Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Competing with own client? Pro bono obligation as a punishment?

A recent decision by the Florida Supreme Court addresses two interesting questions.

The first one is whether it is a violation of the rules of professional conduct for a lawyer to launch a company in the same business as a corporate client without obtaining the client's consent. The court found that it is. It held that the lawyer violated ethics rules against representing directly adverse interests, acquiring a financial interest contrary to a client, and acting dishonestly. The case is Florida Bar v. Herman, available here.

The second issue relates to the appropriate form of punishment for the conduct. The court suspended the lawyer for 18 months, rejecting a referee's recommendation to impose a much shorter suspension along with a period of probation and pro bono service. The interesting question is whether requiring pro bono service as an element of probation is an appropriate disciplinary sanction. The court makes clear it does not think so, and I have to agree this is a good point. Performing pro bono work is something we should all aspire to. It is something people should be encouraged to do on their own. Thinking of pro-bono work as a form of punishment sends the wrong message.

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