Right now, there is The Florida Bar grievance procedure. But some call that a blunt instrument. It is muscularly staffed and well suited to sanction lawyers for criminal or unethical acts which can lead to disbarment (as well as lesser punishments). But court officials say that sometimes it’s not a hammer that’s called for to correct unprofessional courtroom behavior, but more gentle, and timely, cajoling.
Eighth Circuit Chief Judge Robert Roundtree Jr. said judges once routinely called misbehaving lawyers into their chambers for a talking to. But that practice has fallen into disuse, Roundtree said, because such conferences can cause judges to be disqualified from cases based on allegations of bias or favoritism.
Enter the Florida Supreme Court. Justice Fred Lewis appointed a commission to recommend a solution to what he and the bar see as rising unprofessionalism. And Franklin Harrison (JD 72), of Harrison, Sale and McCloy in Panama City, was among those appointed by Lewis to the Florida Supreme Court’s Commission on Professionalism.
“There was a feeling among judges and among lawyers in surveys that were done, that there is a problem with professionalism in our profession, in the practice of law,” Harrison said during a discussion on professionalism sponsored by UF Law and the 8th Circuit.
Harrison and Roundtree were part of a continuing legal education forum in ethics staged to explain the new policy that drew scores of lawyers and law students.
Each chief circuit court judge has been tasked by the Supreme Court with setting up local professionalism panels. The panels have no subpoena power or even power to punish unprofessional actions. The panel only has the power to advise and persuade lawyers toward more professional modes of behavior, though it can also refer lawyers to the bar’s grievance committee to consider sanctions.
Roundtree expects that most complaints to the local professionalism panels will come from clients rather than colleagues of unprofessional lawyers. And Jeanne Singer (JD 77), the 8th Circuit chief assistant state attorney and a member of the local professionalism panel appointed by Roundtree, said that while the panels are mostly meant to correct lawyers, they can also be used to deliver reality checks to clients.
“I think this will be a benefit to practicing attorneys because there are just some folks that no matter how hard you work or how much you do you’re not going to meet their needs or their expectations,” Singer said.
UF Law Professor Amy Mashburn (JD 87) moderated the CLE discussion and questioned why fellow lawyers and judges could not contain the misbehavior of their peers without resorting to a separate professionalism panel.
“I’ve often marveled that lawyers don’t tell other lawyers … that they are out of line,” said Mashburn, who directs lawyering and professionalism at UF Law.
Meanwhile, UF Law is doing its part to promote greater professionalism among lawyers. The Joe Milton Civility Luncheon on the UF Law campus drove home the ways professional comportment will benefit students as they embark on careers.
Circuit Court Judge Victor Hulslander, (JD 74) of the 8th Circuit, has years of experience dealing with lawyers who fail to check their bad attitudes at the courthouse door. He described his method of convincing contentious attorneys to stay civil — by threatening to call the bailiff. That is one sure way he could remind lawyers of their manners.
“It goes a long way to your success if you know how to talk to people and you know how to treat people in a civil fashion,” Hulslander said.
UF Law is teaming students with working lawyers for job shadowing so they learn expected behavior in court settings. And perhaps most consequentially, a Mashburn- taught course trains first-year students in professional responsibility. She also instructs students on some of the unwritten rules of professional demeanor such as: Don’t smirk and stop arguing once the judge has ruled against you.
Practitioners, judges and academics all point to the growing attention paid to professionalism in the courts. Still, no one quarreled with Harrison’s observation that there is only so much the legal profession and law schools can do about the problem. “You just can’t fix jerks,” Harrison said.
—Andrew Steadman (2L) contributed to this story