William E. Davis (J. Albert Diaz)
Attorney William E. Davis waited—and then he waited some more.
He was in Miami-Dade Circuit Court to argue a motion at a civil calendar call, stuck in limbo as he watched case after case before his with attorneys calling for sanctions against each other and squabbling over discovery disputes.
“I thought to myself, ‘This judge, this poor judge, has to sit here day in and day out and hear this stuff. I don’t know how he does it,’ ” said Davis, a partner at Foley & Lardner in Miami. “It’s the kind of stuff that really wastes a lot of time, a lot of judicial time and personal time. I had to sit there. I had a substantive motion to be heard, and I had to sit there for an hour and a half.”
The answer to this growing din of rancor, the Florida Supreme Court and a group of concerned judges and attorneys hope, will be new standards for professional behavior and civility adopted last month by six South Florida voluntary bar associations.
In response to a Florida Supreme Court order, Chief Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Bertila Soto in February signed an administrative order establishing a panel to hear professionalism complaints.
“There is a concern about overall behavior,” she said. “We need to make sure that professionalism permeates our oral and written communications in court as well as outside the courtroom.”
The professionalism panels are seen as another vehicle to ensure bad behavior is addressed short of a Florida Bar disciplinary case.
“Clearly, judges have a role when there is a discovery dispute. It’s when that dispute becomes unprofessional that these professionalism panels would play a role,” Soto said.
Miami-Dade now joins professional council grievance procedures already adopted in Palm Beach and Broward judicial circuits.
The voluntary bar associations that adopted the civility standards are the Broward County Bar Association, the Cuban American Bar Association, the Dade County Bar Association, the Martin County Bar Association, the Palm Beach County Bar Association, and the South Palm Beach County Bar Association.
“The plan was to have the six largest South Florida VBAs adopt the standards first and then to have the specialty and other minority VBAs adopt them thereafter,” West Palm Beach attorney Adam Rabin said.
The standards are all-encompassing, addressing scheduling, discovery, conduct, candor and efficient administration of justice. Some standards seem like no-brainers, but others delaying tactics.
One example is: “Attorneys should refrain from actions intended primarily to harass or embarrass and should refrain from actions which cause unnecessary expense or delay.”
Rabin, a partner at McCabe Rabin, beat even the Florida Supreme Court to the punch on the issue. He was the force behind the “Got Civility?” project that started in 2012 when he was president of the Palm Beach bar association.
Rabin got the idea after hearing the same complaints about lack of civility among lawyers during panel discussions every year at the Palm Beach County Bench Bar Conference.
“The topic would regularly come up,” he said. “But we were preaching to the choir, and the people who attended were not the people we needed to reach.”
Ramon Abadin, the Florida Bar president-elect, teamed up with Rabin and others to pitch the adoption of new standards by the voluntary bar groups.
Abadin said there are some days he doesn’t want to come to work because some opposing attorneys take their adversarial role a little too literally.
“It has to do with stress. It has to do with the volume of practice. Iit has to do with gamesmanship, and I think it has to do sadly with the growing level of inexperience of some lawyers because of lack of training in law schools,” he said.
Room For Improvement
The issue certainly is picking up steam.
The mentoring subcommittee of the Miami-Dade Circuit Professionalism Committee is presenting its first seminar on professionalism Friday. It will be an interactive seminar focusing on maintaining professionalism in heated litigation.
Soto said behavior issues go beyond how lawyers treat each other to how they behave in front of a judge and with their clients and staff. Bad behavior that might come to the attention of the professionalism panels could be as mundane as not answering emails promptly, to things that have more direct bearing on a case such as not appearing at scheduled hearing and disparaging remarks.
“For the most part, lawyers are very professional, but there is always room for improvement, and there is always room to bring unprofessionalism to light so that it is not repeated, Soto said.
The panels, which will meet quarterly, will consist of judges and attorneys. Members will serve two-year terms and be appointed by the chief judge.
“The committee shall discuss, monitor and coordinate professionalism activities and may take action deemed appropriate,” Soto’s Feb. 14 order states.
The panels are primarily meant to be constructive and instructive for misbehaving lawyers, who can be called to appear before the panel. But Rabin adds, “If it’s bad enough, they can refer them to the Florida Bar for disciplinary procedure.”
Palm Beach County Bar president Theodore Kypreos, a partner at Jones, Foster, Johnston & Stubbs, said the panels have existed in his county since the mid-1990s.
“The situations that have been referred to the panels frankly have been situations where the parties might not have been aware of the proper way to deal with things,” he said. “It’s not always a situation where you have a bad apple who needs to be lectured. The panels are intended to be constructive, not demeaning.”
The Dade County bar adopted the Standards of Professional Courtesy at its June 11 board meeting.
“The intent of these standards is to work things out in advance. That is kind of the holy grail,” said Mary Leslie Smith, outgoing DCBA president and partner in the Miami office of Foley & Lardner.
“The system is an adversarial system, but that doesn’t mean counselors of law need to be uncivil to one another.”