As reported here Wednesday, the Florida Supreme Court has asked The Florida Bar to undertake a study of the rules governing the practice of law in order to determine whether revisions are needed to improve the delivery of legal services within that state.
This comes as a growing number of states — including Arizona, California, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Washington — are studying changes in lawyer regulation with the goal of enhancing access to justice.
This morning, I spoke with the lawyer who will chair the study group, John M. Stewart, president of The Florida Bar. He provided further details on the study group’s organization and mission.
Although the Supreme Court’s letter had asked that the study group begin by January, Stewart said he is still in the process of selecting members and will name them when the group is complete.
In forming the group, he is striving to get a mix of lawyers who represent different firm sizes, parts of the states, and practice areas.
He does not plan to include anyone who is not a lawyer, but he does expect that the group will solicit input from a range of perspectives. “I do expect to have the committee hear from many people, including those who are not lawyers,” he said.
He does not yet know whether the group will conduct hearings or formally request public comment in any way, as he wants the group to first meet and make its own decisions about how to proceed.
He expects, however, that if the group were to suggest rule changes or other substantive measures that would impact bar members, then it would hold hearings.
Whatever the process the group decides, Stewart vowed that it will be fully open and transparent.
The Supreme Court’s request that the bar form this study group came in response to an earlier letter to the court from Stewart suggesting the study. Stewart told me today that, while he could have appointed this study group on his own as president, he thought it was important to get buy-in from the court.
“At the end of the day, if anything will change, the Supreme Court has to approve the change,” he said. “I wanted them to initially say, ‘Hey, we agree, this has to be looked at in more detail.’”
As for why he saw the need for the study group, Stewart said the bar had been talking about these issues for several years, but needed an impetus to spark further action.
“We’ve been talking about this at least since 2013. It’s time for us to move from talking to acting, whatever that may turn out to be.”
Five years ago, Stewart chaired the Florida Bar’s Vision 2016 commission, which produced a number of recommendations for modernizing legal practice. The recommendations led Florida to adopt the duty of technology competence in 2016 and to become the first state to mandate technology CLE for lawyers.
But momentum created by that commission was lost as a result of controversy over another of its recommendations having to do with loosening reciprocity rules. That created a setback in the discussion that caused it to stall, Stewart said, “and we needed to get it going again.”
Stewart takes a pragmatic approach to the question of whether regulatory changes can improve access to justice. There is no evidence that the regulatory reforms being discussed in other states will, in fact, enhance access to legal services, he said.
“I see this more as a question of are there impediments because of the rules we have in place that block consumers from getting to lawyers and lawyers from getting to consumers better,” he said. “Are the rules creating an impediment to that?”
As part of that examination, if the group finds that there is legal-related work that lawyers are simply not going to do, “then the lawyers can’t say that nobody else can do it” and the group needs to be prepared to consider alternatives.
“I’m a firm believer that our goal is to make it so that the most lawyers can provide the most citizens the most legal services, and make it affordable and make it efficient.”