Thursday, March 8, 2007

Justice Denied

The integrity of the legal profession in the District of Columbia sustained another body blow today when the District of Columbia Court of Appeals adopted a Board on Professional Responsibility recommendation of a six-month suspension for a wide array of serious client abuse including settling a case without the client's knowledge or permission, intentional prejudice to the client, conflicts of interest, impermissible business transaction with the client, dishonesty and interference with the administration of justice. The Board felt the hearing committee's one-year proposed sanction was too harsh. The court rejected Bar Counsel's exception calling for a meaningful sanction.

In most jurisdictions this type of conduct would and should get a lawyer disbarred. In D. C., the court with the moral and ethical obligation to uphold the integrity of the Bar defers to its board and treats the misconduct as relatively minor. Read the facts and weep. Also, the reader should be aware that the hearing committee bent over backwards to make findings favorable to the accused lawyer and hostile to the client/victim.  And, it only took eight years to resolve the case!

Disclosure: I had some involvement in the prosecution prior to leaving Bar Counsel almost six years ago. (Mike Frisch)

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With all due respect, I strongly disagree with your assessment. The case has to be read in the context that the lawyer and the client had been personal friends for many years prior to the incidents that gave rise to this matter. And over time, the lawyer had provided services to the client either for no charge or for discounted rates (e.g., the 38 hours of work for $2500). In fact, the opinion says that the reason the client hired the lawyer for the $10k matter was because she wanted to find less expensive counsel.
The friendship does not excuse the lawyer's conduct. However, the purpose of the bar office (at least my understanding) is to prevent harm to the public. Perhaps this lawyer had treated other, arms-length clients similarly, in which case, a more severe sanction would have been justified. But he was working for a friend, and I assume that both parties took liberties they otherwise would not have in an arms length transaction.
What is saddest about this matter is that if the lawyer could have come up with the cash to pay this woman back, the case would never have reached the disciplinary stage.
If anything, this case stands for the proposition that lawyers should never represent personal friends. And in my view, it also shows compassion for a lawyer who prior to this incident never had a problem with discipline.
Finally, as a realistic matter, let's face it: a six month suspension will effectively shut a lawyer's practice down for far beyond the duration of the suspension. He will have to turn over his existing files to another lawyer and tell prospective clients that he cannot handle their matters. He cannot market his practice, so in six months, he will need at least another 3-6 months to get his practice back up to speed.
Thank goodness the court showed some compassion here.

Posted by: Carolyn Elefant | Mar 8, 2007 7:14:52 PM

I appreciate your comments-- the court and board, in my view, skewed the ugly facts of the case to justify the result. Do not assume that the summary fairly reflects what happened here. My views are based on attending the hearing and listening to the testimony. Compassion is one thing--unwarranted lenient treatment of lawyers who abuse clients is something else.

Posted by: Mike Frisch | Mar 9, 2007 10:37:52 AM

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