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May 24, 2018

International Law

Resting Their Case

A state Bar ruling makes it easier for international lawyers to practice in Florida.

Pat Dunnigan | 7/1/2005
Twenty-five years ago, Carlos Loumiet and a group of other Miami international lawyers took the first steps toward making Florida a venue for international arbitrations.

They spent three years drafting the Florida International Arbitration Act, which established the procedures to be used in arbitrating contract differences among international companies.

Then they waited.

"For a long time," says Loumiet, "you would sit there and say, 'is anyone going to use this?' "

But by the 1990s, Florida, and Miami in particular, was beginning to establish itself as a perfect place for international companies to settle their differences. Multilingual lawyers, expert witnesses and arbitrators established international practices and watched them grow.

But there was a small problem. According to the Florida Bar, it was a crime for Salvadoran, Brazilian, Chilean or any other lawyers who were not members of the Florida Bar to practice law in the state, except under very limited circumstances.

But prosecutions against lawyers were unheard of until two years ago, when West Palm Beach lawyer Albert Rapoport, a member in good standing of the Washington, D.C., Bar, was brought up on charges for representing clients in securities arbitrations. When the Florida Supreme Court upheld the Bar's case against Rapoport, many lawyers were caught off guard. Securities arbitrations involve no Florida laws.

When the American Bar Association began creating more flexibility for the multijurisdictional practice of law, many lawyers called for the Florida Bar to do the same.

The international lawyers were among the most vocal and were joined by a lawyer for Gov. Jeb Bush in pushing for more flexibility. But the new rules, approved by the Florida Supreme Court in May, cut Rapoport and other out-of-state lawyers doing domestic arbitration no slack. They are prohibited from making more than three appearances as legal counsel in a year, must associate with a member of the Florida Bar and pay a $250 fee to the Florida Bar for each appearance.

Last year, Florida legislators raised the stakes, making the unlicensed practice of law a felony, according to Tampa lawyer John Yanchunis, who chaired the Bar commission revising the rules.

But the new rules exempt lawyers in international arbitrations, putting to rest a controversy that Loumiet says other states trying to compete as arbitration venues had hoped to capitalize on.

"When the Rapoport case came out, some of the competing jurisdictions immediately started pointing to it," he says. "Bad news travels fast, and the idea that Florida was not receptive to lawyers from other jurisdictions would have become known very quickly. This is a very significant step to clarify an issue that frankly I had not identified 25 years ago."

Rapoport, meanwhile, says he is planning to challenge the new rules in federal court.

HOLLAND & KNIGHT: Getting Touchy
Holland & Knight, a firm more accustomed to news coverage of its community service, recently found itself having to respond to criticism over Managing Partner Howell Melton Jr.'s decision to promote Tampa lawyer Douglas A. Wright to chief operating partner seven months after Wright had been reprimanded for violating the firm's sexual harassment policies.

The controversy began with the disclosure by the St. Petersburg Times in late March of internal firm documents showing that Wright was the subject of complaints by nine women lawyers at the firm. The complaints described bullying behavior that included sexual remarks and suggestions. Four of the women followed up with formal complaints.

Wright denied the charges, but according to the newspaper, an ensuing investigation concluded that Wright had violated the firm's policy. Despite that, Wright was promoted to chief operating partner.

Some of Wright's accusers were unhappy with what they perceived to be a weak response by Melton, the newspaper reported. A partner in the firm's Chicago office wrote a memo calling for Melton to resign.

Shortly after the story was published, Wright stepped down from the management job.

Melton later apologized to members of the firm for his handling of the matter and issued public statements highlighting the firm's commitment to "diversity, inclusiveness and collegiality."

Six weeks later, the story was still generating ink.

The firm's communications manager, Susan Berliner, says the matter does not seem to have created any concerns among clients. "It really hasn't been as big an issue as the St. Petersburg Times would like to think," she says.

It is the end of an era at Miami's Steel Hector law firm, plagued in recent months by the departure of nearly two dozen attorneys.

Longtime firm Managing Partner and Chairman Joseph P. Klock, who had resigned as managing partner in November but planned to stay on as firm chairman, was voted off the firm's eight-lawyer executive committee in March.

The firm's principal litigator, Alvin Davis, a 30-year veteran of the firm who took over as managing partner last year, was named chairman -- a position he says he was "very reluctant" to accept. "This wasn't my life's ambition," says Davis, who is determined to maintain his own law practice even as he manages the 150-lawyer firm.

Davis' agenda includes a lot of hiring, both to make up for the departures and to beef up the litigation and international departments.

The firm represents drug makers in hundreds of Florida cases involving the prescription pain drug Vioxx.

In the News
The West Pasco Bar Association has awarded its Special Justice Award to Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Judge George Greer in honor of Greer's grace under pressure in his handling of the highly charged case of Terri Schiavo. Greer's rulings made him the target of threats and harassment. Some critics called him a murderer and continue to call for his impeachment...

Carlos G. Muniz, a civil litigator in the Tallahassee office of Gray Robinson, has been named general counsel to Florida Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher...

Thomas P. Wert, a partner with Carlton Fields in Orlando, has been elected vice president/president-elect of the Orange County Bar Association...

Matt Coglianese, a partner in the litigation group of Bilzin Sumberg, received the Florida Bar President's Pro Bono Service Award for the 11th Judicial Circuit.

Tags: Politics & Law, Around Florida, Government/Politics & Law

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