Photo: Mark Wallheiser
Hard questions from Florida Bar President Ramón A. Abadin
The Bar's new president insists he's not being combative, just realistic.
Ramon A. Abadin describes himself as a "nice, mild-mannered guy."
He's joking about the mild-mannered part.
During his first speech as the newly installed president of the Florida Bar, Abadin spoke less about how humbled and honored he was to lead the 100,000-member Bar and more about the serious problems Florida attorneys face.
"There are market forces that are challenging our right to participate in the marketplace," he says.
Those forces, he says, include increased competition from online legal services companies such as LegalZoom and Avvo. In addition, attorneys increasingly see potential clients turning to Google for answers to their legal questions rather than seeing an attorney.
"The consumer can say now, 'I want to get divorced,' and Google will tell you how to get divorced in Florida," he says.
Abadin suggests that many of the rules that govern Florida's legal profession are antiquated and might need to be reconsidered. "I think it's important as a lawyer to be a critical thinker and to not be afraid to ask hard questions and make hard decisions," he says. "I'm not afraid to ask hard questions."
The hardest and most controversial question he has asked so far concerns a possible rule change that would allow out-of- state lawyers to practice in Florida without first passing the Florida Bar exam.
Supporters say the proposal, called admission by motion or reciprocity, will open other states to Florida lawyers, allowing them to use technology to serve clients outside the state.
"The question of admission by motion for Florida lawyers to decide is which marketplace do they want to participate in — the local marketplace, constricted by geographic boundaries?" Abadin says. "Or do they want to participate in a national or international marketplace?"
The proposal, included in a preliminary report by a Bar group studying the Bar admission issues, hasn't gone over well among many Florida attorneys, who say the state already has too many lawyers. As of late August, the Bar had received more than 700 emails from attorneys weighing in on the topic, with more than 600 writing to oppose letting out-of-state attorneys practice in Florida without passing the Bar exam. The Bar, meanwhile, paid Schwartz Media Strategies, a Miami-based public relations firm, nearly $100,000 to raise awareness of reciprocity and other issues, but many attorneys remain unswayed.
"Would you want an out-of-state lawyer who is unwilling to study Florida law and pass the Florida Bar exam to represent you in a legal matter where your freedom is at stake, or your lifesavings could be lost or your car was rear-ended at a stop light and you are paralyzed from the neck down and are facing a life of poverty without effective legal counsel?" Says Lloyd R. Schwed, a Palm Beach Gardens attorney who has led the effort against easing Bar-admission rules for out-of-state lawyers.
Abadin, 56, a partner at Sedgwick in Miami, says he's not instigating controversy. The framework for his presidency was set in 2013, he says, when the Bar, under the guidance of then-President Eugene Pettis and former-President Gwynne Young, established the Vision 2016 study commission to study long-term challenges facing the profession. The study focuses on four areas: Legal education, technology, pro bono/ access to legal services and Bar admissions.
The Vision 2016 subcommittees now are releasing their reports, and Abadin sees his role as "starting a dialogue" rather than taking sides. He adds that he's really not saying anything substantially different about reciprocity and other topics than what Greg Coleman, the previous Bar president, said about the topics last year.
"Greg will laugh and tell you that he spent the whole year talking about this stuff and nobody said a peep," Abadin says. "I give one speech and people start paying attention. It's not my intent to stir things up. My intent was to tell everybody that things are already stirred up."