Florida Bar under fire for hiring public relations firm for nearly $100,000

Many members oppose spending $96,000 in support of out-of-state lawyers practicing here.

Florida Bar president Ram?n Abadin 
says he didn't take a stance on reciprocity but wanted to open talks.
Florida Bar president Ram?n Abadin says he didn't take a stance on reciprocity but wanted to open talks.
Published August 31 2015
Updated September 1 2015

The Florida Bar has touched off a new brouhaha among the state's lawyers, this time by hiring a Miami public relations firm for $96,000 a year to advance "positive campaign messages."

Critics fear that the main message the firm will try to advance is a controversial proposal to let out-of-state lawyers practice in Florida without taking the Florida Bar exam.

"I'm flabbergasted," Miami lawyer Robert Allen said Monday upon learning that the Bar had hired Schwartz Media Strategies. "It seems to me that they hired a firm to push an agenda that neither the (Bar's) board of governors nor the vast majority of members of the Florida Bar supports. It's disturbing."

Lawyer Lloyd Schwed, who has led the fight against admitting out-of-state lawyers, called the hiring "simply outrageous."

"It is difficult to understand how the Florida Bar leadership thinks it is an appropriate use of money to retain a PR firm at a cost of (nearly) $100,000 a year when there are so many legal aid organizations in the state in desperate need of funds," said Schwed of Palm Beach Gardens.

"Can you imagine how helpful that $100,000 could be to legal aid organizations trying to help someone losing their home or a battered wife who needs protection?"

Francine Walker, the Bar's director of public information, said the organization has hired several public relations firms over the years to raise awareness of issues it considers important.

"The Bar retained Schwartz Media Strategies to do just that, which includes fostering dialogue about the many changes taking place in the legal profession, nationally and internationally," she said.

Since July, the Bar's 101,000 members have been in an uproar over "reciprocity" — a policy that allows lawyers to practice in states other than their home state without taking the local bar exam. The Bar has received hundreds of emails from members concerned that Florida would be flooded with lawyers from cold-weather states at a time when many Florida lawyers are struggling.

Among those opposing reciprocity are the Clearwater and Broward County Bar Associations, as well as the entire Palm Beach County delegation to the Bar's governing board.

After a Bar subcommittee recommended reciprocity, the Bar's new president, Miami lawyer Ramón Abadin, seemed to go along with the idea in a speech in which he said it would benefit Florida lawyers who want to practice in other states.

Abadin, while stressing that lawyers need to adapt to a more mobile world, later insisted he had not taken a position on reciprocity but only wanted to start a discussion. The ultimate decision rests with the Florida Supreme Court.

Walker said she initially contacted the Miami firm about doing "media training" for Abadin. Bar presidents are frequently called on to speak to reporters.

After Abadin met with the firm, it submitted a proposal to do public relations work on several possible Bar rule changes, including those that now ban reciprocity. In the first draft of the proposal, the word "reciprocity" did not appear, although the firm said it would work to solidify the Bar's "forward-looking agenda" under Abadin's leadership.

To that end, the firm said it would pitch story ideas to news organizations. Among the suggested topics: the recent decline in law school enrollments and "the impact this may have on the profession."

Critics of reciprocity say one reason to keep out lawyers from other states is that Florida's 12 laws schools — five of which have opened since 2000 — have been enrolling so many students that there aren't enough jobs for all of them.

The final draft of the Miami firm's proposal kept the story ideas but deleted references to Abadin and the "forward-looking agenda." Renee Thompson, who chairs the communications committee of the Bar's governing board, said the proposal was changed to make it clear that the board, not Abadin, had hired the firm. As for the phrase "forward-looking agenda,'' she said it was removed because "we didn't know what that meant."

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at smartin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.