The practice of law is one of the very few professions in the world where those in the profession govern themselves. As young lawyers, we have the privilege to be a part of this governing process. Our decisions and actions with respect to the profession should be made with the intent to reinforce the public’s trust in us and the judicial system. And reinforcing the public’s trust in us and the judicial system must be done with transparency and professionalism. Enter Local Professionalism Panels. The purpose of this article is to educate you about Local Professionalism Panels in case you need to make a referral to a panel or you are referred to a panel for alleged unprofessional conduct.
In June of 2013, Justice R. Fred Lewis and the Florida Supreme Court created a Local Professionalism Panel with the idea that each judicial circuit in Florida would have such a Panel. The Panel was created with the intent to resolve complaints of alleged unprofessional conduct by practicing attorneys in that circuit. Upon adoption of the Local Professionalism Panel, the chief judge of each circuit was required to create a local panel. Each circuit’s local panel is made up of a local professionalism committee with multiple attorneys enlisted to review and hear local professionalism complaints.
Importantly, anybody can file a local professionalism complaint to a Local Professionalism Panel. Are you dealing with a more experienced attorney who degrades you because of your lack of experience? Do you have a case with another attorney who makes it impossible to schedule hearing time? Or do you have mentee attorney who is being bullied by another member of The Florida Bar during litigation? You may file a complaint to your Local Professionalism Panel in each of these instances. Interestingly, one of the more common sources for local professionalism panel complaints is judges who witness unprofessional conduct between attorneys in courtrooms.
Keep this in mind, Local Professionalism Panels are independent of The Florida Bar and are not part of the grievance process. However, not all panels are created equally. Some panels have participants sign confidentiality waivers to keep the referral and decision of the professionalism panel confidential, while other circuits do not have such a confidentiality waiver. There may be instances where the referral to, or the participation in, the local professionalism panel may not be confidential and could lead to a referral to The Florida Bar for violation of a Rule of Professional Conduct.
How does a Local Professionalism Panel work after a complaint is made to the panel? Once a complaint is received either the circuit’s chief judge or the circuit’s chair of the Local Professionalism Panel will review the complaint. Then, the local chair will convene a three-member panel with one panelist sitting as the head of that panel. The attorney referred to the Local Professionalism Panel will be notified a hearing will take place and is invited to attend in person. Subsequently, a hearing will occur with the three panel members and the referred attorney if he/she participates. The hearing entails a discussion of the matter referred. The hearing is meant to be collaborative with the referred attorney. If the referred attorney does not participate in the hearing, then the Panel can send the matter to The Florida Bar. If you are the referred attorney for a Panel hearing, you will want to avoid this outcome, so make sure you participate.
Once the hearing is conducted, the Panel may choose to make a referral to The Florida Bar, make recommendations, or find that no professionalism issues exist in the instant matter. Generally, the results of the hearing will be memorialized in a letter to the referred attorney.
As young lawyers, we have long careers ahead of us. Maintaining or improving the professionalism in our profession is integral if we want to continue to police ourselves and enjoy our unique opportunity to help those in need of us. Local Professionalism Panels are one tool we can use to keep our profession professional while we experience fulfilling careers.
Eric Elms has been an elected Ninth Circuit Representative of The Florida Bar Young Lawyers Division since 2013. He is an associate at Fisher Rushmer, P.A. in Orlando. He focuses his practice on insurance defense/personal injury, as well as employment law.