One of the unexpected consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic is that I found myself able to watch a live courtroom proceeding from the comfort of my desk at home (work). The idea of this was totally fascinating to me because there was what I considered a huge case and I had a front-row seat.
If you’re in insurance and in Florida, or you’re at all interested in cases where a state bar is seeking sanctions against an attorney, the case of The Florida Bar v. Scot Strems ought to catch your attention. It did mine and I didn’t even know I was that interested in watching a legal proceeding designed to decide the
The whole thing lasted two weeks off and on. They streamed over 20 hours of public testimony. The Florida Bar making their case with document after document decrying the evils of Mr. Strems and his offices. The defense responded with witness after witness and documents aplenty proclaiming the sainted nature of Mr. Strems and the good work his firm sought to do.
To be fully open, I couldn’t sit through all 20 plus hours of testimony. I did sit through several hours of testimony for both sides, the oral decision, and the sanctions hearing so far. I found the whole process illuminating and educational for me. I can relate four specific facts that I learned during this case and if you read to the end, there are a couple of other thoughts.
It takes a lot to get the Florida Bar’s attention.
The initial complaint indicates 18 cases where the firm and Mr. Strems were sanctioned by a court for their conduct during first-party suits against insurance companies. It also mentions that some of the sanction orders refer back to other sanction orders.
I understand that the legal process can take a long time. I’ve worked in insurance long enough to watch claims that take several years to finally settle. However, it seems that it’s possible that this could have been taken care of sooner rather than later. As an uninitiated observer of legal matters, I wonder if the Bar couldn’t have stepped in sooner to take corrective actions.
Whatever they did beforehand didn’t have the desired impact. I heard statements where a court gave a verbal dressing down. It seems like that was the equivalent of telling them they were bad and sending them to their rooms to think about what they did. From the testimony I heard, it sounded like the firm was fined repeatedly. That didn’t seem to work, either. It turns out that when someone is fined and there is enough money to pay the fine easily, the fine that was supposed to correct behavior turns into another cost of doing business.
Good conduct does not make bad conduct ok.
During several points in this case, Mr. Strems made the point that his firm did good work and helped people. That point should be conceded. For most people, if they hire an attorney to represent them, and the attorney does a reasonably good job in helping their client, the client is happy. It’s a simple standard. Did the customer end up in a better position after dealing with you than they were before? According to that standard, I believe that they did good work and helped people.
He also made the point that his firm was involved in a good deal of charitable work. This is also something that we can be glad about. Businesses ought to give back to the community however they can. I can honestly say that the folks there weren’t all bad people. In fact, I’m inclined to say that they are probably good people who did some bad things.
The problem is that nowhere in life do we accept some kind of balance between good and bad or right and wrong. A person can drive responsibly for 20 years and if they drink, drive, and cause an accident that kills someone, they can still be convicted of DUI, even vehicular manslaughter.
It just doesn’t work that way and we know that yet as part of their defense, even while they fought the initial suspension order, they argued that they were still doing good.
In truth, if it’s important to do good, it’s also important to do things within the boundaries that others have put in place. Those boundaries make it so that we can all play in the same game with the same rules. The firm complained that shutting them down caused people to lose their jobs and that people wouldn’t have access to help in fighting against their insurance companies. To that, I submit that they should have thought about that way before things got to this point.
It’s not my fault doesn’t work.
In the evolution of his law firm, Mr. Strems went from a scrappy individual lawyer with himself, one team member, and grit on his side to the head of a fairly large firm, with attorneys, other legal staff, support staff, and a leadership structure. He took fewer cases and set supervisors over others so that he could focus on the higher priority things. That’s a good thing. I love it when a small business grows beyond just a couple of people.
However, when some of the charges contended that attorneys at his firm were acting badly, he tried to say it wasn’t his fault. He did the best that he could to control people, but you can’t force people to comply with rules or culture.
Since I never worked for them, I can’t say directly what the culture was for certain, but I can comment on what came out during the case and how I’ve seen things work in other places. Some people will adapt their style to accommodate the culture where they work. Some people will work in a place and if the culture grates against them, they’ll go work somewhere else. For the most part, people only stay at a place if they feel like they can’t leave, or the culture fits them.
Leadership cannot simply divest themselves of responsibility for the actions of their team. Leaders must take responsibility for what happens within their team. If there is a problem that the leader knows about, the leader needs to address it or endorse it. If there is a problem that the leader doesn’t know about, the leader has failed. If someone on my team isn’t performing, it’s my fault and my responsibility to fix it.
This is certainly not the end of the story.
The oral decision has been handed out and the arguments have been made for the sanctions requested by both sides. The Bar is asking for permanent disbarment and the defense is asking for a short-term suspension. This process is far from over.
Both sides will push for what they want until there are a final ruling and order, but that’s not today. Even when this case is over, the story is far from finished.
What will the Bar do next? Will they take this case as an opportunity to look at how they regulate their industry? Will they look at their processes and find places that need to be updated? Will they consider how they track the conduct of the attorney under their purview? Will it be business as usual for the Bar in that they will rarely take action? Who knows? This story continues.
It’s certainly not the end of the story for Mr. Strems. It matters little if he is as scurrilous an attorney as the story that has been told so far. He might be disbarred. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s never going to be able to practice law. He might be disgraced. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s persona non grata forever.
What do you think will happen if he came out and held a press conference and made this statement? “I’ve come here today to say that I accept the findings of the court against me. I have done wrong and I’m sorry. I can see where my actions and failure to act have hurt people, including the people of Florida, my family and friends, the people who trusted me enough to work for me, and the insurance market in this state. ”
As I mentioned, this is something that I never expected to happen. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are opportunities to learn things that I didn’t think I would be able to learn, let alone that I would be interested in. In that vein, let me give you two more things that I learned.
Watching live (and recorded live) court on YouTube is way cool.
It was super cool to sit and listen to the arguments. I found it fascinating to watch this whole thing play out. It was way more civil than I expected. There were no red-faced attorneys yelling. There was nothing dramatic about it. It was a very civil procedure. Yes, I meant that pun. No need to thank me.
Watching court proceedings is way more boring than TV makes it out to be.
At the same time, it was so boring. The Bar attorney listed fact after fact, quoted transcript after transcript and went on and on about this case and that case. He put documents on the screen, and everyone sat there and read them. Then the defense started and asked yes or no question after yes or no question. Hour after hour of one-word answers was followed by long readings of more documents and such.
I mean, Mr. Strems sat there sipping his coffee most of the time and didn’t even spill a drop.
It was so dull, but I learned a lot and can’t wait for the next episode to go live.
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