Bill Blews let it be known early that he had a lot he wanted to accomplish during his year as president of the Florida Bar.
The day after he was sworn into office, Blews called a special meeting of the Board of Governors to brief them on the issues as he saw them: opening up the Board of Governors election process, achieving staffing efficiencies, focusing the Bar's legislative efforts, increasing funding for the justice system, and bringing some new perspectives for the Bar's committees, among other things.
Early in his first term the Bar president convened the first ever criminal justice summit, bringing together a cross section of state policymakers to address the growing crisis in funding for the criminal courts, public defenders, state attorneys, and related agencies.
Blews next led the Board of Governors to step up the Bar's unlicensed practice of law enforcement effort, a move urged by the sole practitioners and small-firm lawyers Blews reached out to during his campaign for office. The board added three lawyers, plus support staff, to the UPL department.
On the legislative front, Blews was instrumental in restructuring the staff to give General Counsel, Paul Hill time and authority to coordinate the Bar's lobbying program. Veteran public relations executive Park Trammell was hired as the Bar's first full time communications director, relieving Hill of his duties in that area. Blews worked closely with the Supreme Court and other allied groups to increase funding and to fend off a move to place lawyer regulation under the legislative branch (see legislative update story in this issue).
With six weeks left in his term, Blews sat down with News Associate editor Mark Killian for a look back over the year and a look at the challenges that lie ahead for the Florida Bar.
NEWS: How is the Bar doing in fulfilling its obligations to regulate the profession, in your view?
BLEWS: The Supreme Court of Florida has created a record second to none in the country in regulating the profession. Our profession faces many difficult challenges in many different quarters and it is not always easy to understand the various factors that the Supreme Court must consider in regulating the profession in the fourth most populous state in the country -- one that has a tremendous tourist population in addition to the regular population, and one that has so much diversity as we do.
I think that when you consider the national pressures on the practice of law and how those are actually increased in our state, the Supreme Court has protected the public and served the public very well in its regulation of the profession in Florida.
We have the most open grievance committee system in the Country. One third of the members of our grievance committees are public members. One third of our members of our unlicensed practice of law committees are public members. One third of our members of the fee arbitration committees are public members. So the Supreme Court has really opened the process to the public and the process has stood up well under the glare of the spotlight of public scrutiny.
I think we are fortunate to have a system regulated by the Court.
NEWS: Is the Bar's beefed up unlicensed practice of law effort doing what you anticipated?
BLEWS: It certainly is a beginning. This is not a process that is going to be turned around overnight. Most important, I think, was to change the structure of enforcement of UPL and that has been done.
We have made substantial budgetary increases in enforcement of UPL and we have also significantly increased the staff, with additional full time attorneys hired for the purpose of UPL enforcement. We have also adopted a policy -- that is just going into effect -- that at every local UPL meeting there will be a Florida Bar staff attorney present. That type of staff support is essential to make the system function as it should. We are moving it more in the line with the way the grievance procedures operate.
I think we have made tremendous increases to the structure of UPL enforcement and that the interests of the public will be well served by the increased prosecutions. I believe that the Board of Governors is committed to the high priority of UPL enforcement. I hope it will continue.
NEWS: How strong are the threats to the organized Bar?
BLEWS: I believe that in many ways the threats to the organized bar have strengthened it. We tend to take things for granted. We tend not to realize what a good system we have, and as a result sometimes it takes a challenge to some of the basic tenets of our philosophies to cause us to reexamine them and recommit ourselves to them when they are found to be valid.
Certainly in this case the threat of placing the Bar under the regulation of the legislature has caused many of us to realize that although the system may not be perfect, or exactly as we may like it, it is far superior to those states in which the Bar's regulation has been subject to the whims of the legislature. The court has removed those types of pressure and the Bar is much stronger for it.
NEWS: What have been some of the high points or major accomplishments of your year as president?
BLEWS: The experience as a whole has been such a fulfilling one. The combination of the bitter and the sweet have all tasted pretty good.
I would say that our legislative program is one in which I take a great deal of satisfaction. I'm also well-pleased with the efforts of increased funding for the justice system, particularly the emphasis we had upon the criminal justice system. As a consequence of the two criminal Justice summits the Bar adopted a legislative program designed to increase the state's funding of the criminal justice system. I think we have made some excellent progress in that area -- although the legislative session is not over yet.
We have reinstated the address of the chief justice to the House and Senate. This year, for the first time, we were able to bring that about so that the legislature could understand the needs of the judiciary first hand. We also pushed for the uniform chart of accounts bill which will tell the people of Florida just how much we are spending on the criminal justice system. I am very optimistic about the progress of that bill. I certainly hope it passes this time. If not, we will go back with it, I'm sure.
Opening up the Board of Governors was a major item in my campaign. I am very pleased the board changed the election process for incumbent board members so local lawyers now have the opportunity to get more involved in the selection of candidates for the Board of Governors. The changes open up the board to greater participation by average lawyers and keep it from being a closed club.
I also am extremely pleased that, to some extent, I was able to open the Bar committee appointment process. For the first time in the history of the Bar, I appointed new chairs to all the committees. I also attempted to reach out to those who had never served on committees of the board, to minorities and women who previously had not had a chance to serve. I appointed a lot of new blood, if you will. That was very satisfying to me. We also impressed on the Bar staff that they need to be more responsive to our members. We also increased the staff of the Bar's ethics hotline to better serve the membership.
I'm also pleased with some of the less glamorous, but worthwhile, internal restructuring we did at the Bar. One of my priorities was to increase our public relations effort. Again, this is a process you can't turn around overnight, but we made a substantial step in a new direction. We hired a communications director and realigned a lot of the internal and external communications efforts. We also have just begun a study of the public perception, attitudes, and beliefs concerning our profession. That is very important to me and is a big step forward.
We also made some significant changes regarding the Bar staff in terms of its compensation, the way in which retirement funding is done, and how health insurance is paid, as well as conducting a salary review. I think that was something that was well overdue. I'm really proud that [budget committee chair] Ky Koch did such an excellent job with his committee, which brought about those changes. We also passed a voluntary minority lawyer hiring resolution that had been kicking around here for years which I thought was very sound, very good. I was very pleased that we did that.
We also began the STEP-UP program, which is just getting going where law firms hire teenagers for six weeks during the summer, exposing them to some of the values of the legal profession. That project goes into effect after my presidency and I hope that will be something the Bar will continue. That's a project that's not finished yet but is important to me. I think that will be helpful.
I hope the total package was contributed to the greater good. I hope we have set a higher tone of professionalism.
NEWS: What have been some of the low points?
BLEWS: Certainly I am disappointed that the Board of Governors did not agree with my proposal to increase monority participation at the board level. I think the Bar would be a stronger bar if we had put minorities at the policy-making level.
NEWS: Do you see the minority board seats issue as one that will come back before the board?
BLEWS: I see the monority board issue as one that had its beginning during my administration. I don't believe the rejection of the proposal by the Board of Governors is the end of it. I'm not sure if it will come back before the Board of Governors; it may, but it may also come before the court, or before the membership. I don't think the issue is dead by any means.
NEWS: As a sole practitioner, how has serving as president impacted your practice?
BLEWS: It has had a negative financial impact. But I will tell you that the satisfaction of being able to participate in the Bar at this level is worth every penny of it.
NEWS: If you had to do it all over again, would you run for president of the Florida Bar?
BLEWS: In a heartbeat. It's a great opportunity to do things that are important for lawyers, to stand up and fight for the values that we believe in. To participate in the public discourse regarding those things is extremely satisfying. It's been a thrill.