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Civil litigators often go for the jugular on behalf of their clients, but their actions in and out of court triggered more ethics complaints last year than any other practice area in Washington. D.C.’s Office of Bar Counsel investigated 99 cases involving civil litigators in 2006, up from 84 in 2005 — and more than triple the number of complaints received in 2001. Overall, 2006 was Bar Counsel’s busiest year on record, with 485 complaints docketed, compared to 429 in 2005, according to statistics released last week. Bar Counsel also set a record for investigating negligence, with 192 cases docketed last year. Those complaints made up 47 percent of the Bar Counsel workload, a substantial increase from 2005, when 113 cases were filed. “Twenty years ago, we had 35,000 lawyers to look after,” says D.C. Bar Counsel Wallace “Gene” Shipp Jr. “Now we have 80,000. It’s a much more target-rich environment.” Shipp says the increase in complaints against civil litigators is primarily due not to angry clients but to other lawyers, often opposing counsel. “More and more lawyers are reporting the conduct of their opponents,” Shipp says. “And the complaints are much more sophisticated. Rules are cited. It’s not just vague generalities.” Rule 8.3 in the D.C. Code of Professional Conduct, commonly called the “snitch rule,” says a lawyer can be punished for sitting on evidence that shows another lawyer committed a violation. The law isn’t new, but Shipp credits the D.C. Bar’s education programs with making lawyers more aware of the rule. Neglect and dishonesty were the top reasons for investigations against civil litigators, with each accounting for 29 cases. In 2005, there were only eight neglect investigations and five dishonesty cases. (Negligence and dishonesty alone accounted for 70 percent of all Bar Counsel investigations last year.) Immigration lawyers, who received 59 complaints, placed behind civil litigation as the second-most-investigated practice area in the District. Bar Counsel has compiled annual reports on ethics investigations since 2000 as a visual aid when speaking to lawyers about ways to avoid future, less cordial, meetings with the office. A harsh economy for some civil litigators also contributes to more ethics investigations. “When lawyers aren’t able to find jobs and they hang out their shingles as solo practitioners, it leads to more neglect cases,” Shipp says. “Lawyers aren’t meant to be accountants.” Solo practitioners in all practice areas were investigated 217 times last year, compared to 184 complaints in 2005. Increased use of the Internet also can alert Bar Counsel or opposing counsel of ethics violations. Last year, a Geico claims adjuster found through the D.C. Bar Web site that D.C. attorney Matthew Marshall, with whom the adjuster had been communicating over a client’s auto-claim case, had been disbarred. The adjuster alerted Bar Counsel, and Marshall is back in jail: On Feb. 15, D.C. Superior Court Judge Harold Cushenberry Jr. followed Bar Counsel’s recommendation and sentenced Marshall — for the second time in as many years — to 180 days in prison for practicing law without a license. The hike in investigations is also a result of Bar Counsel getting better at finding complaints filed across the country. With the Internet and better databases, lawyers are less likely to escape reciprocal punishment doled out by other states. (A recent D.C. Court of Appeals ruling, however, has limited the District’s ability to impose reciprocal discipline from states where a board other than that state’s high court handed down the ruling. The D.C. Bar’s solution is to broaden its rules, allowing reciprocal cases from all out-of-state disciplinary commissions. That plan is under review by the D.C. Court of Appeals.) As a group, immigration lawyers made up 14 percent of the Bar Counsel’s work. Negligence among immigration lawyers more than doubled in 2006, becoming the hotshot area for Bar Counsel investigators. Fifty-one cases were opened. That, says Shipp, is due to greater complexity in immigration law and the requirement that any request for an immigration appeal alleging shoddy lawyering must include a formal complaint to Bar Counsel, as established by Matter of Lozada (1988). So angry clients (or new lawyers they have hired) can often open new ethics investigations. The most likely perpetrator, Shipp says, is a lawyer who doesn’t specialize in immigration law and takes on a case thinking little more than filing paperwork is involved. Organizations such as the American Immigration Lawyers Association are trying to educate their membership. The association has more than 800 members in the District. “Immigration is a federal practice, so lawyers aren’t as tied into their state bar,” says Reid Trautz, the association’s director. “It’s not that they’re more unethical. They just don’t have the obvious educational options lawyers do in other fields.” Personal conduct such as drunken driving and fistfights also saw a sharp spike in complaints last year, when 30 cases were docketed. “There’s a lot of people who forget that you never take your hat off,” Shipp says.
OTHER RECENT D.C. ETHICS CASES INCLUDE THE FOLLOWING: • The D.C. Court of Appeals suspended Gregory Hawn from practicing law in the District for 30 days. In April 2006, Legal Times reported that D.C. Bar Counsel had accused Hawn, a second-year associate in Bracewell & Giuliani’s D.C. office, of falsifying his r�sum� and altering his law school transcript while trying to land a job at Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw’s Los Angeles office. Hawn quit Bracewell soon after the firm learned of the charge, which arose after Hawn used a legal recruiter to help with the attempted lateral move. • The D.C. Board on Professional Responsibility recommended William Bach, a solo practitioner in the District, for disbarment on Feb. 8. Bach handled more than 50 conservator cases before taking over the account of Fannie Thomas, who at the time was 92, in April of 2002. The board said Bach had not inflated bills or stolen money. Rather, Bach paid himself the accurate amount for his services — but did so a month before D.C. Superior Court Judge Erik Christian approved the payment. The Office of the Register of Wills saw the payment from Thomas’ account was made before Christian’s ruling and recommended that D.C. Probate Court hold a hearing. Bach told the court he was worried there would be no money to pay for his work after Thomas’ nursing home made a claim on her account. In a statement to the Probate Court, Bach wrote, “I violated the honesty, integrity and trustworthiness of our Bar.” The board agreed.
Nathan Carlile can be contacted at [email protected].

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