Since its origination in 1949, The Florida Bar has grown from 3,758 members to more than 108,000. For the past year, the Bar has been led by John M. Stewart – a third generation Florida attorney – practicing probate litigation and mediation for Rossway Swan from their Melbourne and Vero Beach offices. Stewart has been instrumental in helping Florida’s legal profession keep pace with the rapid evolution of technology while maintaining the core purpose of the profession, a purpose he defines as: “Being a counselor at law – always pursuing justice, yet guiding our clients on the individual path that is right for them and their businesses.”
EW: At the end of June you wrap up your year as the President of The Florida Bar. What are the key things you have learned during your term and how, perhaps, has your understanding of the legal profession shifted?
JS: Going in we had a great long-term strategic plan, and I had a more annualized one, but mine was a little less traditional. For some time, I have been an advocate for finding ways to introduce and better utilize technology. Also, I am very process-oriented and I wanted our Board of Governors, a 52-member elected body that governs the lawyers in Florida, to focus on being a policy-making and forward-thinking, body. Our job, from a strategic perspective, is to ask the question: “Where is our profession going and what do we need to do to help get our lawyers get there?”
Especially when you consider that the bulk of our members, 75%, work at firms with ten lawyers or less. This doesn’t mean we ignore the larger firms, but we are at a pivotal point, even before Covid 19 came along. That crucial juncture deals with how the profession adapts to change. The analogy I heard one person use was [instructive]: “If you took a doctor from the 1800’s and dropped them into a modern ER or OR, they would be totally paralyzed. They wouldn’t have the first clue on how to do anything. On the other hand, if you dropped a lawyer in from the 1800’s to try a case, unless it was of a highly technical nature, they would probably do just fine.”
EW: Isn’t some of that due to the nature of the legal profession and law itself?
JS: If the question is that the law hasn’t had to change, as much as medicine, I would disagree with that. But the fact of the matter is, we haven’t changed. This is why we see these new outside forces, for instance Legal Zoom. I’m not bringing them up to disparage or to applaud them, they exist because lawyers weren’t meeting a need that the community was looking for; namely, middle class people who needed services at a price point they could afford. Legal Zoom found a way to commoditize and monetize that and as a result they reach a large number of people. Of course, they do a discrete amount of work, there are a host of things they can’t do. So yes, we need to catch up. And fast forward to today, where we are dealing with this health pandemic, with stay at home orders and things slowing down, that change is critical. The legal profession has been very face-to-face oriented, traditionally. You go to court, you don’t Skype in, clients want to meet with you at your offices. If there is a silver lining in this current situation, it is that the legal business, I don’t think, will be practiced the same as it was going into this pandemic.
EW: What are the challenges in that change and transition?
JS: The law is steeped in precedence, the founding case that solves a contemporary dispute can still be from the 19th or 20th century. Because of that, the profession is slow to embrace change. My father just celebrated his 50th year in the Bar and he still practices law. Think about the technological changes that have taken place in his career? But here is one of the biggest differences: when he was young, most lawyers were sort of general practitioners – they did real estate closings, formed corporations, and even tried cases. They didn’t do everything, but they did a variety of things. In the arc of [my father’s] career, there has been a drive in the profession, and in law schools, toward specialization. Now my father does real estate law, healthcare and not-for-profit corporations. The move changes the focus from most being a generalist to everyone being a specialist.
EW: Which I would assume has caused the costs for legal services to rise? JS: That is one outcome, but the vast majority of people seeking legal services don’t need a specialist. Lawyers with a tax specialty have a high level of training that they should be paid for, but does the average person need that level of sophistication to draft their will? I think, and I don’t have data to support this, that the pendulum will swing back, to a certain degree, and we will see a rise in the generalists again.
EW: I would think that would also mean a better quality of life for those lawyers who are attracted to that?
JS: That is true. The legal profession is looking to help reduced the strain that causes lawyers to be driven toward health issues like cardiac arrests and stroke, in addition to substance abuse or suicide. We have had a huge focus on mental health and wellness at the Bar. I’ve always said, most lawyers are frustrated social workers at heart, they like to do good. As a generalist, you have that opportunity and you can make a good living. Also, filling out the blanks in a digital form isn’t as easy as it sounds. Those questions are there for a reason and the implications can be far reaching, so legal counsel is essential. Even Legal Zoom’s model has changed from people going online to fill out forms, to a model that embraces having a relationship with lawyers. They have a better product when they connect that consumer to a qualified lawyer. Plus, Legal Zoom only covers a couple of areas of the law, so when other needs arise, like a car accident or labor issue, that consumer now has a relationship with an attorney.
EW: Can you explain what The Florida Bar is?
JS: The Florida Bar is an arm of the Florida Supreme Court and is tasked and governed by the Court. The Court has delegated to the Bar’s Board of Governors the oversight of the Bar’s 108,000 attorneys. The Board is a 52-member elected body, representing each of the 20 Court Circuits in Florida and includes four out-of-state representatives and two non-lawyer members. The Bar has an executive director and headquarters is in Tallahassee, with four regional offices and over 380 employees, with an annual budget of around $46 million. Half the budget is spent on investigating and initiating lawyer discipline; we police and punish lawyers who violate the rules the Bar has established – which means protecting the public by ensuring lawyers that shouldn’t be practicing are not doing harm. Sometimes [the recommended discipline] is a matter of getting proper education or, if it is major issue, the offending lawyer could be disbarred. In all these issues, the Supreme Court has the final say both in both the rules and in their enforcement.
The other half of the Bar’s purpose is to ensure the ongoing education, wellbeing and support of lawyers. This includes them fulfilling their Continuing Educational requirements (CEU). One of the things I was instrumental in getting passed was the addition of three hours of CEU’s on technology.
EW: You have a passion for moving your profession forward through technology; where is Florida’s legal profession in that continuum and where is there opportunity to innovate?
JS: I’m an early adopter of technology, but I am by no means a technologist. I became the chair of the Bar’s technology subcommittee, I think, because I was the youngest person available. In three years, chairing that subcommittee, I’ve learned a lot. We are a big state, with 20 Circuits, but 67 Counties. That presents challenges as each County has a Clerk of the Court. One unforeseen consequence deals with uniformity. I practice in the 19th Circuit that represents Indian River, Martin, St. Lucie and Okeechobee Counties, four counties, four fantastic Clerks, but not everything gets managed the same way, which can cost us time and time is the lawyers marketable product. Currently, the judiciary branch of our state government gets less than one percent of the state budget. I think because of this current situation, the legislature – which has been a close ally of the judiciary – will see the wisdom of investing in technology that will significantly improve our current system. This current health pandemic underscores the point that in spite of the mandatory restrictions, just like certain critical goods and services have to continue, people and businesses have to have access to justice – it’s a core essential service. People get arrested and need the opportunity to post bond, disputes still have to be resolved. It is a big challenge right now, but it is also a great opportunity. That may be one of the silver linings in this terrible situation, that the legal profession will become more technologically-inclusive and adaptive.