Florida Bar report proposes new attorney discipline standards

The Florida Bar may need to hold lawyers to a “higher standard” when it comes to misconduct, according to a much-anticipated report by the Hawkins Comission on Review of the Discipline System.

The commission was formed in the wake of two major scandals that rocked the legal profession in Florida – the Scott Rothstein Ponzi scheme and the robo-signing controversy over forged foreclosure documents.

The report recognizes that the Florida Supreme Court is moving toward “stronger sanctions” for attorneys who commit wrongdoing on the job.

Although light on detail, the report recommends that the Florida Bar acknowledge the court’s strong sanctions: “The Court and The Florida Bar have a duty to protect the public from harm by lawyers and it may be that holding lawyers to a higher standard may increase the reputation of all lawyers in the eyes of the public.”

The report does make some specific recommendations in other areas, including a possibly controversial suggestion that aging attorneys be moved into a different status after a certain age to avoid discipline problems associated with infirmities of age. According to the report, the Bar may want to consider sending attorneys information about aging programs and alternatives starting at age 55.

The Florida Bar Board of Governors will take up the recommendations in a regular meeting on Friday. The Business Journal will be following the Board of Governor’s meeting and its response to the recommendations.

In some good news, the report said the Bar’s new intake program, Attorney Consumer Assistance Program (ACAP), is working well. And the report said the Bar has been integrating new technology to track discipline cases.

Other recommendations included:

• Develop a procedure for “faster response” to significant violations like the Rothstein or robo-signing controversies.

• The Bar should emphasize that attorneys have a mandatory obligation to report misconduct by fellow attorneys.

• Provide additional education for judges about how they can and should report attorney misconduct. According to the report, judges surveyed recently said improvement in the discipline system is needed and most of them want more education.

• Develop a checklist to ensure that when judges refer attorneys to the Bar, each case is handled consistently.

• Change the name of the “Anger Management” Workshop to “Stress Management” Workshop.

• Allow suspended attorneys to apply for reinstatement after one-half of the suspension has been served. If a suspension is longer than one year, then a disciplined attorney may apply for reinstatement up to six months before the suspension period is completed. It is hoped that such a provision would limit the delay of reinstatement once a person has completed his or her suspension and has shown rehabilitation.

• Investigate whether attorneys involved in minor transgressions who are ordered to ethics training – as opposed to discipline – should be eligible for training again in three to five years. Currently attorneys sent to diversion programs are not eligible to be sent back to diversion for seven years.

• Establish long-term programs to help change attitudes in the legal profession about aging “to make it more acceptable and less offensive to accept the fact that at some point in life it is in the best interest of all to move out of the active practice of law with a smooth and predictable transition.”

• Develop a checklist for “early signs that a lawyer is becoming incapacitated,” possilbly similar to programs being investigated at University of Florida .

• Create a single page on the Bar’s website accessible from the homepage, which would aggregate information about attorney discipline.

Attribution:

Florida Bar report proposes new attorney discipline standards
Paul Brinkmann
May 14, 2012
South Florida Business Journal
http://www.bizjournals.com/southflorida/news/2012/05/14/florida-bar-may-need-higher.html

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