Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Will you vote for this blog?

The voting for the ABA top 100 legal blogs is now open.  If you like this blog, I would appreciate your vote! To vote go to this link and fill our the form.

Monday, July 21, 2014

What do you have to do to get disbarred in Wisconsin?! Court rejects request to disbar attorney who misappropriated money from a client with diminished capacity while serving as guardian

Misappropriation of clients' funds is often considered to be one of the worst types of misconduct and usually results in disbarment.  In fact, it should result in disbarment.  If you steal money from your client, you should be disbarred.  Period; end of story.  That's always been my position and, typically, courts agree with it.  But every now and then there are exceptions.  Recently I wrote about an Illinois Review Board decision that suggested an attorney should not be disbarred for stealing client's money because the client did not know the lawyer had stolen the money and because the attorney had a good reason to steal the money.  As I said in my original post, that's absurd.

Not to be outdone, now comes an opinion by the Wisconsin Supreme Court rejecting the Office of Lawyer Regulation's recommendation to disbar an attorney who misappropriated almost $50,000 from a client with diminished capacity while serving as a guardian.  

One big problem in this case was that the attorney did not set a separate account to manage the money in guardianship.  He simply deposited the money in his trust account, which is a problem in and of itself.  Then, on top of that, as in many of these cases, the attorney claimed he had poor accounting or record keeping, and thus that he did not keep good records of the money going in and coming out of his trust account.

The attorney's claims are designed to suggest that he was merely negligent and that the fact he ended up misappropriating client money was not intentional.  Making the distinction between negligence and intent can be critical to avoid disbarment, of course; and here the court apparently bought the lawyer's argument.

I guess I understand there can be a distinction between negligence and intent, but at some point we have to decide how serious we are about misappropriation.  For me, the distinction is irrelevant.  If an attorney is so negligent that he or she can't figure out they are stealing client money, they should not be allowed to represent clients.  

The Wisconsin case is even worse because the attorney had been disciplined in the past for trust account violations.  So here we are dealing with an attorney who claims he was negligent when, in fact, he had been disciplined in the past.  I don't buy it.  Although I tend to be a hard-liner on this issue, I will not discard the possibility that I can be convinced to not disbar an attorney for a first offense if I am convinced the problem was caused by pure negligence.  But here we are dealing with an attorney who knew, or should have known, what he was supposed to do and decided not to change his practices.  I agree with the OLR's recommendation.  The attorney should have been disbarred.

Investigation based on complaint about anonymous criticism closed

Back in January I commented on a complaint filed by a law professor against a blogger for what the professor called cyber-bullying or harassment.  The ProfsBlawg and Legal Ethics Forum are now reporting (here and here) that the state disciplinary authorities have decided not to pursue an action against the blogger.  Even though, I found many of the comments by the blogger to be offensive, I think the decision is correct (for the reasons I explained in my original post) as long as the basis of the complaint was merely speech that expressed opinions.  If the complaint was based on conduct, or on speech that could be construed as actual threats, the story would be different.  However, it seems like the issue is now closed.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Are lawyers meeting the standard of competence related to knowledge about "technology"?

A recently adopted amendment to the comment of Model Rule 1.1 (on competence) explains that being "competent" requires lawyers to understand "the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology."  Presumably, therefore, lawyers who do not understand the technology they are currently using in their practice can be found to be incompetent and, thus be subject to sanctions for a violation of the rules of professional conduct.  Also, as everyone probably knows, another rule requires lawyers to use reasonable care in protecting the confidentiality of client data.

Because client data is often stored and shared using "technology", it is interesting to ask whether lawyers truly understand the implications of using that technology to handle the data.  Are lawyers really competent in this area of the practice of law?  Are lawyers really using reasonable care when attempting to protect the information?

The results of a recent Lexis/Nexis survey suggest that the answers to both questions is no.  The survey asked about the tools lawyers and legal professionals are using to protect their clients’ privileged information and according to some commentators, 77% of the lawyers surveyed did not have adequate security for their confidential client data.  Here is a podcast on the subject featuring two experts on digital security and a lawyer/journalist who has written about the implications of the survey.

Podcast on ethical issues related to the dissolution of law firms

The Legal Talk Network recently posted a podcast on the ethical issues related to the dissolution of law firms.  Go here to listen to it.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

More comments on the role of lawyers in the GM debacle and the connection with the need for less secrecy in litigation

News and comments regarding General Motors keep piling up and none of it is good for the automaker. You can go to my Torts blog fore more information and links, but the important aspect of the debate here relates to the role of the lawyers involved and the on-going debate about the need to control secrecy in litigation.  Here are a few links.

June 14: Richard Zitrin (UC Hastings):  Secret settlements fueled GM's latest ethical inferno
June 18: NY Times: GM CEO faces criticism in House hearings (includes short video)

June 19:  Painter and Zitrin:  GM's general counsel and CEO should resign or be fired

June 24:  John Steele (Legal Ethics Forum): Update on the proposed sunshine in litigation act 

Monday, June 23, 2014

Update on the story of the judge and prosecutor who were disciplined for engaging in a personal relationship during trial

About two weeks ago I posted a note about a judge in Florida who was disbarred because, while serving as the presiding judge in a capital first-degree murder case, the judge commenced a significant emotional relationship with the lead prosecutor in the case. The prosecutor, on the other hand, was only suspended for two years.  There is more information on the story here and here.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

New York City Bar Association issues opinion on virtual offices

The New York City Bar Association’s Committee on Professional Ethics has issued an opinion (2014-02) on the use of virtual law offices. The Legal Ethics Forum has more.

Calls To Reform Wisconsin Attorney Discipline

The Legal Profession blog has an article on calls to reform the disciplinary system in Wisconsin.

The role of lawyers in the GM debacle

The debacle surrounding GM's car recalls, lawsuits and corporate culture has generated a great debate on issues related to torts, safety, litigation, the use of bankruptcy protection, alternative compensation funds and the role of lawyers.  Sadly, much of the debate shows we (whatever you interpret "we" to mean - society, lawyers, judges, regulatory agencies) have not learned important lessons from the past.   You really should take a few minutes and go to the following sites to read up on the issues (and make sure you read the comments too):

The Legal Ethics Forum reports (with links) that GM has fired lawyers as a result of an investigation.

Link to the report prepared by a lawfirm for GM.

"Shades of Enron: the Legal Ethics Implications of the General Motors Scandal"

New York Times article:  "G.M. Lawyers Hid Fatal Flaw, From Critics and One Another"

Richard Zitrin explains the connection between secrecy in litigation and the current issues

The PopTort on GM corporate culture