Photo: Mark Wallheiser
Of Counsel - Florida Law
The Florida Bar's new president puts emphasis on affordability
The Bar's new president takes aim at the ‘justice gap' and diversity challenges.
For more than three decades, Bill Schifino has focused mostly on business litigation. But he says his most memorable case is one he took on pro bono when he was in his 20s. His client, Deborah, had been accused of child abuse, and a judge had granted an injunction prohibiting her from seeing her children.
As it turned out, Deborah hadn’t hurt anyone. “She had an abusive husband who’d abused her three little boys. They had started to go through a separation and a divorce, and he had used this against her,” the Tampa lawyer recalls.
With his assistance, Deborah eventually got her children back. “All turned out well,” Schifino says, but the case has stuck with him. “Without that legal representation, she was an absolute lost cause. She’d have lost her children,” he says.
Some 30 years later, enhancing access to legal services for people like Deborah is a theme Schifino plans to emphasize in his new role as president of the Florida Bar.
While low-income residents can sometimes get free legal services, there are few, if any, resources available for families earning $50,000 to $60,000 a year. Most can’t afford $250-an-hour lawyer fees and $5,000 retainers. As a result, people are more frequently going unrepresented in family disputes, child-related issues, landlord/ tenant issues and other noncriminal, civil matters. In family court, 85% of Floridians represent themselves.
Clay County, southwest of Jacksonville, will launch a one-stop portal designed to help residents with family and tenant/landlord law issues navigate their legal options. If all goes well, a statewide portal could be next. “The law’s the almighty equalizer,” says Schifino.
In addition to addressing the justice gap, Schifino outlined other priorities:
Constitution Revision Commission: Every 20 years, the state convenes a Constitutional Revision Commission (CRC) to review and recommend changes to the Florida constitution. The Bar will be paying close attention as the 2017-18 CRC takes shape. Comprised of gubernatorial and legislative appointees, the 37-member commission can put items directly on the ballot — and its proposed amendments aren’t subject to review by the Supreme Court as other proposed amendments usually are.
Schifino and the Bar are working to enhance the public’s understanding of the process. “Issues that will be at play are things like maybe tax issues, environmental issues. There certainly may be issues that may impact the legal/judicial branch, so it’s an important process for all the citizens of the state. It’s an opportunity to do some productive, good things.”
Diversity: Forty-three percent of young female attorneys surveyed last year said they experienced gender bias during their legal career, and more than a quarter reported resigning from a position because of a lack of advancement opportunity, poor work-life balance and/or employer insensitivity. Women and minorities continue to be underrepresented on the bench as well.
Schifino plans to convene a group of leaders around the state who will report back with action items and specific benchmarks the Bar can put in place. “We’re not just going to take the survey results and have me walk around the state and speak about it.”
Vision 2016: In 2013, the Florida Bar started a multiyear initiative called “Vision 2016” to focus on the challenges and future of the law profession. Schifino says he’ll be tying up loose ends. “We’ve still got a few more issues that are percolating on legal education and Bar admissions that we’re working on. The goal is to finish that up by December of this year.”