Reacting to heated outcry from its members, the Florida Bar Board of Governors on Friday unanimously killed a proposal that would have allowed out-of-state lawyers to get licensed without taking the state Bar's exam.
Bar leaders are hoping that the unanimous vote will help unite a legal community fractured over the controversial proposal, first floated by a committee that has since backed away from its recommendation that Florida adopt "admission by motion" for out-of-state lawyers, if they meet certain criteria.
About 40 other states allow some sort of admission by motion.
Also known as "reciprocity," the issue drew fire from lawyers from small or individual practices, fearful that it would open the floodgates to competition in a state some believe already has a glut of attorneys.
Florida Bar President Ray Abadin ignited debate in June when he mentioned the proposal, the result of a two-year study, in a speech when he took over the helm of the organization. He's been the target of personal attacks by lawyers who oppose the plan, including at least one who called for Abadin's removal as president.
On Friday, Abadin --- who was prohibited by Bar rules from voting on the issue --- apologized to the Board for the consternation the proposal generated.
But, in a statement issued later Friday that echoed comments he made throughout the summer, Abadin credited the debate for getting Bar members involved.
"As lawyers, it's our nature to analyze an issue, debate its merits and then determine the right path forward. The Florida Bar fostered a discussion among our members surrounding the issues of admission by motion/reciprocity, which is exactly what we set out to do at the beginning of this process," he said. "Given Florida's standing as one of the fastest-growing states in the country, we must work together to ensure legal professionals can stay competitive in today's fast-changing landscape."
This summer, Abadin issued a statement trying to quell concerns about the issue and launched a special email account to take comments from Bar members. The responses were overwhelming against the proposal.
The Bar president has maintained that he is neutral on the issue and has put a positive spin on the drama surrounding it.
"I've engaged the membership in a discussion. Done. Good," Abadin told The News Service of Florida last month.
The rejection of the proposal indicates that Bar leaders heeded the concerns expressed by its members, said Jay Cohen, a member of the Florida Bar's Board of Governors who also opposes admission by motion.
"What it really demonstrates more than anything else is that we are this very trusted and deliberative body. When we do come together, we consider all of the material, but especially what we hear from our members," Cohen said in a telephone interview after the vote. "This should show the Florida Bar members that we continue to be that trusted body on these issues."
But Lloyd Schwed, a Palm Beach Gardens lawyer who launched the campaign opposing the proposal, questioned the way that Bar leaders dealt with the issue.
Schwed was among those who criticized a Florida Bar survey sent last year to a fraction of the state's lawyers in which a majority of respondents favored some form of admission by motion.
"The vote today certainly shows that the Board of Governors listened to the loud, angry protests from Florida lawyers. However, the whole way this was handled raises the issue of what was the Board of Governors doing these past two years to allow this to get this far, without even polling Florida lawyers. ... How did that happen? Why did that happen?" Schwed said. "I'm very grateful to Jay Cohen and to the BOG for listening. But I hope in the future the Board of Governors will be much more careful about asking Florida lawyers for their opinions before they embark on major changes to the Bar."