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Putting the Lawyers’ House in Order

By David Morrill

JOHN FROST, THE FIRST COLLEGE OF LAW GRADUATE ELECTED PRESIDENT OF THE FLORIDA BAR, PLANS TO PRESS THE FIGHT TO RAISE PROFESSIONALISM.

As John Frost assumes the presidency of The Florida Bar, he is painfully aware that his is a profession with an image problem. He is pained all the more because he believes the bad image is partly deserved.

With the legal profession under attack from elected officials, business and public opinion, Frost, the College of Law’s first graduate to be elected to lead The Florida Bar, insists it is the lawyers themselves who need to put their house in order. This past year, as Bar president-elect, he devoted a great deal of energy to that end, and, he concedes, it will remain a focus during his presidency.

If he is a harsh critic of the legal profession, Frost will tell you it is because he cares about it so deeply. “I think being a lawyer is one of the greatest callings in the world. I love this profession, and I’m willing to fight to make it better,” His efforts, and those of others, to find remedies, he insists, are simply a case of dispensing tough love.

Much of Frost’s concern has to do with the way lawyers treat each other. “In my 27 years of practice, I’ve watched the profession slide downhill. Today there is less cooperation, less civility. Everything becomes a fight.” He recalls a recent case in which the opposing lawyer made setting deposition dates and times a battleground. “It’s simply ridiculous. There is absolutely no advantage to be gained by this kind of behavior. It’s a waste of time and it’s unnecessary wear and tear on nerves.”

Frost believes that changes have to come from the ground up. “You have to start with the basics,” he says, acknowledging that the problems faced by lawyers are similar to those faced by other professionals. “How can we expect the public to like us if we don’t like each other? We have to get along with each other. Only when we increase our level of professionalism can we expect the public to hold us in higher regard.”

Frost has taken a highly visible role in initiatives to improve the way lawyers work together. Professionalism, he insists, is a broad effort that must involve law schools and judges as well as practicing attorneys. “We need to have trial judges involved. We need to teach professionalism in law schools. It needs to be carried through in practice. It needs to be discussed in town hall-type meetings. This has to be a well-orchestrated, ongoing effort if it’s going to work.”

A committee on professionalism, appointed by former Bar President John DeVault and headed by Florida Supreme Court Justice Harry Lee Anstead, is considering a number of measures to improve lawyerly behavior. One of the committee’s suggestions that Frost supports is a program of circuit meetings between trial judges and lawyers. “I believe trial judges can have the biggest impact on the problem in the shortest amount of time,” he says. “They are the people who set the limits and monitor behavior on a day-to-day basis.”

Frost observes that professionalism in the courtroom has declined markedly over the years. “When I started practicing, if you did something out of line in the courtroom, the judge was likely to invite you into the hallway to talk about it. I think trial judges need to take more control of their courtrooms,” he says, conceding that any changes will bring challenges. “There’s the legitimate worry that appellate courts might overturn rulings if there is a lot of action dealing with professionalism, so we need to get appellate judges involved in this as well.”

There is growing support for the professionalism committee’s suggestions. Florida Supreme Court Justice Stephen Grimes, a long-time friend of Frost’s, agrees: “When judges see bad behavior in the courtroom, they have to become involved.” He adds, “Judges have a role to play if values are to be reasserted in the profession,” though he cautions that the responsibility puts a burden on the judiciary. “Judges have to be careful to handle these things outside of the courtroom so the jury is not prejudice.”

Another method of attaching the problem, says Frost, is to enlist the help of the law schools, “Law schools are going to have to play an integral part in teaching new lawyers more about the rules of professionalism. This used to be done by law firms, but it’s no longer possible to the extent it once was.” Frost has sent letters to the deans of Florida’s law schools proposing closer cooperation between law faculties and The Bar in dealing with professionalism issues.

Frost, who was elected without opposition to The Bar presidency, comes to the job with excellent credentials. “He was the best young attorney I had ever worked with,” says Justice Grimes, who helped introduce Frost to the legal profession 27 years ago in the litigation department of Holland & Knight in Bartow. “Since then, John has developed into one of the best litigators in the state.” Grimes also says that Frost is one of the most ethical lawyers he has ever known.

In 1981, Frost and a friend left Holland & Knight to establish Frost & O’Toole. Over the years, the Bartow Firm, which specializes in plaintiff personal injury and commercial litigation, has grown to eight attorneys and expanded its name to Frost, O’Toole & Saunders.

Like many law students in the late sixties and early seventies, Frost came to law school in search of a more challenging and fulfilling career. He ended up at FSU by happen-stance. “Honestly, the major factor in my coming to FSU was my wife, Terry,” Frost says. “It was largely a case of circumstances working it out,” he says. Looking back, I realize my good fortune.”

After graduating from the University of Florida in 1964 with a degree in advertising, Frost joined Cities Services Oil Company (later Citgo) and was assigned to their management training program in Ft. Lauderdale. “I had thought about law school off and on, and when I found the job at Cities Services unchallenging, I thought about it more and more,” he says.

Terry Frost, who was working as a women’s editor of the Broward County edition of Miami Herald, asked her bosses if they would transfer her to Knight’s (the Herald’s parent company) newly acquired Tallahassee Democrat. They agreed and Terry became the Democrat’s education writer, covering the Legislature and on-campus news.

While he was in law school, Frost began to exhibit his gift leadership. He was chosen by Dean Mason Ladd to serve on the first FSU moot court team and was elected president of the law school student body.

Frost is the first to admit that it is a vastly different world for those entering the legal trade today that it was when he went into practice 27 years ago. “There’s no doubt it’s harder today,” he says. “There are more people looking for work and there aren’t enough positions available. Back then, just about anyone with a law degree who wanted to practice could find work.”

One of Frost’s major concerns is the breakdown of the traditional system under which new lawyers learned the rules of the profession. “The mentoring process that I benefited from is almost a thing of the past,” says Frost. “It’s a casualty of economic demands. And it’s a shame.” Frost sees a vicious cycle developing in which law firms lack the resources to properly train new lawyers in basic lawyering skills, and professionalism suffers as a result: “We’re seeing a large number of complaints against young lawyers, and that number is growing.”

Justice Grimes agrees, adding, “What scares me is that I don’t believe a lot of young lawyers know any better. An awful lot of them were taught that Rambo tactics are not acceptable behavior in the legal profession.”

Like many attorneys, Frost worries that the state’s law schools – both public and private – are producing too many lawyers for the profession to absorb. “I think law schools need to share this burden to the extent that they accept the responsibility of making sure students know what they’re getting into. They should ask students, ‘ Do you know what the job market is for lawyers? Do you know how tough it is out there? If the law schools make a full and fair disclosure, then the student can make an educated choice.”

Frost suggests that law schools increase efforts to point out alternative careers to law students. “A legal education is valuable in itself. It teaches you how to think and how to analyze. It teaches you how to accomplish things,” he says, adding, “As an example, I recommend a legal education to someone interested in going into business.”

For those who still want to make the law their profession, Frost insists that the time-proven formula for becoming an effective lawyer has changed little over the years. In the commencement address he delivered to the December 1995 graduation class of the College of Law, he offered the simple advice, “Act on your beliefs. Share your strengths. Be honest about your limitations. “Above all, he says, be yourself.

Stressing his call for a higher level of professionalism, Frost also charged the graduates to “Practice law with civility and honor and we will again be known as a part of an honorable profession.”

In addition to campaigning for increased professionalism, Frost is leading The Bar in battling fellow attorneys who want to see Florida’s integrated Bar, established in 1949, abolished. Although recent legislative efforts failed to shift oversight of the organization from the Supreme Court and strip The Bar of its quasi-governmental status, Frost thinks they will continue. The dissident Attorneys’ Bar Association insists that attorneys should be regulated by the state in the same fashion of doctors, accountants and other professionals.

Frost disagrees, insisting The Bar will fight efforts to fundamentally change the system. “Our Constitution says that the Supreme Court has exclusive jurisdiction over regulation, admission and discipline of lawyers. Lawyers are officers of the court and as such should not be regulated by the legislative branch of government,” Frost says, conceding that is an issue that can put him on the soap box in a hurry.

As for the challenge to The Bar’s authority to collect dues, Frost says that power is inherent in the original Supreme Court order establishing an integrated Bar. “The court made it clear that the authority to regulate also provides the authority to regulate also provides the authority to raise funds to carry out that regulation, “he says.

As Bar president, Frost also will be focusing on unlicensed practice of law. The Bar has established a task force to make recommendations about how to control and monitor unlicensed practice.

Frost and other Bar officers are keeping a wary eye on the budget-cutting fervor that has characterized national politics in recent years. Reductions in federal programs that provide legal assistance to the indigent are particularly worrisome. He bristles when he hears politicians suggest that lawyers pick up, on a pro bono basis, cases the government decides it can no longer afford. “I believe every lawyer has an obligation to do pro bono work. It comes with the territory, and it’s some of the most rewarding work you’ll ever do,” says Frost. “On the other hand, given our constitutional rights and our way of life, I think society has to bear its fair share of the responsibilities. There is simply a limit to what lawyers can do.” Cuts to one program, a legal services grant that pays out-of-pocket expenses to lawyers who volunteer to represent death row inmates, exemplifies the problem for Frost. “If the people have decided they want the death penalty, they have to be willing to pay the price.”

Although finding solutions to the legal profession’s problems won’t be easy, Frost says he is honored to have been given the opportunity to try. ” Above everything else, there are two messages I intend to deliver to members of The Bar,” says Frost. “If we follow them, we will be well on our way to recovering the respect of the community and our own self-respect.” The suggestions: “Apply the golden rule to everything we do, treating others only in ways we want to be treated in return” and, “make a point to give back more to the profession than we take.”

In 1993 Frost showed his appreciation to his alma mater when he became the first College of Law alumnus to establish a professorship at the law school. The John W. and Ashley E. Frost Professorship in Law, is co-named for Frost’s daughter, a 1994 FSU law graduate who serves as the College’s assistant director of the development and alumni affairs. When he announced the gift, Frost explained, “The law school gave me the support and training to do something I really enjoy, which is practicing law. I’m proud to be a lawyer and I enjoy going t work each day. I feel I have an obligation to the institution that gave me that opportunity.

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