Florida Board of Governor's Opposes Legal Reform

The Florida Bar recommended to the Supreme Court to reject reform proposals to test allowing nonlawyer ownership in law firms, fee splitting with nonlawyers, and broadly expanding the work paralegals.

In a letter to Chief Justice Charles Canady responding to the controversial report of the Supreme Court’s Special Committee to Improve the Delivery of Legal Services, Bar President Mike Tanner said unintended consequences and the lack of compelling empirical data were the two fundamental concerns that underlie all of the Board of Governors’ votes to reject the special committee’s major recommendations.

The special committee was directed by the Supreme Court in late 2019 to study how legal services to consumers could be improved with lawyers playing a “proper and prominent role in the provision of these services.” It was directed to look at lawyer advertising, referral fees, fee splitting, regulation of lawyers, regulation of online legal service providers and nonlawyer providers of limited legal services, and related matters.

The committee filed its report June 28 with the court and the Bar, and the court agreed not to take it up until early this year, giving the board time to make its views known. Those views were strongly expressed at a number of special board meetings, especially on nonlawyer ownership and fee splitting.

The concept of having a statewide legal lab to test new ways of providing legal services was also unanimously rejected by the Bar Board of Governors when it met again December 2.

Non-lawyer Ownership of Law Firms

• The board unanimously rejected the special committee’s recommendation to amend Bar rules, within the proposed legal lab and potentially thereafter, to permit nonlawyers to have a non-controlling equity interest in law firms.

Fee Sharing with Nonlawyers

• The board unanimously rejected the special committee’s recommendation to amend Bar rules, within the proposed lab and potentially thereafter, to eliminate the restriction on fee sharing with nonlawyers.

Expanded Use of Florida Registered Paralegals

• The board voted to accept the special committee’s recommendation, in part, by allowing a limited pilot program to utilize Florida Registered Paralegals. This limited pilot program would be conducted within an existing legal aid organization (i.e., not within the proposed lab) and would limit the paralegals’ activities to residential landlord tenant law on behalf of the tenant, and debt collection defense. Otherwise, the board rejected the recommendation on the expanded use of paralegals.

Lawyer Advertising

• The board unanimously rejected the special committee’s recommendations to simplify and streamline Bar advertising rules and to eliminate the requirement for advance approval of lawyer advertising by the Bar.

Law Practice Innovation Lab Program

• The board unanimously rejected, as moot, the special committee’s recommendation to create a Law Practice Innovation Laboratory Program to test certain concepts. The board considered the lab recommendation after it had considered and voted on all of the other recommendations in the report and after it had rejected all of the recommendations the report proposed to study within the lab.

• In addition to mootness, board members expressed concerns about the lab concept in general, including an apparent waiver of applicable Bar rules in perpetuity for participants in the various lab experiments, even if the experiments ultimately were not adopted by the court. In the board’s view, this proposal, as structured, would amount to de facto rule changes for the lab participants.