The legal profession is, by and large, self-regulated. Granted, there are central ethics agencies such as the Office of Attorney Ethics and the Disciplinary Review Board, ably assisted by numerous district ethics committees and advisory panels, that collectively monitor, review and advise on ethical conduct. Still, with the number of New Jersey licensed attorneys now topping 90,000, the ethics infrastructure depends in large measure on self-policing to prevent everyday violations from dominating the system.
Against that backdrop, we were dismayed at some of the figures contained in a recent OAE report. In 2011, ethics complaints against attorneys increased by 32 percent over the previous year. Although that figure includes multiple complaints against some attorneys, it is still too high. Likewise, the number of attorneys sanctioned by the Supreme Court rose by more than 6 percent in 2011 over 2010. The 2012 figures seem to be trending in the same direction. During the first quarter, the Lawyers’ Fund for Client Protection paid in excess of $400,000 to clients for loses caused by dishonest lawyers.
How should we react? First, consider the context. Although the percentage of lawyers engaging in bad conduct is up, the vast majority of attorneys remain honest and free of violations. There is approximately one attorney for every 98 people in New Jersey. With a lawyer population that large, there are bound to be more than a few lapses in ethical judgment. But this context should not lead us into complacency. We can and must do more to police the legal profession.
Here are some suggestions that hopefully firms already are considering or have adopted. Every firm should designate at least one in-house lawyer as its ethics officer. At larger firms, this usually takes the form of a general counsel. The ethics officer should be responsible for staying current on the most recent changes to the professional rules, including case law and advisory opinions, and advising other lawyers at the firm on ethical questions if and when they arise. The officer also should present in-house ethics seminars to raise the level of professionalism on the part of all the firm’s attorneys. To the extent they are not already doing so, smaller and midsized firms should do the same thing on a scale that matches their size, as well as in-house corporate law departments, governmental agencies and other entities representing clients on legal matters.
Lawyers, of course, who practice as solos cannot avail themselves of in-house seminars taught by others in their firm. Still, they can participate in continuing legal education programs offered by bar associations and other approved providers. Indeed, with only a few exceptions under court regulations, all licensed New Jersey attorneys have a CLE requirement that includes at least four credit hours for ethics or professionalism out of twenty-four mandated credits in each two-year cycle. Whether or not we are guided by an in-house ethics officer, we each are responsible for understanding and abiding by our ethics rules.
Next year at this time we hope to note a decline in attorney-misconduct statistics. But that will happen only if we each do our part to make it so.