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The Bar Bulletin
Jax Daily Record Thursday, Nov. 4, 202105:00 AM EST

Commentary: Amid ‘steep decline,’ a renewed focus on professionalism

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State Supreme Court and The Florida Bar want errant lawyers to improve their conduct.

By Lanny Russell • JBA Professionalism Committee chair

After observing that lawyer professionalism may be in decline, the state Supreme Court entered In re: Code for Resolving Professional Complaints, SC13-688 (Fla. June 6, 2013), which directs the chief judge of each Florida circuit court to create a Local Professionalism Panel.

These panels receive, screen and act upon complaints of unprofessional lawyer conduct. It is the LLP’s responsibility to resolve complaints informally and, if not, refer potential meritorious complaints alleging violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct to The Florida Bar.

Fourth Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Mark Mahon entered Administrative Order 2013-09 (Aug. 19, 2013) establishing the circuit’s LLP. The members of this LLP are the chair of the JBA Professionalism Committee and five members of the JBA selected by the chair and the president of the JBA, with approval of the chief judge after consultation with his administrative judge.

Neither the JBA Professionalism Committee nor the LLP can impose sanctions, although failure to cooperate with an LLP investigation can be a factor in referring a complaint to The Florida Bar.

The Professionalism Committee and the LLPs try to resolve complaints in a non-punitive, mentor-like manner and provide the respondent lawyer incentive for improvement.

Our circuit, for as long as I have practiced, has had a deserved reputation for good judges, professionalism and civility. I regularly hear judges, lawyers and lay people from outside this circuit recognize these qualities.

Unfortunately, on a statewide level, professionalism is in the “steep decline” the state Supreme Court predicted in 1993. The Florida Bar and the court are addressing this decline by studying conduct by Florida lawyers and evaluating how to reverse the decline.

The 2021 Florida Bar member survey shows that 32% of the respondents believed lack of professionalism is one of the three most serious problems facing our profession.

The survey also reported that an astonishing 60% of Florida lawyers experience extreme unprofessional conduct frequently or occasionally.

The Florida Bar is focused on solving professionalism decline.  Earlier this year Mike Tanner, president of The Florida Bar, created the Special Committee for the Review of Professionalism in Florida. In creating the committee, Tanner said he is acting on the concerns he heard from many Bar members during his statewide campaign for president-elect.

Co-chair of the committee, Gary Lesser, said the group hopes to build on the network of the LLPs.

Lesser acknowledges the LLPs have been “highly effective in correcting behavior” before it rises to the level of a formal Bar investigation.

Tanner believes the court is focused on improving professionalism by education and improving how unprofessionalism is effectively addressed.

On Oct. 21, in SC21-653, the court accepted (with minor modifications) The Florida Bar’s request to establish a new process by which The Florida Bar and its board will review and approve the disposition of complaints from the judiciary concerning lawyer misconduct that do not result in a finding of probable cause.

The details of this process can be found in In re: Amendment to Rules Regulating the Florida Bar—Rule 3-7.18, SC21-653 (Fla. Oct. 21, 2021).

In researching and writing this article, I have come to understand the fundamental difference between ethics and professionalism.

Ethics is a group of rules about acts you should not do, whereas professionalism is a group of principles about acts you should do.

As Mark Goyder, founder of Tomorrow’s Co., said: “rules are for moral infants, principles are for moral adults.”

The JBA Professionalism Committee presents programs to promote professionalism within our community. I hope you will join us Nov. 16 for our first committee meeting of the year.

Lanny Russell is a business litigation shareholder at Smith Hulsey & Busey.

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