November 22, 2017

Why Good Lawyers Do Bad Things – Think It Can’t Happen to You?

High-Profile Lawyer Charged with Punching Client in Court,” Above the Law, October 30, 2015.

Storied Plaintiffs Lawyer Disbarred in Kentucky Over Excessive Fees,” National Law Journal, March 21, 2013.

Lawyer Charged with Forging Signatures of 7 Judges on Over 100 Court Documents,” Above the Law, February 24, 2016.

Biglaw Partner and Associate Destroyed Evidence, Suborned Perjury,” Above the Law, June 24, 2015

Headlines like these grab our attention, but they don’t give us much cause for concern. After all, we would NEVER do anything like that. But what about these?

“[Lawyer] agreed to represent a client in his immigration and criminal matters. On [Lawyer]’s advice, his client pleaded guilty to felony sexual assault. The client later regretted his decision to plead guilty, hired other counsel, successfully withdrew his plea, went to trial, and was acquitted.” People v. Romero, 16PDJ057, December 9, 2016.

“[Lawyer] was convicted five times of driving under the influence (DUI) or driving while ability impaired (DWAI). His most recent conviction took place in 2011. Through this conduct, [Lawyer] violated Colo. RPC 8.4(b) (a lawyer shall not commit a criminal act that reflects adversely on the lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness, or fitness as a lawyer in other respects).” People v. Condon, 16PDJ050, December 23, 2016.

“In October 2015, [Lawyer] sought a $1,000.00 loan from a client to address cash flow problems. The client agreed, so [Lawyer] executed a promissory note in favor of the client, providing for 8% per annum interest and providing that the principal and interest would be due one month hence, in November 2015. The terms of the loan were fair and reasonable. But [Lawyer] did not advise the client in writing of the desirability of seeking independent legal counsel as to the transaction. Nor did he obtain the client’s written, informed consent to [Lawyer]’s role in the transaction, including whether [Lawyer] was representing the client in the transaction. [Lawyer] failed to pay the client by the agreed-upon date, though [Lawyer] did fully repay the client in March 2016. At that time, the client had not yet reported [Lawyer] to disciplinary authorities.” People v. Foster, 17PDJ018, March 15, 2017.

Do these still sound too far-fetched to you? How about these ones?

“Lawyer accepts $5,000 ‘flat fee,’ expecting a complex dispute, but skillfully resolves the matter in one hour. He then keeps the entire fee.”

“While [Lawyer] served as county attorney, he worked on legal issues involving third parties’ management of dirt track racing at El Paso County’s fairgrounds. He was involved with drafting a memorandum of understanding between the County and one of those third parties to address issues that exposed the County to liability. After [Lawyer] left the employ of El Paso County, the County faced ongoing legal issues with that same third party. In 2013, [Lawyer] began representing that party against El Paso County.”

“[Lawyer] is subject to several orders entered in Arapahoe County requiring him to pay child support, various child-related expenses, and child support arrearages. [Lawyer] paid just over half of the child support obligations he owed between June 2015 and November 2016. [Lawyer]’s failure to satisfy these obligations violated Colo. RPC 3.4(c) (a lawyer shall not knowingly disobey an obligation under the rules of a tribunal) and Colo. RPC 8.4(d) (a lawyer shall not engage in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice).”

“[Lawyer] failed to obey a court order to pay monthly child support and to satisfy child support arrearages. Her failure to honor her court-mandated obligations tarnished the integrity of the legal system and harmed her child. Her conduct violated Colo. RPC 3.4(c) (a lawyer shall not knowingly disobey an obligation under the rules of a tribunal) and Colo. RPC 8.4(d) (a lawyer shall not engage in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice).”

“[Lawyer] was retained by a client in March 2016 in a paternity case. Because he failed to pay registration fees, [Lawyer] was placed on administrative suspension on May 2, 2016. While suspended, [Lawyer] participated in a telephone conference with the court and set a status conference for June 2016.”

“[Lawyer], a bankruptcy attorney, was retained by a lawyer who had been disbarred for knowing conversion. The lawyer’s disbarment order required him to pay restitution to several former clients, as well as more than $220,000 to a medical lienholder. On the client’s behalf, [Lawyer] filed a Chapter 13 bankruptcy petition. He did so to stall a foreclosure sale on the client’s house in the hopes of protecting from creditors up to $105,000 in equity under the homestead exemption, and to avoid entangling the client’s second property in Crested Butte in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy. The petition showed that the client’s debt was over 99% of the allowable limit for Chapter 13 cases. The petition did not, however, list the $220,000 debt to the lienholder; instead, it characterized the amount of the debt as “unknown,” “unliquidated,” and “disputed.” Had that debt to the lienholder been included in the client’s total debt, the amount would have exceeded the Chapter 13 debt limit.”

Are you starting to feel uncomfortable? These situations and others are published monthly in The Colorado Lawyer. Although many of the disciplinary situations are too egregious to relate to, others could happen to anyone – even good lawyers like you.

If you ask any random group of people to rank how ethical they are on a scale of one to one hundred, responses will average about 75, meaning almost everyone is misjudging how they would react to actual ethical dilemmas. Studies regularly show a gap between an ethical goal (how ethical we aspire to be) and ethical judgment (what we actually do). This has been called “bounded ethicality,” and it examines why individuals fail to recognize that external influence and self-interest impact their ethical thinking.

Ethical decisions can be hard for anyone, but the stakes are higher for lawyers because the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct dictate lawyers’ ethical responsibility. The preamble to the Rules states, “Virtually all difficult ethical problems arise from conflict between a lawyer’s responsibilities to clients, to the legal system, and to the lawyer’s own interest in remaining an ethical person while earning a satisfactory living. . . . The Rules do not . . . exhaust the moral and ethical considerations that should inform a lawyer, for no worthwhile human activity can be completely defined by legal rules.” There are plenty of shades of grey in determining the ethical path, in other words.

On May 15, 2017, Christopher P. Montville of Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell will present a one hour lunch program, “Why Good Lawyers Do Bad Things (And What to Do About it).” This can’t-miss program will explore the reasons why good people sometimes make bad choices, and how to avoid becoming a disciplinary summary in The Colorado Lawyer. Register today by calling (303) 860-0608 or clicking the links below.

 

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CLE Program: Why Good Lawyers Do Bad Things

This CLE presentation will occur on May 15, 2017, at the CLE Large Classroom (1900 Grant St., 3rd Floor) from noon to 1 p.m. Register for the live program here and the webcast here. You may also call (303) 860-0608 to register.

Can’t make the live program? Order the homestudy here — Video OnDemandMP3 Audio

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