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Archive for the ‘Legal ethics.’ Category

professional man lost 2Some time ago, I posted about and how important that was, particularly during an economic downturn. Well now that things have supposedly picked up and are coming up rose petals, client selection remains as important as ever. It’s always the threshold consideration.

About 7 years ago, I became acquainted with the precepts of litigator and writer Dan Hull. I hadn’t thought of Hull in a long time. Nor had I given much thought to his “12 Rules of Client Service” or his first rule until the other day after I’d met with a new client for the first time.

I spent more time than initially anticipated with this client. And it was a good thing. I truly enjoyed our preliminary meeting and getting to know the client first — well before getting into details and diagnosis.

You have to like your client.

On the way back to my office, I thought of Hull’s blog “What About Clients?” It’s been around a long time. Last time I checked, the blog was still among the most popular on the Web.

Granted, he has a corporate client orientation. But all the same I strongly believed then and now that his client service rules are essential reading for lawyers young and old. They’re as timely today as when he posted them in 2005.

The first rule.

But of all Hull’s rules, the one that’s always resonated is his first one: “Represent only clients you like.” Probably it’s because long before I ever heard of Hull, it was the goal I’d written in my business plan — the one I wanted guiding my practice.

Was it a pipe dream? Is such representation even doable? The answer is yes — but it’s not easy. Sure under attorney ethics rules, there’s a helpful albeit qualified comment that says under Rule 6.2. “A lawyer ordinarily is not obliged to accept a client whose character or cause the lawyer regards as repugnant.”  See also Scott Laufenberg’s excellent essay, “Representing Repugnant Clients Every Lawyer’s Choice?”

So when I came across Hull’s blog in 2007, I got what he was saying. Years before, matters had also crystallized further after I’d attended a bankruptcy for the non-bankruptcy lawyer continuing education program. That program was supposedly for non-bankruptcy practitioners but almost all the attendees in the room were bankruptcy lawyers. It seemed everybody knew everybody else — like old home week. But what struck me that day wasn’t the course content.

http://www.rottenecards.com/ecards/Rottenecards_84464871_k4nh9wybb9.pngIt was that some of the lawyers in that room didn’t like their clients. These lawyers spent their break time loudly commiserating about their clients.

Lest anyone think I was casting aspersions on my colleagues in the bankruptcy bar, the answer is no. Regardless of practice area, we face the same challenges. I could’ve just as easily heard the same gripes at an employment lawyers conference or a criminal defense or family law program.

And it wasn’t like I’d been trying to overhear any conversations. Quite the opposite. I felt like the schoolboy in the confessional who covers his ears to not overhear a fellow sinner’s too loud admissions of sin in the confessional booth.

It didn’t matter if I was standing out of normal earshot or sitting several rows away. These lawyers spoke loud enough about their unlikable clients to have been overheard by the occupants in the next room. Then and there, I resolved all the more to do my best to avoid representing clients I didn’t like.

Ethics.

What I especially liked about Hull’s client service rules was that he placed them in an ethical and quality service-oriented framework. Lawyers owe their clients “some of the highest personal, professional and business duties imaginable,” he wrote. If you don’t like your client — fire him or her “as soon as you ethically and practically can.” And then there was the money quote, “You will not do good work very long for a client or customer you do not like.”

He sets a high bar. But always, there’s the reality check. When I meet new lawyers, many forced into solo practice — not by choice but by circumstance, I repeatedly find a disconcerting urgency to take on all comers. Facing crushing school loan debts and personal needs, there’s a sense of no boundaries. If a client’s paying, no legal work can be turned down. No matter the ethical duty of competence.

And as for wanting to like your clients, are you kidding? So long as a client has funds to pay for representation — what’s there not to like? Surely in hard-pressed economic situations, Hull’s first rule has to be out-of-step? I like to think not.

 

Admittedly, turning down a paying client even one that comes across like an acre of garlic isn’t easy when ‘baby needs new shoes.’ The cold truth is that faced with life necessities or payroll or rent, the first rule is often the first to go.

In those circumstances, doing what’s right is not only not easy but becomes a question of discretionary aspiration. It’s more longing than loftiness; more hunger than high-mindedness.

But perhaps a work-in-progress goal is still better than the alternative. The harder truth about lawyering is that our choices always catch up with us anyway. In the end, as the late Maya Angelou said, “Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”

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Photo Credits: Dreamers by piotr at Flickr via Creative Commons-license requiring attribution;Day 26, by Luciano Belviso at Flickr via Creative Commons-license requiring attribution.

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Celia Cruz – “Reina De La Música Latina”

Early Saturday morning I was catching up on my reading while listening to “Queen of Latin Music” Celia Cruz, lawyer-turned-salsero Rubén Blades and soulful Sam Smith’s – “In The Lonely Hour.” I like mixing my music. Ditto my casual reading.

So my reading stack was pretty disconnected with magazines, news clippings, newspapers and digital items featuring book and movie reviews, history, sociopolitical commentaries, sports notes and an outrageous report about juvenile truants in court being jailed without assistance of counsel. (I’ll be blogging about that one later).

One item, though, also drew my interest. It concerned a just-released survey suggesting lawyers ought to be marketing with online review sites. More specifically, the report referred to “the online urban guide” Yelp as supposedly “the most commonly used site to search for attorney reviews online, with 58 percent of [the] respondents saying it is the first place they turn.” The study also claimed that for 83 percent of respondents, online reviews were the first step taken by would-be clients. Who knew?

Burritos not barristers.

What I do know is that I like Yelp for hunting burritos not barristers. Help me get a bagel, a beignet or some bouillabaisse. Or how about finding me a bowlful of cocido, pho or curry when I’m traveling. But lawyers?

I haven’t seen this study’s metrics, methodology or ‘motivation.’ So I’m skeptical.

And since anecdotally and experientially, I haven’t seen it happening, I’m having trouble — especially accepting the inference that all these consumer are allegedly posting reviews about lawyers, which in turn is helping other consumers find legal counsel.

While it’s true that consumers use the Internet to find legal services, consumers aren’t generating a whole lot of online reviews about lawyers. Maybe it’s because it’s not like going out for burgers and brews. Not many folks can afford to hire legal representation. In spite of the historic glut of lawyers, the high cost of legal services has nonetheless resulted in more and more litigants doing without.

So I don’t know who’s supposedly posting all those few and far-between reviews the study says the public’s relying on. Granted, as one marketing researcher at the University of Utah’s School of Business contends, perhaps you don’t need a lot of online buzz. It’s the quality of the online sentiment that’s more important than the quantity of the conversations when it comes to driving customers to your door. Dr. Shyam Gopinath and his research co-authors suggest “that, in our data, ‘what people say’ is more important than ‘how much people say.'”

Woman in orange sunglasses uid 1All the same, given the paucity of online word of mouth about lawyers, I doubt you’ll see a time where like those ‘Elite’ Yelp restaurant reviewers, people dissing or raving about their lawyers will be feted at parties and treated “like royalty.”

Online legal reviews.

According to “How Prospective Clients Use Online Legal Reviews,” the randomly sampled 385 adults in the U.S. generated “385 unique responses to each of nine questions” for a “total of 3,465 respondents.” Say what?

Map of USA with state names 2.svg

To the everyday Joe, 385 adults is an infinitesimal number when there are an estimated 243,419,206 adults in the U.S. The findings then, are a real leap when the sample represents .00015816336201507453% of 243,419,206. But since statisticians assert this is a sufficiently sizable sampling to make the survey valid, I’ll just have to choke down my incredulity.

Here were the key findings from Software Advice, a consulting firm which according to their website, “helps buyers choose the right software. As a trusted resource, our website offers detailed reviews, comparisons and research to assist organizations in finding products that best fit their current and future needs.”

“1. Yelp is the most popular and trusted website for legal reviews.

“2. The most important information to prospective clients is quality of service and years of legal experience.

“3. Seventy percent of prospective clients would travel further to see an attorney with better online reviews.”

I don’t have a handle on how many lawyers currently rely on web-based business referral and review sites like Avvo, Yelp or the stodgy old school, Martindale-Hubbell. Lord knows they’re out there trolling for lawyer business.

And to some extent, lawyers should pay attention to what’s said about them online. But it’s a touchy proposition, especially when a lawyer feels compelled to respond to a negative review posted by a former client. Unlike other business owners who sue reviewers, lawyers may find that option a no-win proposition.

woman giving thumbs up 3 L uidWhat reviews?

But as to my further thoughts about the survey, I’m hypothesizing not many lawyers are marketing through Yelp — not unless they’re also serving chowder with their counsel. Save for emerging social media savvy Millenials, lawyers as a class are rarely early adopters. If there’s gonna be a digital technology party, most will be late.

From my own admittedly unscientific Yelp search of “lawyers,” for example, in the Phoenix, AZ market, very few had any client reviews. Indeed, the Phoenix lawyer with the most reviews had 8. And even in the bigger metropolis of Los Angeles, CA, the “most reviewed” lawyer in Downtown Los Angeles garnered a mere 93 reviews. The “most reviewed” lawyer in San Francisco’s Civic Center had 53 reviews and in Cleveland, OH, of the Yelp lawyers listed, all were tied with a whopping one review each. One San Diego, CA firm had over 200 reviews — but the next two highest were at 47 and 34 reviews.

And unfortunately, among all those scant reviews, some were negative. When it comes to lawyers, I disagree with Brendan Behan that “All publicity is good, except an obituary notice.”

The Rules.

People 1857To be fair, not all lawyers are Luddites. Some are just risk-adverse. They may be reluctant to run afoul of ethical rules governing how they advertise. After all, client recommendations are analogous to testimonials and so lawyers can’t have clients violate or attempt to violate Ethical Rule 8.4 (a) by knowingly assisting their clients to say things they aren’t allowed to say — like making false or misleading communications about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services.

And then there’s that other burden that requires lawyers to monitor their social networks and blogs for reviews and recommendations that may need to be revised or deleted. In Virginia, for instance, “the lawyer cannot permit to remain on his LinkedIn page a client recommendation that says the lawyer is the “best personal injury lawyer in town” because it is a comparative statement that cannot be factually substantiated. Rule 7.1(a)(3).”

From my own sorry experiences, I’ve also developed my own ‘rules’ for finding restaurants not lawyers on Yelp. Unless I’m in the middle of Smallville, USA where you won’t find 100 residents let alone 100 reviewers, I don’t pick a restaurant with less than 100 reviews. This takes out the possibility the restaurateur may have tried gaming the system by having biased friends and family stack the deck with glowing reviews.

boy in coat and hat sticking tongue outReviews should also be recent. And hopefully, substantive — not just whining because the waiter didn’t make eye contact, smile enough or sympathize about your troubling hangnail. Last, I also don’t pick restaurants with less than 4 stars.

And yet despite my ‘rules,’ I’ve still been burned — more than once, especially in the bad dining town where I live.

Yet come to think about it, if my Yelp restaurant rules were ever applied to picking lawyers, consumers would find it near impossible to find one.

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Photo Credits: Celia Cruz, Reina De La Música Latina, by Tribes of the World at Flickr via Creative Commons-required attribution; I Heart Yelp by Ewen Roberts at Flickr via Creative Commons- required attribution; Map of USA with state names, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license; 031207_16231.jpg 4 Jane, by

Luz at Flickr via Creative Commons-required attribution.

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“Are you a member or happy?”

Paraphrasing that other “Mo” — the one with an “e,” the State of Bar of Arizona is still asking. How happy are members with the Bar’s programs and services?

Although I already took the meaningless member survey, Monday morning I got another email reminding me to complete it. This is the third reminder — but who’s counting? The survey period ends this Friday.

 

achievements,business,flags,waving,metaphors,mountaintops,peaks,people,success,concepts

Doubtless the Bar’s trying to gin up something close to a representative response rate so its leaders can afterward claim victory just like they did three years ago.

Never mind the biased questions with their implicit assumptions or the forced choices from preselected answers. The results are preordained. But then I already I discussed all this last week at “Another ‘poppycock’ survey from the State Bar of Arizona.” At least the Bar’s not planning to survey us so they can later sell us the results.

Defensively speaking.

After last week’s post, I got an email from State Bar of Arizona Chief Communications Officer Rick DeBruhl. Understandably defensive, he wanted to explain a few things. With his consent, I’m posting his clarifications verbatim below.

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“A couple thoughts on your blog:

“Our survey was designed with input by Bruce Merrill. Formerly with ASU, he is one of the premiere survey experts in the country. Surveys are inherently imperfect. Experts like Merrill design them in such a way as to work around our human idiosyncrasies. I’ve never taken a survey that I considered perfect, and I wouldn’t put ours in that category. Using consultants such as Merrill simply allow us to step beyond the amateur ranks to get reasonably valid information.

“You mentioned the fact that 80% of the bar’s membership did not respond in 2011. Survey experts will tell you that a 20% response rate is phenomenal. In addition, we made sure to check that the final numbers were demographically similar to our membership. That gives our survey validity.

 “Questions such as the “printed directory or a more robust online member search tool” were designed to give us guidance. We know from previous surveys that members overwhelmingly use and value the directory. We’ve heard that the current online search tool doesn’t go far enough. Would people be satisfied if we dumped the print directory for our existing search tool? Possibly not. What we’re ultimately trying to determine is whether they like the printed version because they want a book, or because they don’t have a better option.

“As for the answers on the “most serious problems” question, we actually got them from another state’s survey. We’re trying to build not just Arizona data but national trends as well. We looked them over carefully before deciding to include them. Any time you create a list, it has the potential to create bias to those answers. And yet survey experts say that respondents need lists to be reminded of the options.

“As for why we use SurveyMonkey, the answer is simple. It is the highest quality for the lowest cost. Of course there are other ways to survey members with greater anonymity. However, they cost significantly more money. Merrill feels we can achieve the same results with lower cost using this method. One other option would be a random sampling. Experts say we could get statistically valid results with just hundreds of responses. Perhaps, but we felt that if we were going to talk about the results of the member survey that all members should have the ability to give answers.

“Incidentally, we had a technical problem on the first day of the survey that prevented some people from submitting. As a result, our consultant decided that our best option was to remove the block that prevents a second survey from the same computer. The consultant feels that the number of people submitting two will be significantly small so that it won’t likely affect overall trends. We do have the ability to run a check on the number of repeat IP addresses which will let us know whether that number was significant. I’m sure if we had unlimited resources, we could no doubt determine the identity of each IP address, but that’s simply not in our realm. Incidentally, we don’t use the SurveyMonkey invitation system.

“We’d love it to be shorter, but we’ve done our best to chop it down. Because of the skip logic built into the survey, no one actually answers every question.

“The bottom line is that we understand that surveys are imperfect. We look for trends and directions and feel that gives us guidance as an organization.

“As always, let me know if you have questions or thoughts.”

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Dollars to donuts.

Cartoon Characters 57 I said last week I wasn’t a survey expert. But dollars to donuts, it’s like asking 10 lawyers about anything. If you get 10 survey experts in one room — you’ll get 10 different opinions.

Survey design is as much art as science. So what’s a good response rate? Depends who’s asking. And it depends on how they ask the question. Also see AAPOR | Response Rate – An Overview.

But I’m glad at least that Rick DeBruhl conceded more than once that the Bar survey was “imperfect” — because it is. That was the crux of my post.

There’s a reason some 80% of lawyers don’t bother answering these surveys. They’ve figured out what a medical historian once said about something else, “The experience of the ignorant has routed the wisdom of the learned.”

Too bad my point about the Bar’s expensive printed directory got lost. The survey’s either/or question about the directory was a leading question. It was biased toward a choice preference for a more robust online member search tool.”

Not long ago, the Arizona Bar spent well over six figures supposedly improving and updating its website and its online member search tool. And now it appears some Bar executive is itching to spend even more money on what’s become a bloated website and online member search tool. Meantime regardless of the Bar’s claims at being eco-friendly — it’s just not yet because the Bar continues to print member directories and kill trees.

As for the survey having been designed “with input by Bruce Merrill” — well, that was a point I already footnoted last week. Still with an expert “like Merrill” on board, you have to ask why the Bar needed to crib stuff from other state bar surveys?

Satisfied?

Finally, as a learned colleague pointed out to me when I showed her Rick DeBruhl’s response, his email didn’t address the matter of his boss’s oversimplification of the Bar’s percentage of so-called ‘satisfied customers.’ This was last February 2013 when AZ Bar CEO John Phelps who’s also a lawyer addressed the state legislature’s house judiciary committee.

At about 27:33 on the tape and transcript, he omits the qualifier “somewhat” and asserts instead that “75% of the lawyers polled. . . were satisfied and 25% were not satisfied.”

Does such shorthand, she opined, potentially rise to an ethical rules violation under ER 7.1, i.e., that “a lawyer shall not make or knowingly permit to be made on the lawyer’s behalf a false or misleading communication”? Or as she also speculated, was it a possible violation of ER 8.4 (c) concerning “misleading” statements? The Bar’s communications chief doesn’t explain.

 

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Last October, I reblogged a post by Indiana lawyer Paul Ogden who was then facing a one-year suspension for a private email criticizing a judge.

File:1849 - Karikatur Die unartigen Kinder.jpg

Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Ogden’s troubles, however, were bigger than just the possibility that as a politically active lawyer with an unblemished 27-year legal career, he might suffer potentially career-destroying sanctions. No, Ogden’s case was really about another attempt by attorney disciplinary authorities to further muzzle attorney free speech.

It was about how much more an ethical rule can be broadened to spank lawyers for their opinions about judges under Ethical Rule 8.2, which says, in part, “A lawyer shall not make a statement that the lawyer knows to be false or with reckless disregard as to its truth or falsity concerning the qualifications or integrity of a judge.”

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/8/88/Two_monks_working_in_the_blacksmith_shop_at_Mission_Santa_Barbara%2C_ca.1900_%28CHS-4070%29.jpg/319px-Two_monks_working_in_the_blacksmith_shop_at_Mission_Santa_Barbara%2C_ca.1900_%28CHS-4070%29.jpg

Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

And it was also about a lawyer disciplinary commission with the unbridled temerity to hammer and tong a lawyer with the nerve to persistently criticize it.

The Court decides.

LAW AND JUSTICE uidThis past Monday the Indiana Supreme Court handed down its decision In the Matter of Paul K. Ogden. And while the vocal Hoosier gadfly ended up getting disciplined, it was still a good outcome for Ogden.

The case against him was originally brought in March 2013 because of comments he made in private correspondence about Judge David H. Coleman, a special judge appointed in an unsupervised estate case where Ogden was representing one of the interested parties.

As to the First Count of the Charge, in the words of the Court, Ogden’s “repeated and virulent accusations that Judge Coleman committed malfeasance in the initial stages of the administration of the Estate were not just false; they were impossible because Judge Coleman was not even presiding over the Estate at this time—a fact Respondent could easily have determined. Because Respondent lacked any objectively reasonable basis for (these) statements, we conclude that Respondent made these statements in reckless disregard of their truth or falsity, thus violating Rule 8.2(a)in Count 1, the aggravating facts convince us that a mere reprimand is insufficient discipline in this case.”

As to the remaining Second Count concerning alleged ex-parte communications to Marion County judges to follow recently outlined forfeiture law, the Court ruled the disciplinary commission had not met its burden that Ogden’s letters to the judges were “prejudicial to the administration of justice.”

Caucasian businessman pointing finger beside window uidThe Court instead found professional misconduct only with respect to Ogden’s statements about Judge Coleman. And so it ordered a 30-day suspension starting August 5, 2014 and assuming he keeps his nose clean, at its conclusion, the Court approved automatic reinstatement.

Speaking objectively — despite the sanction, I think it’s a win for Ogden. The Court unanimously found misconduct only concerning the First Count. It imposed only a 30-day suspension with automatic reinstatement — instead of the one-year suspension without automatic readmission that the Commission wanted.

File:Freespeech.jpg

Wikimedia Commons/Luis Ricardo/GNU Free Documentation License.

Vulnerable attorneys.

A few days after, at Disbarring the Critics, Ogden also understandably cast the outcome in a positive light. The perils he’d faced had been daunting.

But all the same, Ogden was disappointed “the Court failed to distinguish between public and private communications, thereby leaving attorneys vulnerable to having their private emails and conversations scoured for Rule 8.2 violations for judicial criticism.”

On a more hopeful note in his post, The Indiana Supreme Court Hands Down Decision,” he added: “Attorneys from across the country are wanting an attorney free speech case to go before the United States Supreme Court to curtail states use of disciplinary rules to target attorney speech critical of judges. I think it’s inevitable that’s going to happen as the U.S. Supreme Court seems to have a keen interest in free speech cases and there seems to be no support among conservatives or liberals on the Court for the types of professional sanctions states are imposing on attorneys for judicial criticism.”

Obstreperous meets obdurate.

Ogden also remains convinced the Indiana Disciplinary Commission overcharged and overprosecuted him for no other reason than his unrelenting criticism of its doings. Optimistically, then, he hopes his case will be “a catalyst” for investigating the Commission’s conduct “and for much-needed reform to the attorney disciplinary process.”

While I wish him well, I don’t know whether such optimism is realistic. The forces arrayed against him are formidable. The Commission is an agency and arm of the Indiana Supreme Court.

Case in point, despite his well-founded longstanding complaints about the Commission’s conduct, the Court adopted its agency’s view that Ogden had been “obstreperous.” Obstreperous is a $10 word meaning stubbornly resistant to control as in “unmanageable.”

Laughing Jackass 10952161246Using my own $9.99 word, if Ogden’s unruly then I think the Commission has been obdurate meaning stubbornly resistant to change. But operating apparently without meaningful oversight or transparency, why should it conduct itself any differently?

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http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/a/ad/WMATA_third_rail_at_West_Falls_Church.jpg/320px-WMATA_third_rail_at_West_Falls_Church.jpgIn politics, there’s the ‘third rail,’ a metaphor for topics so charged that like a train’s exposed electrical conductor, they’re too dangerous to touch. For at least some lawyers, the profession’s ‘third rail’ is the lawyer discipline system.

The closest most want to brush against lawyer discipline is a glance at the list of sanctioned lawyers in the monthly bar magazine. And that’s just in case there’s someone there they know.

In Arizona, the consumer protection agency also known as the state bar does a good job reminding its lawyers about the consequences of violating ethics rules. The bar’s website prominently features up-to-date news of Arizona lawyers who’ve been disciplined.

By comparison, bar websites in neighboring California, Nevada, and New Mexico don’t have such front-page listings. But true to its express mission of protecting the public from its lawyers, the Arizona bar additionally sends press releases publicly identifying the drubbed and the defrocked.

Afraid of the system.

But ask an Arizona lawyer to explain how discipline works or to state how many bar prosecutors there are or how much money is spent each year protecting the public and chances are good you’ll get a headlight-caught Bambi expression. More than “don’t ask” — afraid of bad karma it’s “don’t tell me — I don’t want to know.”

 

Take the financial piece, for example. Lawyer discipline takes the biggest chunk of member dues. In Arizona, the number runs about $5M annually.

But if there’s a detailed financial accounting explaining how, what, why and where those monies are expended, I wouldn’t know about it.

To be fair, that doesn’t mean such a report doesn’t exist. I may just be the last person in Arizona to know it. All the same, whether you’re talking legal elites or state or local government, transparency hasn’t been big here.

Consequently, it may simply be that run-of-the-mill members even if they’re paying for the whole kaboodle aren’t supposed to be privy to it — sort of like questions above their pay grade.

On the bar’s website, however, at least there’s an 11-page April 30, 2013 Annual Report of the Attorney Regulation Advisory Committee to the Arizona Supreme Court. Admittedly, it’s not a financial statement. It’s a statistical report of admission and discipline cases for the year. It’s also about one-fifth the size, for example, of the Washington Bar’s 2012 Lawyer Discipline System Annual Report. The Washington state report, by contrast, is replete with cost and discipline expense data.

“Ethics allegations about judge . . . .”

woman face 5But the real reason to bring up lawyer discipline today is not because I have a pent-up hankering for self-administered third-rail electrocution. It’s  because of Wednesday morning’s front-page news story concerning a persistent non-lawyer named Mark Dixon and the bone he’s been picking with the state’s lawyer discipline chieftain, presiding disciplinary judge Hon. William “Bill” O’Neil.

According to news sources, Dixon’s been complaining about Judge O’Neil since at least 2009. Indeed, almost 2 years ago Dixon even filed an affidavit in support of Lisa Aubuchon’s disbarment appeal. For those who forgot, Aubuchon was the former deputy county attorney ultimately disbarred for her role in former Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas’ prosecutorial misconduct against county officials.

None of this was news to me. I caught a whiff a couple of years ago when Phoenix New Times ran an unflattering account, “Mark Dixon Disses Disciplinary Judge William O’Neil, Who He Says was a “Close” Friend, in Affidavit Filed by Lisa Aubuchon. New Times reporter Ray Stern put Dixon in a less than credible light.

But now comes this week’s news account in the Arizona Republic, “Divorce case stirs ethics allegations about judge.” Talk about an attention-grabber — especially if you’re a lawyer. So naturally, the interest of legal community types was piqued, especially when the allegations weren’t just directed at any judge but the one charged with disciplining lawyers. Even so, these were only allegations and ones that had been previously dismissed out-of-hand. So inasmuch as Dixon’s beeves had been grilling for a while and that he’d become a minor cause célèbre among local Tea Party types, why was the mainstream newspaper now taking this on? Slow news day?

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/3/34/Apatosaurus_skull.jpg/320px-Apatosaurus_skull.jpgI doubt it’s because the Arizona Tea Party and its supporters have that much pull, if any, with the state’s largest newspaper. Moreover, their support of Dixon is colored. They’re still picking their own Brontosaurus-sized bone with the state bar and the court’s disciplinary arm for defrocking their hero, former county attorney Andrew Thomas.

So it’s a mystery to me. But as for the Republic story, writer Dennis Wagner did a terrific job time-lining events and giving equal time to both sides.

Most importantly, in detailing the series of events, coincidences, and timing of the real estate short sale of Judge O’Neil’s mother-in-law’s house to his friend and subsequent business partner and the judge’s purchase thereafter of a half-interest in the home for $25,000, Wagner was smart to raise the relevant “appearance of impropriety” ethics standard.

It’s CANON 2 of the Arizona Supreme Court Code of Conduct,“A judge shall avoid impropriety and appearance of impropriety in all of the judge’s actions.” Section A of Canon 2 of the Code; rule 81, Arizona Rules of the Supreme Court, further provides: “A judge should … conduct himself at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary,” whereas section B of Canon 2 provides in part: “A judge shall not lend the prestige of judicial office to advance the private interests of the judge or others.”

To Judge O’Neil’s inestimable credit, though, when asked about the appearance of impropriety involving the short sale transaction and subsequent purchase, Judge O’Neil told the news reporter, “In hindsight, would I have done this? The answer is ‘No’.”

No props, though, for straight-faced zealous advocacy from the judge’s lawyer, who when told by the reporter of the judge’s woulda-coulda-shoulda said, “I hate to contradict the good judge, but . . . there isn’t any appearance of impropriety.”

But no need to go into the rest of the story here. Read Wagner’s account instead.

And while this may not necessarily be open discussion at law firm water coolers, I think even lawyers apprehensive about a ‘third rail’ fan kick might by now found the wherewithal to sneak a peek at the news report — at least from under the covers.

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Photo Credits: “WMATA third rail at West Falls Church.jpg” by Ancheta Wis under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, Wikipedia Commons;”Deer caught in the headlights,” by Harold Neal at Flickr via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License; Skull of Apatosaurus, a sauropod by Ghedoghedo at Wikipedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license;

“smirk? sneer?” by makelessnoise at Flickr via Creative Commons-license requiring;”smirk or smile,” by egreg17 at Flickr under Creative Commons-license requiring attribution.

 

 

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Lawyers in Colorado are smart to be circumspect about what their attorney lords of discipline might do to them if they start counseling marijuana-related businesses or partaking a bit of the herb for themselves. Notwithstanding that January 1, 2014 it became legal for Colorado residents 21-years of age and older to legally buy up to an ounce of recreational marijuana, the state’s lawyers aren’t so sure how that applies to them.

Consider that some jurisdictions impose disciplinary sanctions on lawyers for illegal drug use, which can range from reprimands to suspensions to disbarment.

File:Image The Devil s Weed.jpgAlready risk-adverse by dint of occupation, Colorado’s lawyers are afraid to tread where only tokers rush in. They have a lot to lose: their bar licenses and their monopolistic meal-tickets.

So they want assurances first. Indeed, according to a report from Time, “a stream of lawyers and judges appeared at the Colorado Supreme Court on Thursday to argue for rule changes that would explicitly allow lawyers to give advice related to marijuana without fearing disciplinary action — as well as use marijuana themselves.” See “Colorado Lawyers Want to Get High Like Everybody Else.” Also see “Ethics Panel Asks Colorado Supreme Court To Amend Rules, Authorize Marijuana Advice.”

The problem arises because while recreational marijuana use in Colorado is legal — not so with the feds. More specifically, what’s worrying Colorado’s lawyers is Ethics Rule 8.4 Misconduct, which says “It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to (b) commit a criminal act that reflects adversely on the lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer in other respects.”

320px-Irene_Ryan_1968Understandably, Rocky Mountain High lawyers want to first make sure they’ll be protected from discipline under that rule before they indulge in personal use or “strictly for medicinal purposes” as Granny used to say about her ‘roomatiz medicine,’ 

File:Drug bottle containing cannabis.jpgWhat’s more, at least for now the Standing Committee studying the matter has already nixed recommending protections to enterprising Colorado lawyers who might’ve entertained broadening their legal practices to include operating marijuana-related commercial businesses.

Unlike those coffee-cum-counseling legal services operations in California, there won’t be any cannabis-cum-counseling legal services providers in Colorado. What a concept that would’ve been — clients eager to visit their lawyers.

Still, the whole thing is taking a long time. Colorado’s legal establishment has been wrestling over it for over a year. But at long last, a final decision is imminent. And probably not soon enough for lawyers craving a bit of ganja with their Marley.

Meanwhile here in Arizona, pot use is limited to prescribed medical purposes. Consequently, what confronted the local lawyer ethics police was different from what faces Colorado’s lawyer disciplinary gurus.

Just before the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act took effect on April 14, 2011, which legalized medical marijuana for use by people with certain “chronic or debilitating” diseases, the Arizona Bar formed their own task force to study the Act’s implications. The result was a carefully delineated, narrowly tailored ethics opinion. But like all such opinions, prudent lawyers know it’s always caveat emptor or in this case, ‘cannabis consuasor emptor’ when relying on a state bar’s disclaimer-laden ethics opinions.

So regardless of outcome, Colorado lawyers wanting to toke up will be well advised to follow not just the bar’s counsel but the Bard’s, “Discretion is the better part of valor.”

Experienced lawyers already know. If you call ethics counsel for precise, distinct ethics advice, chances are their counsel will be magically worthy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s admonition about elves, Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes.”

In Arizona, for example, the “formal opinions of the Committee on the Rules of Professional Conduct are advisory in nature only and are not binding in any disciplinary or other legal proceedings.” [Emphasis added]

Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/8/83/Marijuana_and_pipe.jpg/320px-Marijuana_and_pipe.jpg

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Photo Credits: “She Shoulda Said No!” at Wikimedia Commons, public domain, Image_The_Devil_s_Weed.jpg;“marijuana joint,” by Torben Hansen at Flickr via Creative Commons-license requiring attribution; Irene Ryan as Granny Clampett, Beverly Hillbillies, at Wikimedia Commons, public domain;Drug_bottle_containing_cannabis.jpg ‎ at Wikimedia Commons, public domain.; “Marijuana and a pipe,” by Erik Fenderson, 2006-03-19, at Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

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Topless lawyer wannabes? With that as a titillating lead, I’m going to tell you about a devastating critique of what passes for prosecuting the unauthorized practice of law (UPL) in Arizona.

It’s a real-life story posted last November by would-be whistle-blowing criminal defense lawyer Karyl A. Krug who until she was injudiciously shown the door had been a Capital Staff Attorney in the Arizona Death Penalty Judicial Assistance Program.

Krug is no crank. A 20-year Texas board-certified criminal law and criminal appellate law specialist turned Arizona lawyer, her experience, credentials and distinctions enviably run three pages.

LAW AND JUSTICE 63She’s a former Chair of the Criminal Law Exam Commission for the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. She Chaired the ABA Habeas Reform Subcommittee; and Co-Chaired the ABA Criminal Justice Section, Appellate and Habeas Committee. In 1996, Krug garnered the second DNA exoneration in Texas. And besides 18 reported cases, she also had the first published Vienna Convention case in Texas on behalf of a foreign national. Oh, and she also served on the ABA’s Postconviction Task Force to advise Standards Committee and done a lot more other stuff than most lawyers ever will.

Slings and arrows.

File:Sebastia.jpgBut hers is a cautionary tale. If someone so impeccably credentialed can suffer such ‘slings and arrows,’ then what of lesser mortals? More dismayingly, it also hollows out the resolve and reliability of UPL enforcement actions in the Grand Canyon state.

But before getting to her provocatively-titled story, “Arizona Is Calling All Topless Lawyer Wannabes,” which necessarily must be filed in the prodigious ‘no good deed goes unpunished’ folder, here’s some background.

A mess of things.

Politics Law & Finance 43Over the years, Arizona along with most other jurisdictions has pretty much made a mess of defining what is and what isn’t the practice of law. Indeed, more than a half-century ago, the state supreme court in State Bar of Arizona v. Arizona Land Title & Trust Co. 366 P.2d 1, 90 Ariz. 76 said “In the light of the historical development of the lawyer’s functions, it is impossible to lay down an exhaustive definition of “the practice of law” by attempting to enumerate every conceivable act performed by lawyers in the normal course of their work.”

People 1857Still, give the high court credit for trying. There is after all, an Arizona definition and while not statutory, it’s nevertheless the governing rule, Arizona Supreme Court Rule 31, “Regulation of the Practice of Law.”  And notwithstanding the rule’s 21 exceptions, it’s meaning is clear to everybody — except the lawyers and non-lawyers who’re supposed to follow it.

In Arizona, for example, non-lawyers known as certified legal document preparers can prepare pleadings/wills/other legal documents; attend administrative proceedings; handle pre-trial activities; negotiate legal matters; appear in court; attend real estate closings; participate in state administrative proceedings; and participate in alternative dispute resolution proceedings.

child silly faceLegal document preparers can also provide general legal information — but they can’t give legal advice. And when you’re able to make that distinction without a difference — let me know.

I know it when I see it.

flashlight gh 2Not that things are clearer elsewhere. In Minnesota, for instance, in a bit of unintended understatement, that state’s supreme court said, “The line between what is and what is not the practice of law cannot be drawn with precision.”

And reminiscent of what Justice Potter Stewart memorably said about knowing something when he sees it, the court added, “Lawyers should be the first to recognize that between the two there is a region wherein much of what lawyers do every day in their practice may also be done by others without wrongful invasion of the lawyers’ field.” See Cardinal v. Merrill Lynch Realty/Burnet, 433 NW2d 864 (Minn. 1988).

The courts, though, wouldn’t necessarily be better off applying Lord Justice Jeremy Stuart-Smith’s “well known elephant test” from Cadogan Estates Ltd v Morris. Referring to an elephant, the Lord Justice said, “It is difficult to describe, but you know it when you see it.”

Meanwhile in Arkansas, that state’s highest court threw up its collective hands and said it was “impossible to frame any comprehensive definition of what constitutes the practice of law” and added, “perhaps it does not admit of exact definition.” See Arkansas Bar Association v. Block, 323 S.W.2d 912 (1959).

UPL — Unauthorized Practice of Law.

http://cdn.morguefile.com/imageData/public/files/q/quicksandala/11/l/1384652253jvwl6.jpgAmorphous definitions or not, states do try — albeit with varying degrees of commitment but plenty of lip service to crack down on what’s supposed to be unauthorized practice. But getting arms around the spiny porcupine isn’t easy. 

Almost two years ago to modest fanfare, the Arizona State Bar announced it was partnering with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and other local and federal agencies to crack down on the unauthorized practice of immigration law. However, it was all part of a nationwide public relations effort initiated not by the Arizona bar but by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

Enforcement? What enforcement?

But without a universal probe library (UPL) or an upper prediction limit (also UPL), it’s difficult to figure how serious or successful these crack downs are to more forcefully restrain that better-known UPL, the unauthorized practice of law.

Arizona does have a statute dealing with the unauthorized practice of immigration and nationality law, although it’s hard to say how many prosecutions let alone class 6 felony convictions the attorney general has made to prevent or stop violations.

But other than this single UPL immigration statute, as Krug points out, it’s not otherwise a crime in Arizona to engage in unauthorized practice of law. The only remedies hereabouts are civil injunction, civil contempt, and a civil fine. And as for what money is spent policing UPL, good luck on that. It’s not readily known since the number’s buried in the $5MM or so the disciplinary wheels spin regulating Arizona lawyers.

All the same, according to the state bar’s website and its last update three years ago this month, only 27 UPL formal complaints have been filed; 14 UPL cease and desist consent agreements signed; and 4 contempt actions filed. By comparison, that’s a far cry from the 695 full screen lawyer disciplinary investigations performed just in 2012.

But not to pick just on Arizona, the enforcement is scatter-shot most everywhere else. It’s underfunded, under-reported and underwhelmed. Not surprisingly, some jurisdictions even have as much trouble defining UPL as they do the practice of law. If you can’t define it, is there any wonder enforcement’s so erratic?

Moreover, the last report of any consequence was almost two years ago when the American Bar Association (ABA) Standing Committee on Client Protection rolled out its 2012 Survey of Unlicensed Practice of Law Committees.

Cartoon Characters 310Here are a couple of highlights: “Twenty-three jurisdictions actively enforce UPL regulations, although some jurisdictions indicate that insufficient funding or resources make enforcement challenging. Nine jurisdictions stated that enforcement is inactive or non-existent.

“Most jurisdictions either do not have a specific annual expenditure for UPL enforcement or were unaware of the exact amount.”

Topless Lawyer Wannabes.

So getting back to Suzette Hall, the Colorado woman busted for giving topless haircuts and how that ties into practicing law in Arizona without a license. Unlike lawyers who proudly display law licenses on office walls, Suzette’s male customers apparently never bothered to ask about her cosmetology credentials. They just paid the $45 to get the topless haircut. So Karyl Krug’s point in her blog post is that “Colorado is tougher on unlicensed hairdressers than Arizona is on unlicensed attorneys.

“Colorado must be a very conscientious state. In Colorado, Suzette Hall was arrested for suspicion of practicing cosmetology without a license. I am assuming it is because she was practicing her craft sans a trendy burnout tee from the Sundance Catalog; or a shirt of any kind. Whether toplessness constitutes reasonable suspicion to believe that one does not have a license to practice one’s chosen profession in Colorado, much less probable cause for an arrest, I will leave to the authorities in Colorado.

“By contrast, you cannot get arrested in Arizona for practicing law without a license, clothed or otherwise. Since we have had a multitude of topless demonstrations in Tempe and Phoenix in the recent past, I think it might be safe to say that Ms. Hall could have declared herself a topless lawyer in Arizona without fear of arrest.

“Foolishly, I thought I would have to have a license in Arizona to call myself a lawyer in Arizona state court. I paid in excess of $2000 and went through a rigorous criminal and character background investigation lasting 6 months to get my Arizona law license. But it turns out that everybody, including the trial courts in the county with the biggest glut of death penalty cases Arizona has ever seen, can and did call whoever they wanted to a lawyer, with no criminal or other penalty whatsoever.

“This is in stark contrast to Texas, known as that other crazy, red, Wild West state. I have been licensed to practice law in Texas for 20 years. It is a third degree felony to practice law without a license and get paid to do so, punishable by two to ten years in prison. In Arizona, it is a violation of Arizona State Bar Rules, but it is not a crime.”[1]

The rest of Krug’s legal reality story describes what happened to her after she outed a non-lawyer colleague working as a ‘Capital Staff Attorney’ in the Arizona Death Penalty Judicial Assistance Program. Both were dispensing legal advice to “trial judges statewide on the law in death penalty cases” and writing “proposed orders and legal memoranda.” Only thing is Krug’s colleague wasn’t a lawyer although she held herself out to be one and was actually called one!

And after fulfilling her ethical precepts by telling near everyone that needed to know from the state bar to the court to the Attorney General to the FBI and including possibly God Almighty that this was not only UPL but what she strongly believed to be grant fraud, Krug figuratively got her head handed to her for her troubles.
Meanwhile those both derelict and accountable for what took place got what’s tantamount to the sound of crickets chirping — nothing. Read the rest of her story here.

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[1] Excerpted with express permission of author Karyl Krug at LiberalAmerica.org

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