Over the last year, a variety of events and changes have impacted Jacksonville’s legal community. The Daily Record has had the privilege to cover many of them. This is a recap of our major legal news stories of 2006.
If you have predictions for 2007’s major legal stories – or you think we left something important out for 2006 – please let us know: Send an e-mail with “Legal Issues 2006/2007” in the headline to [email protected], or call 356-2466 and ask for Liz Daube.
• Four judges were elected to newly-created seats in the Fourth Judicial Circuit.
Two attorneys from the private sector, John Merrett and Dan Wilensky, and two from the State Attorney’s Office, Dawn Hudson and Libby Senterfitt, won their respective elections this fall. The new judges start work Jan. 2.
The race for Hudson’s seat was historic because it was the first time both candidates for a Duval County judge seat were female. She defeated Virginia Norton, an attorney with Jacksonville’s Office of General Counsel, with 57 percent of votes.
Deborah Greene, past-president of the Jacksonville Women Lawyers Association, said women are “still underrepresented in the judiciary,” adding only nine of 53 judges in the Fourth Judicial Circuit were women prior to the election.
• Jacksonville attorney Hank Coxe was sworn in as the 58th president of The Florida Bar in June. Coxe is the ninth Jacksonville attorney and third from his firm to lead the almost 78,000-member Bar. Since his election, Coxe has stayed busy and spends part of almost every week on the road.
• Also in June, the leadership of the Jacksonville Bar Association changed hands. Kelly Mathis was sworn in as the new JBA president. After the ceremony, Mathis laid out an itinerary with a heavy emphasis on collegiality.
“I’m looking out at attorneys I’ve battled with and attorneys I’ve battled against, but they are colleagues all,” said Mathis. “Collegiality is a word you’re going to hear a lot over the next year.”
Caroline Emery was also sworn in as JBA president-elect. In June 2007 she will succeed Mathis, becoming the third woman president in the 109-year history of the JBA.
• The City is currently negotiating with the team of Auchter/Perry/McCall/Rink Design/DLR Group to serve as the design/build consultant on the new County Courthouse. Overall, the new courthouse will have a budget of $263.5 million: $211 million from the Better Jacksonville Plan, $48.3 million from traffic fine surcharges, $3.4 million from court documents facilities fund and $811,000 from the court facilities trust fund.
• In October, Congress passed a bill that caps the interest payday lenders can charge military families at 36 percent. The nationwide effort bore a striking resemblance to local attempts to curb predatory lending, a practice that places borrowers in a nearly inescapable spiral of debt.
“I think it’s fair to say the tide is clearly turning against the exorbitant interest rates and the predatory lending practices that have occurred in the past,” said City Council member Kevin Hyde, who introduced first-of-its-kind legislation to cap local, short-term loan interest rates at 36 percent in 2005. “Congress, in some sense, validated what we did.”
Hyde said studies from the U.S. Department of Defense initially inspired his Council legislation, which was later struck down.The DOD report ranked the prevalence of payday lending in an area as its eighth top concern for deciding which military bases to close.
Lynn Drysdale, an attorney with Jacksonville Area Legal Aid who specializes in predatory lending cases, testified for the congressional panel that proposed the bill. She said payday lenders often target military members because their paychecks are small enough to keep them in need, but steady enough to provide regular payments.
• Electronic data confidentiality issues started raising ethical and technological questions for the legal community.
Here’s how metadata, or electronic information about information, can become an issue: A lawyer e-mails a Microsoft Word document to the opposing counsel on a case. The opposing counsel opens up the file, and voilà: He can access the names of every person who worked on the document (including the client), the names of the firms where their computers were registered and all the document revisions (including deleted information).
“It’s really a scary concept, and it’s something people need to know about,” said Alan Pickert, former president of the Jacksonville Bar. “I was amazed that you can do those kind of things on a computer.”
The Florida Bar issued a professional ethics opinion (06-2) on the topic in September:
“A lawyer who is sending an electronic document should take care to ensure the confidentiality of all information contained in the document, including metadata. A lawyer receiving an electronic document should not try to obtain information from metadata that the lawyer knows or should know is not intended for the receiving lawyer.”
• Legal blogging, or “blawging,” was another online issue for attorneys. Blawg.org, a Web site for law blog links and information, lists more than 1,000 blawgs on hundreds of topics.
Blawging enthusiasts predict the growing popularity of blawgs will produce positive changes in the law profession, its clients and American culture. They say blawgs allow lawyers a remarkably efficient way to examine and share knowledge with each other – and anyone else curious about the law.
Some of the legal community has shown concern, however, because blawgs are not regulated or edited, leaving them susceptible to factual errors.
Elizabeth Talbert, ethics counsel at the Florida Bar, said the Bar hasn’t specifically addressed the issue of advertising regulations for blawgs yet.
“We’ve been regulating Web sites for years,” she said. “A blawg is nothing but a Web site that’s updated on a regular basis.”
Talbert added any Web site can be difficult to regulate because content can be removed or altered. Sander Moody, a local law instructor, said he thinks blawgs will produce more debate as they continue to grow in number and popularity.
“Are they doing it to inform the public, or garner more clients?” he asked. “When does communication become advertising?”
• After a year of planning, designing and remodeling, Florida Coastal School of Law held its first day of fall classes in its new building in the Baymeadows area. The school’s new facility in the former Citibank building is more than twice the size of its former location on Beach Boulevard. International design firm IDEO helped Florida Coastal incorporate the school’s education philosophy into the building’s interior design, adding features ranging from after-class “knowledge bars” to usable courtrooms with cutting-edge technology. The school also graduated its largest class ever – 216 students – in May.
• Corporate firm Holland & Knight increased its first-year associate salaries to $100,000 with signing bonus of $5,000. The decision was made to keep the firm competitive in new recruitment efforts, according Adolfo Jimenez, the firm’s professional development and recruiting partner. Other firms reported similar first-year salary jumps. “Some surveys we have seen say compensation is essential to retaining attorneys,” said Ed Baxa, a managing partner in Foley & Lardner’s Orlando office. “We also stress training, flexibility issues and we address the work/life issue. We want our lawyers to have a good balance.”