In the fall of 2003, Mark Dubois was given the task of weeding out the bad apple attorneys from the lawyers who may simply have fallen on hard times and needed a little shove in the right direction.
He wasn’t stepping into an already established position. He would be the first lawyer in the state to police lawyers, much like a prosecutor protects the public from criminals.
The position, called chief disciplinary counsel, was the fruit of a longtime committee called the “Berdon Commission,” named after former Chief Justice Robert I. Berdon. The panel, which had been around for more than a decade, wanted to improve the state’s lawyer discipline system. Dubois, a member of the commission whose legal background was working at small firms, was hired for the new post.
“When we started we had an empty office and a desk with no drawers,” said Dubois. “We had 90 days to get it up and going so it was a challenge.”
Patricia King, who has led the state’s Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel since Dubois left last year to return to private practice, was the first lawyer hired. “Mark literally built this office,” said King, noting that Dubois was burdened with the not-so-lawyerly tasks of buying desks and arranging for phone service. “Mark worked very hard. He spent a lot of time in the office, weekends. He put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into this operation.”
It apparently paid off. The office handles roughly 400 cases a year of alleged lawyer wrongdoing. In the more egregious cases, attorneys are accused of stealing from clients or other financial malfeasance. In the less serious instance, the counsel have failed to keep their clients updated on their cases.
For turning what was then a brand new position into a long-term success, Dubois will be honored with the Service to the Profession Award on June 14th at the Connecticut Law Tribune’s annual Honor’s Night.
Dubois’ position was the vision of then-Chief Justice William Sullivan, who wanted someone to look out especially for solo practitioners and lawyers at small firms, people who had lots of pressure but little mentoring. Also, at that time, there were fewer resources for lawyers with mental health or addiction problems to seek help.
King said Dubois was prepared for the start-up position from day one.
“The nice part of working for Mark was he was so smart,” said King. “He researched the history of the Rules of Professional Conduct.” Coming in, Dubois “knew the big picture, which I think is important in getting an operation like this off the ground. He had more of a sense of purpose.”
Right off the bat, Dubois went after the lawyers who were stealing money. In some instances, he persuaded the authorities to launch criminal prosecutions along with his own grievance investiagtions. Next, Dubois went after people offering legal services who weren’t really lawyers. “Part of it is to protect the public from either incompetent lawyers or incompetent non-lawyers,” said Dubois.
Another focus was find trustees to handle the caseload for lawyers who had died or who were physically unable to continue practicing.
From the start, Dubois viewed the position as problem solver as much as prosecutor. Early on, he would sit in on Statewide Grievance Committee hearings to get a lay of the land and he recalled once seeing a lawyer he knew being grieved for essentially never calling back his client. Dubois knew that wasn’t like the lawyer and decided to find out what was going on.
Dubois made some calls and found out that the lawyer’s parents had both recently died. “He was in a terrible depression,” said Dubois.
He found another lawyer to step in and take on the lawyer’s caseload while the lawyer got some help. The lawyer, he said, has been a “perfect” lawyer ever since.
“There were a number of lawyers like that,” said Dubois. “We’d find young lawyers, confused or lost, lawyers in over their heads in a blind alley not knowing where to go or what to do. The trick is it’s called the lawyer discipline process, not the lawyer punishment system. Discipline is helping people understand the rules and comport themselves.
“How did this happen? What can we do so this doesn’t happen again?” continued Dubois. “It can feel very punitive when on the wrong side of the ‘v,’ but that’s one area we did a very good job.”
King, the longtime assistant disciplinary counsel, recalled: “He emphasized our office should be user-friendly and a resource for the bar rather than just being Darth Vader and taking people’s law licenses away.”
The turnaround time for the 400-odd cases the disciplinary counsel’s office handles per year is two to four times faster than most other states. The national consumer group known as HALT, which ranks all 50 states’ lawyer and judicial quality control systems, has consistently given Connecticut its highest grade.
Last year, Dubois, now 61, decided it was time to move on from the position and now works at Geraghty & Bonnano, a small firm in New London. The roughly 7 ½ years spent in the state position was one of the longer stretches Dubois has stayed at any one job in his legal career.
“I found it intellectually stimulating and challenging,” said Dubois. “I never stopped to think about what was going on, every day was another challenge.”
Dubois graduated from the University of Connecticut School of Law in 1978. Most of his early legal career was spent handling civil cases at small firms. His longest tenure was for 15 years with Glass, Lebovitz & Dubois, which is now in Rocky Hill under a different name (Glass, Lebovitz, Kasheta & Bren ).
He tried his hand at running his own practice for a few years, spent time as a corporation counsel in New Britain, worked at the Reardon Law Firm in New London and then took a full-time faculty position at the University of Connecticut School of Law, before becoming chief disciplinary counsel.
“I’m like a lot of lawyers, always looking for the greener grass but I always find it’s just grass,” said Dubois, explaining his career path.
In his first go-round at UConn, Dubois taught trial practice and research. He also took pride in helping students succeed in moot court competitions, with the team going from last place when he started to being consistent contenders before he left. He’s still at UConn, as an adjunct professor, this time teaching ethics.
“I try to inject a fair amount of practical experience with the theoretical,” said Dubois, admitting he didn’t care much for law school when he was a student. “Most people are not in law school because they wanted to teach law. Most are there because they wanted to be lawyers. Why don’t we give them what they need to succeed?”
As for his own law practice, he’s primarily a civil litigator. But it’s hard shaking his reputation as the state’s leading expert on lawyer ethics issues. DuBois is in demand as an expert witness in legal malpractice and professional misconduct cases. Attorneys gauging the strength of their cases call and ask him what he thinks. Dubois, anything but a hired gun, gives them an honest answer, whether they like the answer or not. “They either hire me or tell me we never had this phone call,” said Dubois.
He has also delivered more than 75 presentations about legal ethics, mostly in Connecticut, but sometimes at bar association events in Massachusetts, New York or, as far west as he’ll go, Chicago. “Look if I got information and it can keep you out of trouble, I’m glad to give it to you,” said Dubois, whose ethics expertise also appears in a weekly column in the Law Tribune.
Plenty of lawyers seem to take him up on that offer and just call Dubois out of the blue for a bit of advice. “Occasionally, someone says I was at the seminar and by the way I got this problem maybe you can help me with,” said Dubois. “My partners tell me I should try to monetize this but eh, I make enough money.”
King said Dubois’ time as chief disciplinary counsel was much the same way. “His leadership was such that everybody helped everybody,” said King. “You never thought he was too good to help you do anything. We hope to preserve that.”
As if Dubois isn’t busy enough, he remains heavily involved in the Connecticut Bar Association and was just recently named vice-president. This puts him in the line of succession for the organization’s leadership. Next year he’ll be president-elect and then president the following year.
Careerwise, “I have a nice mix,” said Dubois, who noted that his wife agrees, as she told him he’s “easily bored.”
As for the Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel, King says that Dubois is remembered fondly by his former colleagues. “We miss him,” said King. “He had a great sense of humor. You really need a good sense of humor in this job. We wound up with a great office.”