Firestorm over plan to let out-of-state lawyers practice in Florida without passing exam

Florida lawyers criticize a proposal to permit out-of-state lawyers to practice here sans test.
Ram?n Abadin of the Florida Bar says the Bar hasn't taken an official stance on reciprocity.
Ram?n Abadin of the Florida Bar says the Bar hasn't taken an official stance on reciprocity.
Published July 20 2015
Updated July 21 2015

And you thought Florida already had too many lawyers?

A proposal to let lawyers from other states practice in the Sunshine State without taking the Florida Bar exam has ignited a firestorm in Florida's already crowded legal community.

"It's a ridiculous proposal," John Fitzgibbons, a Tampa attorney and former federal prosecutor, said Monday. "Every lawyer in a cold-weather climate who has a condo in Florida will join the Florida Bar and make that condo his or her Florida office."

"I don't think it's a good idea, and I was completely unaware of it," said Terry Deeb, a St. Petersburg attorney. "I had no idea it was being considered, which is another complaint I've been hearing among my colleagues."

In a survey published last year, nearly half of the Florida Bar members who responded cited "too many lawyers" as the most serious problem facing the legal profession today. Florida already has 101,000 licensed attorneys, with hundreds more joining the ranks each year.

The first inkling many lawyers had that the Bar was considering so-called "reciprocity" with other states came last week in a Florida Bar Journal story about the organization's new president, Miami attorney Ramón Abadin, and the speech he gave at his June 26 swearing-in ceremony.

In what the story described as an "eye-opening call to action," Abadin said Florida lawyers "can't operate today under rules from a different era" and suggested changing, among other things, rules that now restrict reciprocity.

That caught the attention of Lloyd Schwed, a lawyer in Palm Beach Gardens.

"The Bar or portions of the Bar's leadership is rushing into this thing without asking Bar members how they feel about this, and I took offense at it," he said.

On Friday, the Bar's governing board will discuss a preliminary report on reciprocity, which recommended that a lawyer who has practiced five of the last seven years and is in good standing could apply to join the Florida Bar without taking the state exam. Schwed said he was particularly offended by the report's statement that a "majority" of Florida lawyers favor reciprocity although only 1,148 had responded to a survey on the issue.

Schwed said he and his staff sent emails to 2,000 Bar members around the state alerting them to Abadin's comments and the report.

Of those, "95 percent wrote me and said, 'I didn't even know this thing was being discussed, and I'm totally against it and this is a terrible idea. This is really upsetting,' " Schwed said.

As word spread, Abadin issued a statement Thursday stressing that the Bar had not taken an official position on reciprocity.

"In addition," the statement said, "it is important to remember that no rule changes will go into effect unless and until the Florida Supreme Court has approved them."

On Monday, Abadin said he and the Bar had received "less than 100" calls and emails about the issue.

"The calls we are getting are vocal," he acknowledged, "and they are concerned because people are concerned about their livelihood, and they should be, but not just because of reciprocity but because of what's going on in the marketplace."

Noting that technology and globalization are having a dramatic impact on many fields, including the law, Abadin said the Bar has spent the past two years studying ways to adapt. Reciprocity would benefit Florida lawyers who had clients with legal issues in other states, or who had to move because of a spouse's job change, Abadin said.

Though lawyers from other places who wanted to practice in Florida would not have to take the full state Bar exam, they still could be required to demonstrate knowledge of Florida law in specialty areas like wills and probate, Abadin said.

"No one is saying or even considering blanket admission to Florida," he said. "But if a person from New York wanted to practice law here, do they really need to take a family law course or a civil procedure course or courses on stuff they don't practice anymore? The key issue is, I want to stimulate an engaged, informed discussion about all of these issues that are facing our profession, including, among many other things, reciprocity."

Half of the states already participate in some form of reciprocity, though most still require the applying lawyer to have a certain amount of experience. As under the Florida proposal, applicants must be in good standing with their home-state Bar and pass a "character and fitness" review.

Under certain circumstances, lawyers not licensed in Florida can appear in court with a judge's approval. They are limited, though, to three cases in a 365-day period, a rule intended to keep out-of-state lawyers from setting up de facto Florida practices.

Reciprocity could make it easier for big out-of-state firms to send in their own people and avoid hiring Florida attorneys. However, many national and international firms, including San Francisco-based Sedgwick LLP, have offices in Florida. Abadin is a trial attorney in Sedgwick's Miami office.

In the Bar survey published last year, 49 percent of Florida lawyers who responded said the state already had too many lawyers. Since 2000, the number of licensed Florida attorneys has ballooned from 60,900 to 101,093, of whom 88,000 are currently eligible to practice. In the same period, five new law schools have opened, cranking out even more lawyers.

Among students who graduated in 2013, more than 20 percent from some schools remained unemployed nine months after graduation.

"We'll have 50,000 new lawyers (from other states) within a couple of years if this hare-brained proposal passes," Fitzgibbons, the former prosecutor, said of reciprocity. "New lawyers are having a terrible time getting jobs, and this will only make things worse."

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

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