Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Oops, I Forgot to Get a License to Practice Law

Radioshack Inc. CEO David Edmondson resigned from the company after the revelation that he padded his resume by claiming to have received a B.S. degree when in fact he only received a degree requiring three years of study.  That bit of resume-padding pales in comparison to what Michael Watson pulled off for nearly twenty years.  Watson resigned as a deputy general counsel at New York Life, where he worked since 1996, when it came out that he was never admitted to the bar.  Watson is a 1986 graduate of Columbia Law School, and worked as an associate for ten years at Hunton & Williams and Milbank Tweed before joining the life insurance company, where he rose to be one of five deputy GCs until he left the company.  According to a New York Law Journal article (here), a spokesman for New York Life stated, "All current New York Life Insurance Company attorneys are properly licensed" -- you'd better believe that barn door was closed and everyone's bar card checked rather quickly.

Under New York law, it appears that Watson may have violated the state's unauthorized practice of law statute, Sec. 30-15-478 "Practicing or appearing as attorney-at-law without being admitted and registered" that provides:

It shall be unlawful for any natural person to practice or appear as an attorney-at-law or as an attorney and counselor-at-law for a person other than himself in a court of record in this state, or to furnish attorneys or counsel or an attorney and counsel to render legal services, or to hold himself out to the public as being entitled to practice law as aforesaid, or in any other manner, or to assume to be an attorney or counselor-at-law, or to assume, use, or advertise the title of lawyer, or attorney and counselor-at-law, or attorney-at-law or counselor-at-law, or attorney, or counselor, or attorney and counselor, or equivalent terms in any language, in such manner as to convey the impression that he is a legal practitioner of law or in any manner to advertise that he either alone or together with any other persons or person has, owns, conducts or maintains a law office or law and collection office, or office of any kind for the practice of law, without having first been duly and regularly licensed and admitted to practice law in the courts of record of this state, and without having taken the constitutional oath.

The law does provide an exception for law students appearing in court under supervision.  Whether he will be prosecuted is another matter, but New York Life's legal department almost certainly will be spending the next few weeks reviewing all of Watson's work to determine if there are any matters in which a bar license would be needed for the representation that need to be fixed.  The situation does show that, at least among lawyers, a claim of bar membership is unlikely to be verified.  Although Watson's practice appears to be in the finance area, where bar membership is not something that would be likely to come up, as opposed to litigation, how do you live with this kind of secret for almost twenty years?  (ph)

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