Florida's LOMAS the trailblazer

Bar officials in California took a look around the country before launching the LOMA program last year and discovered that the Florida Bar could offer some sage advice. The Florida Bar's Law Office Management Advisory Service (LOMAS) is a trailblazer in the field, launched in 1979 as the first program of its kind in the country.

Today it serves the state's 57,000 lawyers.

The reason for its birth, says J.R. Phelps, director of LOMAS, was that the board of governors decided there was a need to hire another prosecutor for its discipline system.

But, he said, it was apparent that the preponderance of misconduct stemmed from poor office management. "We decided that rather than prosecute, let's educate them, because the law schools can't and won't," said Phelps.

Florida began its service by focusing on individual firm consultations and on-site visits, but learned over the years that it was neither cost-effective nor physically possible.

"It was like moving a mountain with a spoon," said Phelps, who has been with LOMAS since its inception and has personally conducted more than 1,000 on-site office consultations.

Today, LOMAS has a budget of about $200,000 and has evolved into a telephone-based consultation service, much like the California bar's Ethics Hotline.

Technological advice

Nearly 40 percent of the 8,000 calls a year in Florida deal with technological problems, says Phelps, and one member of his four-person staff deals strictly with technological issues.

Phelps says there are "great ethical implications" with a program such as LOMAS and often they make referrals to the bar's ethics department.

LOMAS still conducts on-site consultations, but the number has been pared to 50 a year. The consultation deals with an examination of paper flow in the law office, such as client agreements, time charges, handling of mail, attorney fees and the permanent storage of client files.

Solo practitioners are charged $600 for the consultation, and small firms 10-and-under are charged $800.

Florida's program has been well-utilized, but Phelps said he still is introduced at bar conferences as "director of the bar's best-kept secret."

It's frustrating, says Phelps. Despite being the grandfather of all law office advisory programs, he says surveys still indicate that many lawyers don't even know about LOMAS.

Florida's LOMAS program is supported by the state's mandatory bar, with about one-quarter of the budget derived from the sale of products such as videos, audios and books.