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  1. Business

Tampa to host debate on controversial plan to admit out-of-state lawyers

Tampa attorney Dennis Alvarez says a rule change will “flood the market with lawyers.” 

A Florida Supreme Court justice says it is "the worst thing" that could happen to Florida citizens. A former Tampa judge calls it a "horrible proposal."

Yet others say Florida lawyers need to get with the times and realize they work in an increasingly globalized world.

At a public forum in Tampa on Friday, the Florida Bar will hear pros and cons of a hugely controversial recommendation to let lawyers from other states practice in Florida without taking the Florida Bar exam. Called "admission by motion with reciprocity," the proposal also would enable Florida lawyers to practice in most other states without taking their exams.

Proponents says reciprocity makes sense in a mobile society and would benefit consumers, especially those with legal matters that cross state lines. Critics say it's absurd to loosen Florida's admission requirements at a time when the state already has 101,000 lawyers and hundreds of recent law school grads unable to find work.

"It's a horrible proposal that's basically flooding the market with lawyers," said Tampa attorney Dennis Alvarez, Hillsborough County's former chief judge. "The way they're trying to sell this is that it's going to give better access to justice. We've got (101,000) lawyers in this state now, and if those lawyers aren't providing access to the courts, are another 14,000 or 15,000 going to do it?"

Other critics say out-of-state lawyers would lack the requisite knowledge of Florida laws.

"I think it's absolutely the worst thing that could happen to the citizens of Florida," said state Supreme Court Justice R. Fred Lewis.

"You cannot do a car wreck case in Florida if you do not know and understand the Florida statutes. You cannot do a medical negligence case unless you understand the Florida statutes. Everywhere you turn, there are statutory provisions unique to Florida."

Lewis said he is also concerned about talk he has heard that some supporters of admission by motion had tried to discredit outspoken opponents. If that is true, Lewis said, he would call for an investigation.

"It's so distasteful to me and so unprofessional, I could just spit," he said.

As of last week the Bar, its 52-member board of governors and the new Bar president, Miami attorney Ramon Abadin, had received 1,247 emails on the issue, with the vast majority in opposition. At least 12 members of the governing board, which is due to consider the proposal next month, have already said they will vote no. The final decision rests with the Florida Supreme Court.

Allowing admission by motion was among the recommendations made last year by a Bar committee that examined challenges facing the legal profession.

"The committee determined that erecting barriers to cross-border practice was no longer practical in today's mobile society and increased competition was not a principled reason for continuing such barriers," the group's report said.

"Our own members need and deserve the ability to serve their clients in other states, or to move to other states without having to retake a Bar exam," the report said.

Based on a questionnaire sent to 3,122 lawyers and answered by 1,140 — about 1 percent of all Bar members — the committee said: "It is clear that a majority of Florida lawyers favor reciprocity."

Perhaps because so few lawyers took part in the survey, the recommendation drew little attention until Abadin, in his installation speech in June, seemed to support the idea.

"Imagine if Florida lawyers could work with a client in any state. They can't at the moment," he said. "Imagine if the Bar rules of reciprocity … were changed. Florida lawyers could work there, anywhere, at any time, in any place."

As blistering calls and emails poured in, Abadin insisted he had no position on the matter and only wanted to start a discussion.

"People are concerned and that's actually good, really good," he said. "A lot of the emails started with, 'I had no idea what you're doing,' and now they're engaged and paying attention."

Critics of admission by motion say it would open the floodgates to attorneys from cold northern states who theoretically could run law practices out of their Florida condos. How many really might set up shop in Florida?

Arizona, another popular Sunbelt state, adopted admission by motion starting in 2010. Since then, the Arizona Supreme Court has admitted 1,030 lawyers from other states. That's about 5 percent of the Arizona Bar's total membership.

Extrapolated to much larger Florida, that could mean about 5,000 out-of-state lawyers admitted to Florida over five years.

At the same time, Abadin and others have suggested, Florida lawyers could practice "anywhere." That's not quite right.

Currently, 10 states besides Florida do not allow admission by motion. Even if Florida changed its rules, Florida lawyers could not practice in those 10 states — which include California, New Jersey and South Carolina — without taking the local Bar exam.

Conversely, lawyers from those states could not practice in Florida. But that still leaves almost 40 states — including big cold-weather ones like New York and Michigan — whose lawyers could set up shop in Florida with no exam.

Supporters of looser admission requirements suggest that if more lawyers came to Florida, the increased competition would drive down legal fees and be a boon for the many Floridians who can't afford legal help.

Access to justice, however, is mainly a problem in civil matters. People charged with a crime are entitled to a lawyer if they can't afford one. But there's no such guarantee for someone who wants to sue a roofer or a mechanic. Nor is there any evidence that lawyers from out of state would be more likely than Florida lawyers to charge affordable fees in civil cases.

"We have an access (to justice) gap on the civil side," Abadin said, acknowledging that "whether reciprocity or adding more lawyers will fix that, I don't know."

In their comments on the issue, Abadin and other Bar leaders have stressed that the Bar does not want "unfettered" admission of out-of-state lawyers. Applicants would have to be of good character and in active practice for five of the past seven years.

Abadin said they could also be required to do a certain amount of pro bono work or pass a test just on state law — as Arizona requires — rather than take the full, multi-part bar exam.

The controversy has attracted attention from organizations outside of Florida, including the Military Spouse JD Network. It says admission by motion would help lawyers who either must stay put or take a new bar exam every few years when their active-duty spouse is transferred.

"There's a lot of emotion that comes out from locals who maybe haven't thought about this issue," said Eleanor Vuono, the group's president. "What they're opposed to is all these New Yorkers flooding the market. I don't think it occurs to them that these restrictions are hurting military families."

Erica Moeser, president of the National Board of Bar Examiners, expressed surprise that admission by motion with reciprocity has caused such a stir.

"It's hard to argue that a highly qualified lawyer couldn't come in (from out of state) and the public wouldn't gain," she said.

But Lewis, one of Florida's seven justices, says the state already has enough lawyers plus 12 law schools producing more every year. And he doesn't buy the argument that reciprocity is needed so Florida lawyers can represent clients with legal issues elsewhere.

"If there's a Florida citizen with a problem in another state, let them hire a lawyer there. They'll be better served by a lawyer that knows that states laws in and out."

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

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