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David Ross felt fully prepared when he left the government to head out on his own. But six months into building his own practice, he was stumped by an ethics question about forming a relationship with another firm. Having no one next door to discuss the issue with, Ross, a communications attorney, called the ethics hotline run by members of the Committee on Professional and Judicial Ethics of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. Many small firm lawyers often find themselves in a similar situation, especially when confronted with fee disputes, bad clients, conflicts of interest, relationships with other law firms and lawyers, and other issues. Which is where the bar associations hotlines come in. New York County Lawyers’ Association and the City Bar run ethics hotlines to answer relatively easy questions over the phone, and they publish written ethics opinions on questions submitted by attorneys. The New York State Bar Association, which has no hotline, requests that all questions be submitted in writing, to be answered in a written opinion. Although there are times that senior partners from the largest New York City firms call the hotlines for help, it is the small-firm lawyer who uses the service most often. “The main function of a hotline is just to help someone talk through an issue,” said Marjorie A. Silver, a member of the City Bar’s committee and an ethics professor from Touro College, Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center. But answers given over the telephone do not represent the official opinion of the committee or the bar association, she stressed. On the average, the hotlines get about two to four calls per day, said members of committees who staff them. Although wrong answers are rarely dispensed, claim City Bar and NYCLA members, they have been given and were promptly corrected. “We are not their lawyer,” said Alan Rothstein, general counsel of the City Bar. “[The ethics hotline] is intended to guide a lawyer in making their own decision,” he explained. “We don’t give legal advice,” said Joseph A. Vogel, a four-year veteran of NYCLA’s ethics committee who staffed the hotline last month. “We may not always have all the answers, but most of the time we can steer them in the right direction to find the answer,” he said. With about 30 calls in April, Vogel, who is a commercial litigator in his own two-lawyer firm, said that the more questions he hears, the quicker he gets in spotting the issues. “When I first did it, I was more hesitant to respond until I spent virtually all day looking into the question,” he said. “Now I understand the issues better.” Most hotline volunteers point the caller to a provision in the New York Code of Professional Responsibility or to a published bar association opinion. With more complicated questions, the hotline attorney will research the issue and call back with the answer. Questions that are open-ended, very complex and can benefit a wide range of attorneys are referred to the entire committee for either an informal letter opinion or a formal, published opinion. Formal opinions, unlike answers over the telephone, represent the official stand of the committee and the bar association. All the committee requires is that the caller be an attorney, that the question concern future and not past conduct, and that it be about the caller and not another attorney. If requested, the caller’s identity can be kept confidential. For example, the caller’s name can be redacted on all written opinions, and often it is only the chair of the committee that knows the person’s identity. There are structural differences between the City Bar’s and NYCLA’s committees and hotlines. At the City Bar, one attorney takes charge of the phone lines for one week, with a back-up attorney in case the first one is in a meeting. Essentially, everyone on the committee serves about two weeks each year. At NYCLA, a committee member serves for one month out of the year, with no designated backup. According to Gerard Harper, chair of NYCLA’s Committee on Professional Ethics, the more senior members of the committee are chosen to staff the hotline. Also, the City Bar has three-year term limits for all members of their ethics committee, while NYCLA and the State Bar do not. Some members of the State Bar committee have been issuing ethics opinions for more than 20 years. So while some City Bar members pride themselves on providing fresh blood and new thinking, some State Bar members point out the committee’s collective expertise. “There are very few people in New York City who are conversant in this area,” said Bruce Green, chair of the State Bar’s Committee on Professional Ethics. “There is a small percentage of people on the City Bar committee knowledgeable about what is essentially a body of law,” he said. But according to Lester Brickman, past member of both the State Bar and the City Bar committees, most people who join the City Bar’s committee are at least already interested in the area and some have a background in it. They quickly become familiar with the material, and “are able to more than hold their own,” he said. Although telephone questions can be answered immediately, the formal written opinions can take four to five months to complete. One solo practitioner complained that it took the State Bar roughly nine months to answer his written question dealing with Internet advertising. According to members of all three bar committees, nine months is not the norm. Open ended questions, especially those that chart new ground, present complications for a committee that usually issues unanimous decisions which go through multiple drafts, said Green, who is also a professor of ethics at Fordham University School of Law. With 23 attorneys on the committee and only one meeting a month, the consensus process can be tough and even contentious, according to Green. But in the end, he said, the opinions come out “very thoughtful and well-researched.” But not all attorneys have to wait months to get their answers. Ross, the brand new solo in Manhattan, called the City Bar last week and discovered that the person on-call was in a meeting. He was promptly referred to Silver, the backup hotline volunteer, and got his question answered that same day.

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