Florida is looking to boost access to legal services while protecting its citizens from misconduct, a tough balancing act currently being attempted in several other states.
Florida will be the latest state to dig into a range of possible regulatory reforms through its Special Committee to Improve the Delivery of Legal Services, sanctioned by the Supreme Court of Florida late last year.
The 10-lawyer committee, set to hold its first meeting June 15, will tackle issues like fee splitting, and the regulation of nonlawyer providers of limited legal services.
The changes Florida will consider could add momentum to a national push for increased legal service access—what many proponents call “access to justice"—an issue made more timely by the devastating national health and economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“People are becoming more open to what we can and should doing,” said Florida Bar President John Stewart, whose one-year term ends June 19. Stewart will serve as the committee’s chair through the completion of its final report, set to be issued to the court on or before July 1, 2021.
The consequences of the potential rule changes could be wide-ranging, Stewart said.
They could result in a more visible presence of the Big Four accountancies, which have been eager to compete more directly with the largest American law firms but have been blocked by state bar rules that prohibit the sharing of legal fees between lawyers and nonlawyers in most instances.
If reforms are dramatic enough, especially in heavily populated states like Florida and California, the Big Four—EY, KPMG, PwC, and Deloitte—"could be much more open and aggressive about being in the legal space” in the U.S., he said.
California, Utah, and Arizona have pursued similar regulatory changes over the last few years.
Arizona decided to scrap its regulation regarding nonlawyer ownership of legal services operations outright—known as Rule 5.4, based on the American Bar Association model rule of the same number, which most states have adopted.
The Utah Supreme Court recently proposed repealing and replacing its current version of Rule 5.4, and has set up a “regulatory sandbox” to test new legal service delivery models. California reformers also recently gained momentum toward a sandbox approach.
Stewart said he’s a fan of pilot programs to test ideas and collect data on proposed programs, and that it’s conceivable Florida could institute its own sandbox, if both his panel and the Supreme Court agree.
There are hints that the reforms Florida may propose won’t be as wide-ranging as those being sought out West. For starters, the Florida committee is composed only of lawyers, as opposed to California’s Task Force on Access Through Innovation of Legal Services (ATILS), which included several academics and legal technologists.
This is purposeful, said Stewart, given that one key part of the panel’s mission is to devise any necessary regulatory frameworks to protect consumers. That said, he said he plans to seek input not just from the public, but from legal tech advocates as well—so long as their mission is to promote ideas and not products.
Access to justice reform advocates expressed optimism about the Florida committee.
“The Florida Bar has already shown its leadership in encouraging lawyers to use technology; it can help lead the nation again by accelerating legal services to individuals and small businesses while creating opportunities for lawyers,” Jason Solomon, executive director of the Stanford Center on the Legal Profession, said in a statement.
Andrew Arruda, a member of the ATILS task force, and chief executive officer of the legal tech company ROSS Intelligence, echoed the sentiment.
“It is great to see Florida asking questions about how the current regulatory schema either aids or hinders access to justice in the state,” Arruda said in a separate statement.
As lawyers and others have seen in California, Utah, and Arizona, he said, “the time is certainly now to reconsider the regulations we have in place.”
Stewart said the idea has been percolating for years, ever since his involvement with the state bar’s Vision 2016 report. which addressed the importance of the integration of technology into the legal system.
The more recent movement from other states also helped spur Stewart to action, according to a Sept. 27, 2019 letter he wrote to Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady.
“As you are aware, multiple jurisdictions across the nation are studying the rules regulating the practice of law to determine what, if anything, can be changed to provide greater access while at the same time protecting the public as well as our profession’s core values,” Stewart wrote.
“While Florida is ahead of many jurisdictions in some areas, we are behind in studying whether the current regulatory model best meets the needs of Florida’s citizens in the delivery of legal services,” he said.
Six weeks later, Canady agreed on behalf of the court that reforms should be studied, in part because of the state’s “rapidly changing” legal services environment.
“We are committed to ensuring a strong and vibrant Bar to meet the legal needs of the people of Florida and to enforcing appropriate ethical standards for Florida lawyers,” the chief judge said then.