Recently, there have been several instances of seemingly impossible acts of unethical behaviors by lawyers and judges locally and nationally. While our first instinct is to shake our heads at these gaffes and think that we would never act in such a manner, it's important that young lawyers not only smirk at these errors in judgment but learn from them as well. And so, in the interest of laughing and learning, we present the top five lessons young lawyers can learn from infamous cases of misconduct.
Think Before You Act
This can also be thought of as the golden rule of "measure twice, cut once." Lawyers are often applauded for their ability to think on their feet and to make quick decisions. However, there is something to be said for slowing down every once in a while and assessing the decisions that you're on the cusp of making. One example of someone who clearly didn't take a few minutes to think before acting comes to us from Minnesota, where a local divorce lawyer engaged in sexual relations with a client and billed her for the time. (Is this "attorney work product"?) He was suspended from the practice of law for a period of 15 months.
Closer to home, a New Jersey lawyer was reprimanded after he had a sexual relationship with a court-appointed client. Before he did so, he reportedly considered the ethical dilemma and, according to his testimony at his disciplinary hearing, concluded that "anything short of sexual intercourse was OK."
The behavior of these two attorneys is easy to joke about and it's likely that in hindsight they may regret their actions, but hindsight is too late. The key is to take time before you do anything that may be unethical to think about the possible consequences.
Not Everything Needs to Be Photographed
Increasingly, people have been struck by a blind desire to post, tweet and photograph everything. This seems to include a former Philadelphia Traffic Court judge who felt the need to take photographs of, well, let's call it his "gavel," and show them, unsolicited, to a female Philadelphia Parking Authority worker he was interested in having a relationship with. The viewer of the photo filed a formal complaint against him, which became public and led to his removal from the bench.
In a separate case, a California lawyer was sued by a woman claiming severe emotional distress from his unwanted sexual advances. As an exhibit to her lawsuit, she included a photo of his genitalia that he allegedly texted to her. He denied the plaintiff's causes of action but was forced to acknowledge that the photo depicted his body and petition the court to place the photograph under seal "given the intensely personal nature of the contents of Exhibit A."
Now, these are obviously extreme examples of things that should not be photographed and circumstances that were inappropriate to begin with, but the fact is we've all seen a Facebook post or Instagram photo that a lawyer-friend has posted and thought, "What is he thinking?" Pictures are, in fact, worth a thousand words. The key is to make sure those words complement or enhance your professional reputation and do not undercut how worthy you are to have a license to practice, have your job or represent the public.
Lead By Example
Apologies to our readers for using Philadelphia Traffic Court to illustrate another lesson, but in terms of professional lessons, the court's recent headlines are full of examples of behaviors to avoid. Earlier this year, another Philadelphia Traffic Court judge pled guilty to federal charges stemming from widespread ticket-fixing at the Philadelphia Traffic Court after admitting to accepting free auto repairs, free towing, free videos and free seafood in exchange for fixing tickets. Across the river, a New Jersey Superior Court judge will soon stand trial for hindering apprehension and harboring a fugitive charged with armed robbery in her Woodbridge home and never calling the police. She was suspended from the bench and now faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
Many people believe that lawyers are liars, judges can be bought and the system as a whole is corrupt. As attorneys and jurists, we should not contribute to that perception. The fact is people judge all lawyers by the actions of a few wrongdoers. If we can be positive examples of what the legal profession stands for, maybe over time the public's perception of our profession will become more positive.
Money Isn't Everything
We don't mean this in the philosophical sense that "the best things in life are free." What we actually mean is that money isn't worth losing your license to practice; or, more to the point, stealing money isn't worth losing your license to practice.
Every few months there is a story about an attorney who steals money from his or her clients. Sometimes it's a small amount that makes you think, "He stole how much?" For example, in 2009, a Maryland real estate attorney was disbarred for stealing $1,000 from a client. He reportedly believed the money was his to keep, believing it to be reimbursement of funds he expended before his clients discharged him and continued with their lawsuit pro se. He made the faulty decision to sign their names to the check and cash it. At his hearing, he testified that he honestly believed the check was his to cash and that he didn't give it more than "five seconds" of thought between receiving the check and endorsing it. (He would have benefited from our previously discussed "think before you act" rule.) The court found he intentionally misappropriated the funds and that his lack of thought was indicative of deceit and not helpful to his defense. The bottom line is that an attorney can never sign a client's name to a check or legal document.
Sometimes it's an amount so large that it makes you think, "He stole how much?" Recently, the Ohio Supreme Court permanently disbarred a Cincinnati attorney convicted of stealing $9 million that a deceased client intended to go to charities. In a unanimous decision, the court found that the now-former-attorney's actions demonstrated dishonesty and untrustworthiness and found that he shouldn't be allowed to practice law. The funds were used to purchase homes for himself, friends and family members. The 72-year-old also pled guilty to felony counts of mail fraud and filing a false income tax return. He was sentenced to four years in prison in 2010.
There is never a good reason or a cause worthy enough to justify stealing a client's funds. It is wrong, you will get caught and you will regret it — regardless of the amount.
Reputation Is Everything
You will never out-run a bad reputation. Lawyers talk, judges talk, everyone talks. Word of mouth can ruin your reputation based on instances of poor judgment. In this day of Google, Avvo and even Yelp, people are posting their opinions online. Even the decisions of the state's Disciplinary Board are posted online and announced via Twitter when issued. While people may forgive and forget, the Internet is a cruel record of every misstep a reprimanded or suspended attorney has ever taken. Any attorney who has ever been publicly disciplined must live with the fact that information related to his or her punishment is on the Disciplinary Board's website, as well as many others, and will remain there forever. Once reinstated, he or she can be a model attorney for the rest of his or her career, but that old misconduct will still appear in the results of any Google search of his or her name.
Your reputation is like a stained canvas: You can do your best to wipe it clean, but in the right light, you'll still see the blemish (and so will everyone else). Above all, protect your reputation.
YL Editorial Board
Peter C. Buckley, Chairman
Leigh Ann Buziak
The Editorial Board of Young Lawyer is composed of members of the legal profession. They serve voluntarily and are independent of Young Lawyer. Through their ongoing exchange of views, members of the board attempt to develop consensus on issues of importance to the bench, bar and public. Members of the legal community are invited to contribute signed op-ed pieces.