Access to Justice

Florida Supreme Court rejects bar committee’s reform proposals, asks for alternatives

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After rejecting several proposals earlier this month that would have opened up Florida’s legal marketplace to nonlawyer financial interests and practitioners, the Florida Supreme Court has tasked the Florida Bar with coming up with alternative plans to strengthen access to justice.

The state bar’s Special Committee to Improve the Delivery of Legal Services released a report last June recommending the creation of the Law Practice Innovation Laboratory Program that would have permitted law firms to experiment with giving nonlawyers noncontrolling equity interests in law firms, as well as allowing paralegals to perform some limited legal tasks.

The committee’s recommendations were modeled after the regulatory sandbox program that Utah launched in 2020 as the centerpiece of regulatory reforms that it adopted to boost access to justice.

However, the Florida Supreme Court indicated in a March 3 letter from its clerk of the court to Joshua E. Doyle, executive director of the Florida Bar, that it only intended to adopt one of the special committee’s recommendations. The lone recommendation to receive a positive response called for amending state bar rules to allow nonprofit legal services providers to organize as a corporation and permit nonlawyers to serve on the boards of directors of those nonprofit providers.

“The court does not intend to adopt the special committee’s other recommendations,” wrote John A. Tomasino, the clerk of the court, in the letter.

But Tomasino wrote that the court “remains committed to ensuring that the rules governing the practice of law not only enforce appropriate ethical standards among Florida lawyers but also meet the needs of Floridians for timely and affordable legal services.” Along the same line, the court has tasked the bar with developing alternative proposals to “improve the delivery of legal services to Florida’s consumers and … assure Florida lawyers play a proper and prominent role in the provision of these services.”

The state bar has been asked to file such a report by Dec. 30. In a December 2021 letter to the state supreme court, the Florida Bar Board of Governors indicated that it rejected most of the special committee’s recommendations, including those that would have amended bar rules within an innovation lab to allow nonlawyer ownership of law firms or attorney fee sharing with nonlawyers.

“I think it’s fair to say that the court has fully acceded to our request that it not adopt the recommendations in the special committee report, which we rejected and has now given us the unique opportunity to take the lead in shaping our profession’s approach to access to justice,” wrote Michael Tanner, president of the Florida Bar, in a March 7 email to the board of governors, according to a recent post on the Florida Bar’s website.

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