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As a lawyer from South Carolina discovered recently, the idea that one’s private life shouldn’t affect one’s professional life often doesn’t apply to lawyers. Many states’ rules regulating attorney conduct govern not only what they do in court and with clients, but also what they do after hours. States across the nation have adopted ethics rules that have landed lawyers in hot water for everything from organizing poker games to inappropriate touching on commuter trains. The South Carolina Supreme Court was the latest court to weigh in on the issue, holding on April 20 that a four-month suspension was an appropriate sanction for a lawyer who’d had three speeding tickets and a verbal altercation with his veterinarian’s assistant. To make matters worse, he perhaps gallantly — but fraudulently — attempted to take the rap for a crime committed by his girlfriend. In re Sarratt, No. 26636. SPEED AND WEED The attorney, Michael Sarratt, in one incident was clocked by police driving 140 mph in a 70 mph zone. In two other speeding cases, authorities had him going 94 mph and 92 mph. On another occasion, Sarratt, distraught over the condition of his dog, allegedly used vile and profane language when his vet’s office manager told him that the vet was unavailable. Later, police stopped Sarratt in his car and found marijuana and paraphernalia on his girlfriend, a passenger. Sarratt led police to believe that it was his in what he argued was “a matter of consideration” for his girlfriend. Although none of the incidents was related directly to Sarratt’s legal practice, the South Carolina Supreme Court suspended him for four months. The court held that he had violated South Carolina rules prohibiting “conduct tending to bring the legal profession into disrepute.” The court also cited South Carolina’s Rule 8.4, modeled after the ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct 8.4, which deems it professional misconduct for a lawyer to engage in “a criminal act that reflects adversely on the lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer in other respects.” Sarratt’s lawyer was unavailable for comment, but South Carolina disciplinary counsel Lesley “Lee” Coggiola noted that Sarratt’s case was not the first her office has seen involving conduct that one might not think would involve bar disciplinary action. “South Carolina’s gaming laws are unusual in that even poker is illegal, and we had a case where a lawyer had a disciplinary case because he violated the law by hosting poker parties,” Coggiola said. The lawyer, a deputy state prosecutor, received a public reprimand from the South Carolina Supreme Court for unlawful gambling. In re Sorenson, No. 26562. “It was just good ol’ boys playing poker,” Coggiola said. South Carolina isn’t the only jurisdiction where lawyers can run afoul of bar rules after work hours. The District of Columbia has a rule modeled after ABA Model Rule 8.4 that has resulted in disciplinary actions for conduct outside the office, said Hope Todd, director of legal ethics for the District of Columbia Bar. “In one 2006 case, a lawyer was sanctioned for inappropriate physical activity with a woman on a Metro train,” Todd said. In that case, the district’s Board on Professional Responsibility ruled that the lawyer’s conviction for misdemeanor sexual abuse was not sanctionable. However, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, the district’s highest court, disagreed and ordered a 30-day suspension. In re Harkins, 899 A.2d 755 (D.C. 2006). ‘INHERENTLY VIOLENT NATURE’ “Despite not directly implicating honesty or trustworthiness, sexually abusive contact, because of its inherently violent nature, calls into question one’s fitness as a lawyer and thus falls within the ambit of Rule 8.4(b),” the court said. Harry Sondheim, chairman of the State Bar of California’s Commission for the Revision of the Rules of Professional Conduct, noted that his state is considering a modified version of ABA Model Rule 8.4. It may allow sanctions for conduct reflecting adversely on fitness — even if there were no criminal conviction. South Carolina’s Coggiola noted that her office is citing more lawyers for violating the state’s oath of admission, which requires lawyers to pledge civility and maintain respect and courtesy toward various parties. “Isn’t that what your mother taught you?” Coggiola asked rhetorically. Answering her own question, she said, “For some, apparently not.”

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