Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Improper Withdrawal

The North Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed the conclusions of the Disciplinary Hearing Committee that, in effect, revoked the probation of a lawyer for unethical conduct in the course of representing a client in a probation violation proceeding. The attorney was suspended for 90 days.

The lawyer represented the client in two matters. At a hearing, a third charge was served on the client. The lawyer agreed to handle the third matter for $200. The client and lawyer appeared on the hearing date, but the client did not have the fee payment. The lawyer released his witness from a subpoena, told the witness he had not been "fully retained" and left to attend a conference at his daughter's school. When the judge's clerk tracked him down, he was told that the judge might issue a show cause or bench warrant, and stated that "he didn't give a s__ what the judge did." Following a hearing, orders of criminal contempt and attorney discipline were entered. The lawyer appealed.

The court affirmed the findings of misconduct. As to the charge of improper withdrawal:

  "An attorney not only is an employee of his client but also is an officer of the court. This dual relation imposes a dual obligation. To the client who refuses to pay a fee the attorney must give specific and reasonable notice so that the client may have adequate time to secure other counsel and so that he may be heard if he disputes the charge of nonpayment. To the court, which cannot cope with the ever-increasing volume of litigation unless lawyers are as concerned as is a conscientious judge to utilize completely the time of the term, the lawyer owes the duty to perfect his withdrawal in time to prevent the necessity of a continuance of the case."

It would have been far less trouble to just stay for the hearing. The lawyer may well have never have been paid, but a uncompensated legal service is preferable to a suspension from practice. (Mike Frisch)


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