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Florida Supreme Court takes action on professionalism

By Christian George, Co-chair of Bench and Bar Professionalism Committee

The highest court in Florida has recently acted to begin eradicating unprofessional behavior among attorneys.

On June 6, the Supreme Court of Florida issued Opinion SC13-688, which adopted the Code for Resolving Professional Complaints.

As a result of this opinion, Chief Judge Donald Moran entered Administrative Order 2013-09, which establishes a local professionalism panel in the 4th Judicial Circuit to enforce violations of professional standards for the legal industry.

The administrative order creates a procedure where attorneys and non-attorneys may file a complaint for unprofessional behavior against an attorney. Further, the administrative order sets forth the method in which the committee is formed and how it resolves filed complaints.

The Jacksonville Bar Association has previously had both formal and informal setups to regulate and ensure professional behavior from its Bar members.

However, the recent enactment sets a statewide mandate for how to process allegations of unprofessional behavior. Admittedly, the Code for Resolving Professional Complaints is not 100 percent clear and, unfortunately, it is possible that some lawyers may disagree on how to comply. But, the message should be clear — if in doubt, the path of civility is preferred to the path of hostility.

When you get right down to it, there is no way to create a completely black and white “professionalism code” since “professionalism” can be interpreted in various ways.

Rut Liles, past president of The Florida Bar, acknowledges that “professionalism” is an elusive term. He defines it as a lawyer’s “ethical, moral, competent and compassionate” guidance of a client without “any form of offensive personality” while doing so.

I always refer back to the golden rule instilled in me by my mother: “treat others like you would like to be treated.”

The golden rule is easily applied in day-to-day life, but there are natural struggles with it in our profession where advocacy often dictates our behavior. Inevitably, we all face struggles in the day-to-day practice of law that tests our professionalism.

Whether it be a rude phone call from opposing counsel, gamesmanship in litigation or the rude and condescending client, there are stressful situations that invite us to react in-kind and take the proverbial “low road.”

However, while we are involved in clients’ stressful problems, it is not our role to bring those emotions to a phone call, meeting, mediation, and, especially, the courtroom.

In these days of increasing technology, it only takes about six seconds to make a regretful mistake. I have heard several stories from the pre-email days where attorneys would write up their angry letter and leave it on their desk overnight.

By the next morning, the initial anger had subsided and the letter was shredded. However, the “send” button now allows us to fire off an angry letter without a second thought.

While I can’t offer you a fool-proof system to prevent unprofessional behavior, I find that taking a deep breath and taking a moment to reflect will normally give enough time for the initial rush of emotions to blow over.

However, no one is perfect and I am the first to admit that I have sent an email or two I instantly regretted. In that case, a simple phone call apology normally reinstates the professional relationship.

Should you have concerns or want to talk with someone regarding professionalism issues, we are happy to connect you to a member of the Professionalism Committee with a similar level of experience for a confidential discussion.

Professionalism and ethics are a kind of Venn diagram. There is certainly some overlap, but there is still a wide variety of activity that might not be unethical but certainly falls short of the level of professionalism mandated by the Florida Supreme Court.

The 4th Judicial Circuit Professionalism Panel is actively enforcing the mandate of the Florida Supreme Court and has reviewed several complaints thus far.

If you have questions or would like to report a potential professionalism violation, please contact the 4th Judicial Circuit Professionalism Panel c/o The Jacksonville Bar Association, 1 Independent Drive, Suite 2201, Jacksonville, FL 32202.

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