Monday, May 16, 2011

More thoughts on the inconsistency of sanctions- UPDATED

I have often commented on inconsistencies regarding sanctions among jurisdictions and sometimes within jurisdictions.  Most recently, I mentioned (here) a recent decision by an Illinois Hearing Board that discussed the conduct of an attorney engaged in what the Board called "extremely serious" ethics violations which the Board also found were aggravated by a series of important factors, including the fact that the lawyer did not show any remorse for the impact his actions had on his clients or on the legal profession that the fact that he had been disciplined in the past.  Yet, having described the conduct as "extremely serious" and having found aggravating factors, the Board imposed a mere one year suspension. One would think that misconduct described as that serious would have resulted in a higher level of discipline.

I am glad to see now that I am not alone in my frustration with this issue.

Here is another case, courtesy of the Legal Profession blog.  In this one, a New Jersey attorney was suspended for abandoning a client in a family law matter and defaulting in the ensuing proceeding before the Bar. Although the Disciplinary Review Board found that the attorney had shown "nothing but disrespect - indeed, insolence - in his dealing with the disciplinary system", the Board said the conduct would merit merely a three month suspension.  To this, Mike Frisch, of the Legal Profession blog, replies, "[i]f abandoning a client and ignoring a bar complaint normally merits a three-month suspension, New Jersey needs a new normal."

And, today, over at the Legal Ethics Forum, Prof. Stephen Gillers expresses his frustration with the problem stating,
"In reviewing several years worth of disciplinary opinions from courts around the nation in connection with a writing project, I was struck again by a disturbing pattern. . . . 
The courts' opinions first tell a really awful story about professional or personal misconduct, sometimes sordid or tawdry, sometimes thieving, sometimes duplicitous. The opinions lay it all out and as readers we are led to expect a proportionate sanction.
 But then comes that frequent phrase "an unblemished record," a phrase one rarely sees elsewhere in life or law, sometimes accompanied by "no prior discipline" (which more often than not may mean the lawyer has not heretofore been caught), and perhaps a citation to character testimony.

And although the reader had been led to expect disbarment or a long suspension for the bad behavior so abundantly detailed . . . he or she finds instead the most modest of sanctions -- a public reprimand or a suspension the length of a nice vacation.

I sometimes wonder if we should just forget the sanctions and instead require the lawyer to give the court's opinion to all present and prospective clients. It might better protect the public."
Go here to see comments posted in the Legal Ethics Forum in response to this comment.

UPDATE (5/16):   Mike Frisch, of the Legal Profession blog, replies to Giller's last comment by stating that "[w]hat is really needed to protect (or at least forewarn) the public is ready and easily available online access to complete information about bar sanctions. Not summmaries, but the actual opinions, informal admonitions, hearing reports, review board reports, court decisions--the full package. . . . Unfortunately, the reality is that many jurisdictions make this kind of information either difficult or impossible to find. Until that situation is rectified, bar discipline will be as much about the parochial, self-interested concerns of the Bar rather than (as every opinion on the subject claims) the protection of the public."

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