Monday, September 24, 2018
Business

Here's what the Tampa lawyer who now leads the Florida Bar has to say about the legal profession

As the new president of the Florida Bar, Tampa lawyer William J. Schifino Jr. is starting out on a relatively low-key note. And that's probably fine with everyone.

At this time last year, the Bar's 103,000 members were embroiled in a bitter controversy over reciprocity — letting out-of-state lawyers practice in Florida without taking the Florida Bar exam. Then-president Ramon Abadin spent much of his year in office dealing with critics who claimed reciprocity was a crazy idea at a time when many Florida lawyers and recent law school graduates were struggling financially.

"That's off our plate," Schifino says of reciprocity. "I can't predict five, 10, 15 years from now, but that is not an issue on our table for the foreseeable future."

The 57-year-old Schifino has plenty of other matters to keep him occupied in the coming year as the legal profession goes through profound changes wrought by technology, once-swollen law school enrollments and the public's demand for accessible, affordable legal services.

A Tampa native who has a bachelor's degree from Tulane and a law degree from the University of Florida, Schifino recently discussed some of those issues with the Tampa Bay Times.

One of the arguments against reciprocity was that Florida already has too many lawyers and too many law schools — 12 in all — cranking out more lawyers every year. Is the Bar doing anything to encourage schools to limit their enrollments?

No, it's not our position to encourage or discourage law school enrollment. Years ago, the (American Bar Association) was looking at taking steps to curtail the proliferation of law schools and, as best I recall, they recognized you can't do that in the free market system — you can't regulate the number of lawyers that are going to come into the marketplace.

What I can tell you is that when I look at the statistics of the pass rates of certain law schools, that to me is a bit troubling. If you've got a law school with a 60 percent pass rate, my heart goes out to those student who went through three years of law school and can't pass the Bar exam. I'm in no way suggesting that it's the law school's fault, but the number of college students applying to law school is down significantly so I think the free market system is doing the encouraging (of lower enrollments).

Although people accused of crimes can get a public defender, there's no such guarantee for people who have civil legal issues but can't afford a lawyer. What's the Bar doing to improve "access to justice," as it's called?

One idea is for a statewide portal. Any citizen with any legal problem could go to this portal and would be asked questions about their ability to pay. Do they go to legal aid or to a local voluntary referral service? I call it connectivity — find a way to connect that citizen with the right lawyer.

But many lawyers don't want to do work for legal aid organizations because the pay is relatively low. And they can't afford to do much pro bono work. What's the answer to that?

We need to see how we as a profession can harness technological advances in order to make delivery of legal services more efficient and therefore bring down the cost to the consumer. I once spent a whole week in New York looking through a warehouse (of files). Now you can put in a word search and in 1/100th of the time provide that service to my client at great cost savings. I used to have to get out of my office and walk to the law library to do research; now I can get on my computer and use Google for certain legal research. That's all driving down the cost of providing the service to the client.

Of the 52 members of the Florida Bar's Board of Governors, 48 are white. In a recent piece in the Florida Bar Journal, you said there needs to be more diversity at all levels of the profession including the judiciary. How do you increase diversity?

The law schools are doing a very good job for their part of getting more diverse classes. We don't get them until they pass the Bar, but what we're doing as a profession is that years ago we created a standing committee on diversity and inclusion. We fund diversity outreach programs. Three or four year ago, we created the Leadership Academy. It's a great program, but it's a long-term play. We have classes made up of diverse candidates — African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian — that we are training on issues of leadership. I think we've got three or four (class) members on the Board of Governors, so it's working.

Some Florida lawyers are getting quite aggressive in their advertising. One billboard pictures a lawyer rolling up his sleeves and saying, "I'll fight for you." Another shows one wielding a baseball bat. Ours is supposed to be a country where we settle things by rule of law, not violence. Do you think these kinds of ads are appropriate?

It's free speech, and we can't do anything to stop it. But I think the public is a lot smarter than people give them credit for and I don't think that (kind of ad) is persuasive. I think it does the profession a disservice.

Are there any especially fast-growing areas of the law that the public and even some lawyers aren't aware of?

Particularly in Tampa Bay, you see more and more businesses come here, so I think a growing area will be IT and intellectual property. If I was a young person, certainly that's what I'd go into. What else we've seen come back is commercial real estate.

Your father and brother are lawyers, but I read that one of your daughters wants to be a doctor and the other is majoring in economics. Have you discouraged them from joining a field that many of your peers think is overcrowded?

(Chuckles.) I didn't steer them off. The oldest, the economics major who I thought was dead set to go to business school, she said, "I'm thinking about taking the LSAT," so maybe I've got one there. And the little guy, my 15-year-old, who knows?

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.

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