials on how the Bar’s Clients’ Security Fund, lawyer discipline, section amicus curiae, court rules amendments, and legislative and political activities processes work.
Chilson said the Bar and its committees and sections maintain a robust presence on social media and he encouraged board members to become the Bar’s “social media ambassadors” by amplifying the organization’s messages. Doing so, he said, will help spread the word about what the Bar is doing on a daily basis.
Technology Committee Chair Gordon Glover said the panel is off to a “busy and fast start” in the new Bar year, recently updating and posting its Best Practices for Remote Court Proceedings guide.
The committee also plans to make improvements to the Member Portal on the Bar’s website this year and enhance and individualize each member’s Bar web profile.
“As an FYI, the Find a Lawyer page on the Bar’s websites generated 11 million views last year,” Glover said. “So, people are going to the Bar’s websites to find a lawyer and we want to help make it easier for them to do so.”
Glover said the board’s tech panel will also work this year with the Standing Committee on Technology to educate Bar members on cybersecurity.
“Our goal is to post a webinar series and develop a best practice guide to help our members prevent and address cybersecurity threats,” he said.
The tech committee is also including legal technology questions on the Bar’s next membership survey to assist the panel in shaping future initiatives and projects.