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MIAMI — U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Laurel Myerson Isicoff opted for leniency in the case of a prominent Chicago lawyer who told her she was “a few french fries short of a Happy Meal.” She decided not to bar McDermott Will & Emery partner William Smith from practicing in South Florida bankruptcy court. Instead, Isicoff ordered him last week to take an online course in professionalism administered by the Florida Bar, even though he’s not a bar member there and was practicing as a visiting lawyer. “There is no jurisdiction in the U.S. — including the district where Mr. Smith regularly practices — where the expression and tone Mr. Smith used on May 7 would fall in the bounds of acceptable behavior,” a solemn Isicoff said from the bench in front of a packed courtroom. Prior to the June 20 ruling, Smith’s lawyer, Paul Battista of Genovese Joblove & Battista in Miami, told the judge Smith had voluntarily stepped down as the head of McDermott’s bankruptcy practice following his courtroom remark. According to Battista, Smith had already completed the Florida Bar’s professionalism course and agreed to complete at least 200 hours of pro bono work in Chicago. Smith also decided to make a financial contribution to the Center for Ethics and Public Service at the University of Miami law school, Isicoff’s alma mater. “He is here principally to express his deepest and sincere apologies to Your Honor,” Battista said, adding that his client’s remark May 7 was “inappropriate, disrespectful to the court, and simply wrong.” Following Smith’s comment to the judge last month, his client, Mount Sinai Medical Center & Miami Heart Institute, dropped him and McDermott and hired Akerman Senterfitt’s Francis Carter to represent it in the Chapter 11 bankruptcy case of South Beach Community Hospital in Miami Beach. Isicoff said she accepted the apologies of both Smith and McDermott Will & Emery Chairman Harvey Freishtat, the head of the Chicago-based, 1,000-lawyer firm, who also appeared in front of her to beg her pardon. Isicoff said she hoped the widely reported incident would start a discourse in the legal community about the appropriate way for lawyers to address judges, clients, and each other. Smith spoke after Battista, saying he was sorry for failing to deliver “an appropriately phrased argument.” Freishtat later told the judge Smith’s comment was “unprofessional and unacceptable, whatever his intention may have been.” He added he personally found Smith’s remark to be “baffling.” Freishtat said his firm has committed to increase its pro bono involvement in South Florida in the wake of the May 7 incident. After hearing from Battista, Smith and Freishtat, Isicoff asked Smith and his lawyer whether his pro hac vice license had ever been revoked in any jurisdiction and whether he had ever made the same comment in any other courtroom. Smith answered no to both questions. Isicoff then took a five-minute recess before delivering her ruling. Smith, who has a national bankruptcy practice, stood to lose a lot from Isicoff’s possible sanction, because if the judge were to pull his license in that court, he would have to disclose that every time he sought pro hac vice admission elsewhere.
Daniel Ostrovsky is a reporter for the Daily Business Review , an ALM publication.

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