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Imagine a world without lawyer jokes. A group of Yale Law School students is doing just that. The law school is trying to teach its students legal ethics while simultaneously weeding the bad apples out of the profession. The Lawyering Ethics Clinic, which has been offered at the law school for the past 4 1/2 years, pairs students with clients who have filed grievances against their attorneys. “The idea behind the class is that budding lawyers really should start learning about ethics as early as possible,” said Deborah Cantrell, who teaches the clinic with one other professor. “The best way to learn about ethics is to practice it. You, as a budding lawyer, learn what kinds of duties you have. That’s the idea behind doing the clinic.” The students argue on behalf of complainants before Statewide Grievance Committee. Clients who think they’ve been cheated by an attorney are unlikely to hire another one to argue their grievance, while lawyers are often reticent to take on their colleagues in the grievance process. So the clients usually end up representing themselves. That can sometimes lead to awkward hearings where complainants fumble through the case as the panel reviewing their complaint gingerly urge them on. Law students, under the guidance of their professors, can put on witnesses and make arguments, all while earning class credit. Meanwhile, says Cantrell, they learn some important lessons about court etiquette and the grievance process. “I think it’s really important that students at the very early stages of their legal training be introduced to the ethical and moral framework of our profession,” she said. The class usually attracts between five and 15 students, who together handle a total of four to eight cases a semester. Leah Fletcher, a second-year Yale Law student who took the class last semester, said she learned a lot from talking to clients who have filed grievances. Sometimes the client’s complaint arises from miscommunication — or lack of communication — with the lawyer. And some attorneys, Fletcher added, simply overbook themselves and then lack the courtesy to keep their clients up-to-date. “Generally, the lawyers are overwhelmed or out to get a quick buck, so they bring in a lot of clients on retainer and then fail to do the job,” she said. “By seeing lawyers who do that, I hope I would get back to my client within a day or whatever the reasonable time period.” The ethics class sees only a handful of the hundreds of grievances filed every year. Generally, at least 1,000 clients file grievances against attorneys a year, Cantrell estimated. Roughly 20 percent of those grievances are dismissed at an initial screening by State Bar Counsel Daniel B. Horwitch’s office. Another 60 percent fail to prove probable cause at the local grievance hearings, which are held in each judicial district in the state and presided over by both lawyers and laypeople. The 20 percent that remain go to the Statewide Grievance Committee, a board made up of 14 attorneys and seven laypeople. That’s where the students come in. After leafing through the case documents, they call potential participants and ask if they’d like a Yale student to represent them. Then the students take over, interviewing witnesses, filing briefs and taking charge of the case in the courtroom. “The students are really the lead attorneys,” said Cantrell. The standard in these cases is “clear and convincing evidence,” which is stricter than “preponderance of the evidence” but less strict than “reasonable doubt.” If the attorney loses and the case is appealed — the client can’t appeal if he or she loses — the students have to step aside. Only an attorney can represent a client in Superior Court, Cantrell noted. And though a lawyer’s missteps or fraud may have led to a wrongful conviction, the students don’t get involved in post-conviction matters, in part because those hearings can often stretch beyond a semester. They do, however, give advice to clients who are trying to remedy a civil situation. Traditionally Connecticut has relied on a disciplinary system that differs from other states, operating without a lead prosecutor. That made the clinic relatively easy to set up — there was no prosecutorial structure in place. But Superior Court judges recently approved changes to the attorney-discipline system, including the creation of a prosecutorial-like office to aid complainants before the grievance committee. This month saw the official launch of that office — the Office of Disciplinary Counsel — headed by Mark Dubois, whose job is to oversee prosecution of all of the cases where probable cause of an ethics violation has been found by a local grievance panel. Dubois, who has worked for a number of private firms, looks forward to changing a grievance system that has more than a few kinks. “It’s a process that has not worked well and we’re going to make it work better,” he said. “I’ve seen a few hearings where the lawyers could use some cross-examining. That’ll be my job.” Without a doubt, Dubois said, he’s going to need help. “I think there’s definitely a role in some form or fashion for the clinic and the good work they’ve done in the process. We’re going to make it work. Why not use bright and dedicated young people to help make the system work even better?” So, can ethics classes like this rid the world of lawyer jokes? Fletcher, the second-year law student, doesn’t think so. “I think that actually taking this class makes us realize that the lawyer jokes are founded in some truth,” she said.

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