New Bar program to assist lawyers and their clients April 15, 2001 Regular News New Bar program to assist lawyers and their clientsConsumers and attorneys can all breathe a little easier, thanks to the Bar’s new Attorney Consumer Assistance Program (ACAP), which rolled into action March 1. As part of the Bar’s Lawyer Regulation division, ACAP acts as a sort of pre-complaint intervention program to try to sort out attorney-client problems before an actual complaint is filed. “Our ultimate goal is to resolve as much as we can so that the public’s happy with the Bar. We’re trying to improve our image with the public. Our ultimate goal is to help the consumer and to help the lawyer,” said Donna Hostutler, Program Administrator for ACAP. “The wonderful thing about the service is that, since we’ve been up and running, we’ve gotten very positive feedback, not only from the public, but also from the membership,” she said. “Many, many attorneys who have been contacted by ACAP and given a `heads up’ to fix a problem have responded positively. Then we’ve got a happy client, we’ve got a happy lawyer, and everybody’s happy it’s a win-win situation.” The nine-member staff, which includes four attorneys and three program assistants, fields calls from consumers who think they may have a complaint against their lawyer. A program assistant initially answers the call, gathers general information about the consumer’s problem, then forwards the information directly to a staff attorney, who tries to help the person resolve their complaint before it reaches the lawyer regulation staff. The program assistants have done a fantastic job so far dealing with clients who run the emotional gamut, said Hostutler. “We’ve had criers, yellers, screamers, and lawyers complaining about other lawyers,” she said. ACAP staff attorneys may, in the course of a call, explain that a caller’s problem with their lawyer does not fall under the Rules Regulating The Florida Bar, and therefore, is not fodder for an official complaint. Staff attorneys also, if applicable, explain how to file an official Bar complaint, contact the caller’s attorney to discuss the situation, and list other options available to the caller, such as contacting outside counsel or grievance mediation. Like all Bar staff attorneys, ACAP attorneys are not permitted to offer legal advice over the phone. “The general feeling seems to be that a program such as this has been needed for a long time, and virtually all of the members have expressed gratitude for the opportunity to respond on an informal level to what previously would have required a time-consuming, not to mention stressful written response,” said Donald Spangler, ACAP staff attorney and former Tallahassee Branch Bar Counsel. The program is modeled after programs in place in several states, including Georgia, Utah, Arizona, and Colorado. The Mississippi Bar also has a similar program, which ACAP staff members visited to witness in action and take notes. After one month of operation, “we’ve handled more than a thousand requests for assistance that otherwise would have gone to Lawyer Regulation in Headquarters or the branch offices,” said Spangler. During the month of March, the hotline received 3,018 calls, opened 1,132 cases, and sent out 395 complaint forms. “Normally, each call would have resulted in a complaint form being sent out. Now, we only send out about a third of what we used to, cutting the paperwork coming through the lawyer regulation office,” Hostutler said. “We’re all anticipating that the program will eliminate a certain percentage of the written complaints that previously went to the branch offices and necessitated the time-consuming process of requiring a written response, a rebuttal, and then a determination that there was no basis for referral to a grievance committee. If we are correct, this will obviously result not only in fewer complaints to be handled by the branch offices, but will also free up bar counsel’s time from having to handle meritless complaints,” Spangler added.