• Rebecca Bandy

How Florida Defines Professionalism

May you be reminded of the reason why you studied law

Although many jurisdictions use the terms professionalism and ethics interchangeably, Florida is different.[i] The Florida Bar has both an Ethics and Advertising Department and the Henry Latimer Center for Professionalism. Both departments are housed under The Bar’s Division of Ethics and Consumer Protection.


Ethics in Florida refers to the Florida Rules of Professional Conduct which are found in Chapter 4 of the Rules Regulating The Florida Bar. Other references for researching ethical questions include the Rules Regulating Trust Accounting found in Chapter 5 of the Rules Regulating The Florida Bar, case law, formal advisory ethics opinions that are indexed on The Florida Bar’s website, the ABA/BNA Lawyers Manual on Professional Conduct, which can be purchased on Bloomberg Law, and law review articles. Informal advisory opinions about a bar member’s own future conduct are available through the Ethics Department.[ii] The toll-free Ethics Hotline (800-235-8619) is available to help guide members in good standing through ethical questions, concerns, dilemmas, and trust accounting issues.

From an education perspective, according to Rule 5.09(b) of the Standing Policies of the Board of Legal Specialization and Education (BLSE),[iii] ethics courses should “explore and address standards of conduct in the legal profession… (including) aspirations that surpass ordinary expectations to further promote the ideals and goals of professionalism,” including topics such as the independence of the lawyer in the context of the lawyer-client relationship; conflict between duty to client and duty to the system of justice; conflict in the duty to the client versus the duty to the other lawyer; responsibility of the lawyer to employ effective client communications and client relations skills; lawyer accessibility; appropriate agreement to fees; and the responsibilities of the lawyer as an officer of the court.[iv]


In 1985, Professor Frederick A. Elliston wrote, “Ethics should neither exist as an incidental adjunct to the curriculum nor as mere rhetoric used to improve a lawyer’s image. Rather, ethics should function as the core of a lawyer’s practice. Without ethics, true professionalism and good lawyering escape us.”[v] The important thing to remember is that lawyers are required to abide by ground-floor rules of ethical conduct, and ethical violations are subject to discipline by The Florida Bar.


Likewise, in Florida, professionalism is expected of Bar members and may be subject to discipline. Supreme Court of Florida Order No. SC13-688, IN RE: CODE FOR RESOLVING PROFESSIONALISM COMPLAINTS, states, “… Unacceptable professional conduct and behavior is often a matter of choice or decision-making.” The Order and its amendments adopt the Code for Resolving Professionalism Complaints, which defines the Standards of Professionalism as follows:


Members of The Florida Bar shall not engage in unprofessional conduct. “Unprofessional conduct” means substantial or repeated violations of the Oath of Admission to The Florida Bar, The Florida Bar Creed of Professionalism, The Professionalism Expectations, The Rules Regulating The Florida Bar, or the decisions of The Florida Supreme Court.[vi]

The Henry Latimer Center for Professionalism was established in 1996 and is charged with promoting professionalism and being a resource for members, law students, and the legal community. Celebrating its 25th Anniversary, the Center teaches that professionalism is the expectation that a lawyer will do more than simply comply with ground-floor ethical standards of professional conduct but should pursue and practice “the highest ideals and tenants of the legal profession, including:

  • Being of good character;

  • Being competent;

  • Being committed to the profession; and

  • Being civil.”

This definition, which was adopted by The Bar’s Standing Committee on Professionalism (SCOP), can be found in the Professional Handbook, along with other important documents such as the Creed of Professionalism and the Professionalism Expectations. The handbook is easily accessed in digital format on the Center’s website.[vii]


According to BLSE Rule 5.09(c), professionalism education should “explore and reflect on the meaning and application of professionalism in the daily practice of law.” This includes the critical and reflective judgment about one’s intended conduct; reflective judgement about the practice of law; or learning to assess how one’s conduct is serving the lawyer, the legal profession, and the justice system.[viii] Currently, Florida Bar members are required to complete one professionalism CLE credit every three-year cycle. Using The Florida Bar’s definition of professionalism, sample topics that fall under each category may include:

  • Character: The importance of honesty, integrity, credibility, and fairness; ethical conduct; being of good character; timeliness; stress awareness and management; mental health and wellness; emotional intelligence; resilience

  • Competence: Understanding and honoring the rule of law; continually improving knowledge and skills; staying abreast of technology; not misrepresenting to the client, courts, or public during the scope of representation; knowing and respecting local court rules; properly preparing clients and witnesses for hearings; effective communications and listening skills; providing well-drafted engagement letters; properly engaging (or not) in social media

  • Commitment: The importance of providing pro bono legal representation; the value of community service; ways to improve the legal community, including serving on Bar committees and in Voluntary Bar Associations; effective mentoring strategies

  • Civility: Respect for judges, attorneys, court staff, clients, witnesses, and unrepresented parties; proper written communication skills; improving interpersonal communications skills; how and why taking the high road is a best practice; effective virtual and email communications skills; how to respond rather than react during conflict; how to communicate with difficult people

One legal blogger describes ethics programming as tending to focus on the “negative” aspects of law or what not to do to violate the rules. In contrast, professionalism tends to deal with the “positive” aspects;[ix] or, as the Kansas Trial Lawyers Association asserts, professionalism “is about actions and attitudes.”[x] The Louisiana State Bar’s Practice Aid Guide, in Section 8, states:


Most lawyers are ethical. Most lawyers strive to be professional. However, lawyers are human. They make mistakes. They do occasionally fall short of both professional and ethical standards. Very generally, ethics is what lawyers absolutely are required to do. Professionalism is what wise lawyers choose to do. A lawyer can be strictly ethical and still fall short of the ideals of professionalism. The good lawyer always strives to be both.[xi]

The Florida Bar and The Florida Supreme Court are clear: professionalism is not aspirational. It is expected and, although there can be some overlap, both ethical violations and professionalism violations are subject to discipline.[xii] For real-life, real-practice professionalism advice, the Center has developed a social media campaign called #ProTipTuesday.[xiii]


One law student recently remarked to Center staff that our job must be to “tell lawyers not to be jerks and not to post stupid stuff online.” The student was correct, to a point — lawyers should not be jerks, nor should they post inappropriately online. However, professionalism is so much more than that. Renowned expert Jayne Reardon with 2Civility, the Commission on Professionalism in Illinois, compares legal professionalism to the performing arts, because “you can always improve with practice.”[xiv] A colleague on the ABA’s Standing Committee on Professionalism from Mississippi, recently stated during a call that she thinks of professionalism as “what your Mama and Grandmama taught you about treating other people.”


The Center regularly begins our workshops by asking participants to reflect on why they wanted to become a lawyer. Although answers are extremely personal and vary, the vast majority report wanting to make a difference in society on some level. This discussion becomes a reminder that public perception matters, and, in a time of heightened social media and technology, professionalism is more important than ever before. People are always watching, and when lawyers maintain high standards, the public — the people whom we serve, who pay for our services — will hold individual lawyers and the profession as a whole in higher esteem.


So, the Center’s reminder is this: Treat others the way you were taught by your elders to treat them and how you wish to be treated; and be the type of legal professional who inspires children to want to be like you some day. In times of burnout or disillusionment, volunteer to talk to students about the law, justice, and the judicial system, and be recharged by their admiration.



In an interview with Florida Bar President Mike Tanner for November 2021’s Legal Professionalism Month, Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady said this: “Professionalism is first and foremost about respect. It’s about respecting other lawyers. It’s about respecting clients. It’s about respecting all the other participants in the process, including judges, opposing litigants, anyone that we encounter as a lawyer. If you follow the Golden Rule, you will do well, because, if you treat people in that professional conduct as you would expect to be treated if the tables were reversed, then I think you will be serving the profession well and be serving yourself well. That doesn’t mean you don’t take strong positions, that you’re not a vigorous advocate for your client; but you do it within the proper restraints of professionalism.”[xv]


This core message is what the Center is all about and why staff has proudly been serving Florida Bar members for 25 years.

 

[i] https://ginascleblog.typepad.com/ginascleblog/2012/02/ethics-vs-professionalism-whats-the-difference-and-why-do-you-care.html [ii] https://www.floridabar.org/ethics/ethotline/ethotline002/ [iii] https://www-media.floridabar.org/uploads/2020/07/500-CLE-Accreditation.pdf [iv] Id., BLSE Rule 5.09(b)(1)-(5) [v] Frederick A. Elliston, Ethics, Professionalism and the Practice of Law, 16 Loy. U. Chi. L. J. 529 (1985). Available at: http://lawecommons.luc.edu/luclj/vol16/iss3/11 [vi] Professionalism Handbook, p. 24; SC13-688, SC15-944 [vii] https://www-media.floridabar.org/uploads/2019/10/ADA-2019-2021-Ideals-Goals-Handbook.pdf [viii]https://www-media.floridabar.org/uploads/2020/07/500-CLE-Accreditation.pdf; BLSE Rule 5.09(c)(1)(A)-(C) [ix] https://ginascleblog.typepad.com/ginascleblog/2012/02/ethics-vs-professionalism-whats-the-difference-and-why-do-you-care.html [x] https://www.ktla.org/?pg=PillarsofProfessionalism; “Professionalism focuses on actions and attitudes. A professional lawyer behaves with civility, respect, fairness, learning and integrity toward clients, as an officer of the legal system, and as a public citizen with special responsibilities for the quality of justice,” Pillars of Professionalism, Kansas Trial Lawyers Association. [xi] https://www.lsba.org/PracticeAidGuide/PAG8.aspx [xii] https://www-media.floridabar.org/uploads/2019/10/ADA-2019-2021-Ideals-Goals-Handbook.pdf; SC 13-688, IN RE: CODE FOR RESOLVING PROFESSIONALISM COMPLAINTS (2013); SC 15—944, IN RE: CODE FOR RESOLVING PROFESSIONALISM COMPLAINTS (2015) [xiii]https://www.floridabar.org/prof/presources/#protips [xiv]Reardon, J. (2021, October 21). 16 lessons in professionalism from 16 years. 2Civility. Retrieved December 8, 2021, from https://www.2civility.org/16-lessons-in-professionalism-from-16-years/?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=Readership&utm_content=17+Lessons+in+Professionalism+From+16+Years. [xv] “At the Mic with Mike: Legal Professionalism Month,” The Florida Bar (November 8, 2021): https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=6445532578821329

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