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Florida Moves Forward With Steps To Increase Access To Legal Services

By Gary S. Lesser, Florida Bar President 2022-2023

Going forward, Florida will be looking to move to increase access to legal services, with gradual and pragmatic steps that can be implemented, and these steps will increase access to legal services and provide additional benefits as well.

At the request of the Florida Supreme Court in April of 2022, then Florida Bar President Mike Tanner appointed the Special Committee on Greater Public Access to Legal Services. President Tanner was kind enough to include me in selecting members of this committee, knowing that most of the work would be done during my tenure as Florida Bar President. Together, we picked committee members who we knew would work hard within the limited time window provided by the Court. The Special Committee was Co-Chaired by Jay Kim and Wayne Smith, members of the Florida Bar Board of Governors.

As Florida Bar President, I sent the final report and recommendations to Chief Justice Carlos Muniz on December 27, 2022, and we conferenced with the members of the Court in Tallahassee a few months after that. Chief Justice Muniz recently sent a letter to current Bar President Scott Westheimer with instructions to move forward on a few key proposals.

The Court directed the appropriate Bar committees to propose rules authorizing continuing legal education credit or professionalism credit for pro bono participation. The Court advised that the Bar should consider whether there should be a maximum number of credit hours that can be earned under this authority. This recommendation is important because when implemented, there will be a significant increase in pro bono work done by Florida lawyers. Many Floridians will be able to obtain legal assistance that may have otherwise not occurred.

Additionally, the Court looked at recommendations for the Special Committee’s report concerning the Florida Bar Rules regulating certified legal interns (CLIs). The Court recommended reviewing background checks for certified legal interns and revising participation periods. Currently, Florida requires two years of law school to be eligible to be a CLI. The Special Committee recommended eligibility after one year of law school and a Level 2 Background Check. The Court instructed that this proposed rule amendment should be developed in consultation with the Florida Board of Bar Examiners.

When properly studied and implemented, this would greatly increase the opportunity of law school students to obtain real clinical work experience while in law school, something that is greatly needed. There have been many law school graduates over the years with little or no clinical or practical work experience during their legal education, and that is not to the benefit of those future lawyers or the public they will serve. Having more CLIs available to work under the supervision of Florida lawyers will reduce the overall cost of legal services being provided and increase the number of clients who can receive help, especially in a legal aid setting.

Additionally, the Court is going to defer to the appropriate committees of the Bar to study and decide whether to propose rules clarifying advertising rules for legal aid organizations. Currently, it’s not clear if Legal Aid must comply with the pre-screening for its advertisements. This should not be necessary and legal aid organizations should have greater ability to reach out sooner to the public they serve. The sooner people who qualify can get legal representation, the sooner it could prevent some evictions, terminations, and allow our veterans, children and at-risk elderly get help before legal problems in question become more severe.

The Court also deferred a proposal to allow sole owners of corporate entities or limited liability companies to represent the entity pro se. A person can represent oneself, but under current law, any company (even a one man show or family business) is required to hire a lawyer, which can be a big financial burden. The recommendation was to expand pro se representation so that a single member LLC or corporate entity would be able to self-represent and not have to pay for a lawyer if they choose not to. The Court pointed out that consideration should be given to whether statutory changes are necessary.

The Court is also going to defer to the Florida Bar to implement a limit-scope representation toolkit if it feels it has sufficient authority to do so, and will also defer to the Bar on whether it wishes to create an office to work with legal aid programs to conduct test programs. The former recommendation was to inform lawyers and the public about currently available unbundled legal services, which could result in targeted lower cost attorney’s fees.  The latter recommendation – the Bar trying to help legal aid organizations try new programs – is a very long-term project that has been discussed for many years and would help statewide legal aid efforts.

Altogether, each of these recommendations increase access to legal services for legal aid organizations, pro se representation, and the overall increased access to the public at large. In years past, there has been a big push for non-lawyer ownership of firms to increase “competitiveness” to lower the cost of legal services. That largely has not materialized in the limited number of states that have experimented with this approach. A pragmatic path, focused on helping increase access to legal services directed by the independent court system and the independent legal profession, is the best path forward.  I am confident that current and incoming Florida Bar leadership will be able to stay on that path and further examine and implement these recommendations.

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