Sunday, September 19, 2010

When does rude conduct become unethical conduct?

Mike Frisch (Ethics Counsel for Georgetown Law Center) of the Legal Profession Blog has an interesting comment on this as it relates to a case in which the Illinois Administrator filed a complaint alleging, among other things, that an attorney "engaged in misconduct toward an opposing party."

This vague conclusion apparently refers to conduct that was, quite simply, rude. The complaint states that as the attorney and the opposing party left the courtroom, the attorney said to the opposing party "have a nice day, you piece of shit."

This comment was cited as a violation of two ethics rules: (1) using means that have no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, humiliate or burden a third person, and (2) conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice.

Mike Frisch then concludes:

"I predict that the Administrator will lose on both counts. The comment displayed a lack of civility and professionalism, but anyone who cannot handle being called the "s" word cannot function in modern society. I doubt that a finder of fact will find this conduct sufficiently humiliating or burdensome to violate the rule. And prejudicial to the administration of justice? It was not said in open court on the record before a judge."

I am not so sure that I agree. If the comment had been made to opposing cousel, maybe ...., but the comment was made by a male attorney to a female opposing party (a grandmother) who had appeared in court without a lawyer. Also the attorney was representing a man who had violated the terms of a protective order to stay away from the woman and her grandson. The attorney had no business talking to her without counsel present to begin with, let alone to be rude (and possibly intimidating) in that manner. I don't think it is a stretch to say that under the circumstances, the conduct is prejudicial to the administration of justice.

The complaint is available here.

UPDATE: A note about this case has generated a short debate over at the Legal Ethics Forum (here).

UPDATE 10/3/10: The Australian Professional Responsibility blog has posted a comment on the issue here.

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