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Special committee studying the practice expects any recommendations to be modest

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John StewartWhile the Special Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services’ mission is to find innovative ways to provide more and affordable legal services for Floridians, Chair John Stewart says, “the priority is that they are met by Florida lawyers.”

“We are going to be thoughtful, forward thinking, and provocative,” Stewart told those attending the Bar’s Virtual Section Leadership Conference on July 23, but added he thinks the recommendations that emerge from this study “are going to be modest.”

In creating the committee earlier this year, Chief Justice Charles Canady said it should look at “lawyer advertising; referral fees; fee splitting; entity regulation; regulation of online service providers; and regulation of nonlawyer providers of limited legal services. Additional topics consistent with the subject of the study may also be addressed.”

The committee met July 14 to discuss priorities and how best to conduct the review. Topics ranged from lawyer advertising to legal education. But most of the interest revolved around how law is practiced and regulations that may need to change to improve a lawyer’s ability to reach consumers and a consumer’s ability to reach lawyers.

Stewart said the emphasis is to look at changing regulations to make it easier for lawyers to provide services without compromising protections for consumers or lawyers’ professional and independent judgment.

“We are going to look at issues relating to advertising, not advertising rules globally, but some niche areas where we think that maybe our advertising rules are making it more challenging for our members to connect with consumers who need our services,” Stewart told the section leaders. “We are going to look at things relating to what fee sharing means. Does it really mean what it says? Is it more complicated in today’s world? We are going to look at referral fees, not lawyers-to-lawyer but what constitutes referral fees in the context of these for-profit referral services. What should and should not be appropriate.”

Part of the court-ordered review, Stewart said, will include looking at what other states have done or are in the process of doing. Arizona, California, and Utah have similar committees that predate Florida’s special committee’s effort and he hopes to have one or more members of those panels address the special committee.

“That doesn’t mean what they do is suitable for Florida, but there is no sense in not learning from either their successes or their mistakes,” said Stewart, the Bar’s immediate past president.

The committee is meeting at a critical time, with major changes coming to the way courts operate and lawyers practice as the justice system deals with COVID-19.

“Will there be changes? My sentiment is there will be, only because I think we are in a time of change where it needs to happen,” Stewart said. “But I also want to say I don’t think those changes are going to be earth shattering. I think what we realize is that in this process we need to make sure that we are up to date, but [any changes] are incremental. We are not going from ‘A’ to ‘Z,’ we are going from ‘A’ to ‘B’ to ‘C’; and we need to keep the momentum going so that we remain relevant.”

Stewart said as the committee progresses in its work, “We are going to inform our members all along the way.” He said every piece of material the panel reviews is going to be made available on the Bar’s website.

Stewart said the committee will be making quarterly reports to both the Board of Governors and the Supreme Court. The committee is set to provide its final report to the Supreme Court by July 1, 2021.