In what appears to be a first for a state bar association, The Florida Bar is providing each of its 110,000 members with free access to legal trust accounting software – a move its new president believes will help attorneys better comply with trust accounting requirements and better protect the public from trust violations.
The Florida Bar, the official regulatory and disciplinary arm of the Supreme Court of Florida, has entered into a relationship with the legal financial management company Nota, owned by M&T Bank, to enable its members to use Nota’s trust accounting software, regardless of where they bank.
Sarasota, Fla., attorney F. Scott Westheimer, who was sworn in Friday as the bar’s new president, spearheaded the initiative. A central focus of his term as president will be on helping lawyers comply with trust accounting and other disciplinary rules, he told me in an interview, and he sees trust accounting software as fundamental to achieving that.
“One of my goals for this year is to do everything we can to empower and invest in our members and give them all the tools to succeed and avoid violations,” said Westheimer, a partner with the firm Syprett Meshad. “To me, trust accounting was the number one thing I wanted to focus on and see if we can help our members.”
Free Access for Members
Nota provides a suite of banking, finance and management resources designed to meet the unique needs of solo and small firm lawyers.
Through this relationship, all active members in good standing of The Florida Bar are eligible for free access to Nota’s trust accounting software. The product includes a range of features for managing trust accounts, including client sub-accounts, transaction notes, check printing, and three-way reconciliation.
The software integrates with major practice management, legal payment, and accounting platforms. Florida lawyers will be able to integrate it with their trust accounts regardless of where they bank, or use it as a standalone trust accounting solution.
It will become available to members beginning in September.
Paul Garibian, Nota’s CEO, said that he is excited about the opportunity to bring Nota’s technology the Florida legal community and to help lawyers grow and support their practices.
“Nota was designed to help smaller legal practitioners easily manage the complex and onerous process of trust reconciliation so they can focus on what’s important—their clients,” Garibian said. “Core to Nota’s platform is providing small businesses with access to the banking and recordkeeping services they need to remain compliant and drive growth.”
Targeting Trust Compliance
Westheimer, a personal injury lawyer, is the former chair of The Florida Bar’s Disciplinary Review Committee and served on the bar’s Special Committee on Technologies Affecting the Practice of Law. He teaches a course in lawyer discipline and regulation at the University of Florida College of Law.
In Florida, Westheimer told me, trust accounting issues are consistently among the most frequent types of disciplinary violations.
While this is attributable, at least in part, to the strictness of the trust accounting rules, Westheimer says he would not want to see any change to the rules, which he are intentionally strict because they are designed to protect the public. “The end goal is to protect the public.”
Rather, he believes that the bar can help lawyers better comply with the rules by providing them with education and technology.
“I don’t think the rules are too difficult – I think the rules are where they should be,” Westheimer said. “I think where we can improve as a bar is helping with the education, really making sure we get the message out that contemporaneous timekeeping is key, and giving them tools like this to make it easier to avoid technical violations.”
‘A Home Run for our Members’
When he was introduced to Nota, Westheimer told me, he saw it as the perfect product for the bar to make available to its members.
“Nota is a great product,” he said. “The goal was to give our members a tool that is the newest cutting-edge technology, that’s seamless, that will work with multiple financial institutions, and can be used as a standalone cloud-based software for their trust accounting, to make it as easy as possible for our members to comply with our trust rules.
“I really want to focus on the basics and, to me, Nota is such a good product, and if we can give it to our members regardless of their banking relationship, I think it’s a home run for our members.”
While the software is available to Florida attorneys in firms of any size, Westheimer believes the need is greatest among smaller-firm lawyers, which make up some 70 percent of all lawyers in Florida.
“They don’t have the benefit very often of having an office manager or a bookkeeper or a full-time accountant working with them. A lot of our bar members may be doing the trust accounting themselves. So I think this is something that is geared towards the solo and small law firms, but it can help the entire bar.”
Protecting the Public
Westheimer said he sees this relationship with Nota as a huge win for the public and a huge win for the bar’s members.
“It’s our job now to get the word out and make sure we get members to sign up. But if people utilize this tool, I think it will go a long way towards complying with our trust rule.”
Nota CEO Garibian echoed that sentiment.
“M&T is a community bank, and ultimately we believe that by protecting the public, we’re building better communities,” Garibian said. “And by building better communities, that really improves the world that we live in. Legal is one of those critical communities that have such a unique impact.”
“This relationship aligns with our heritage at M&T. Being the community bank, and with legal such an important community, such an impactful community, we feel that we are enabling them by providing the tool to be good fiduciaries in good standing.”
Florida lawyers interested in learning more about Nota’s availability in their state can do so at this link.
Others interested in learning more about Nota and its full suite of solutions can do so at this link.