A lawyer who was physically dependent on opioids and in an “opioid haze” was disbarred earlier this month for stealing more than $117,000 from a client.  Her chronic pain and addiction were not “extraordinary mitigating” factors that justified departing from the presumptive penalty for client theft, the Washington Supreme Court held.

The decision is a stark reminder at a time when the ravages of lawyer substance abuse have been spotlighted in studies, books and current events.

Trust account theft

The lawyer had a family law practice and worked with one associate.  In 2009, she agreed to represent a client in dissolving his marriage, took a $5,000 retainer and assigned the case to her associate, a recent law school graduate.

The court soon entered a dissolution decree, and awarded the client more than $117,000 as an equalization payment for his interest in the family house, which the lawyer put in her trust account.

The lawyer never paid the client.  Instead, she moved her trust account to another bank, and eventually transferred all the money to her personal account.  She used some of the funds to keep her practice afloat, but also for symphony and Mariners tickets, manicures, groceries, pet food and restaurants.

Most of the client’s many calls to the lawyer went unanswered.  When the lawyer did respond, she said she had been sick and needed time to get back to the client about the funds.  At the time, the client was destitute and sleeping on a friend’s couch while waiting for the settlement funds to help him get back on his feet.

In the meantime, the lawyer stopped coming to her office, and stopped attending to her practice.  The associate registered her concern in an e-mail, citing the trust account irregularities and the “ethical conundrum.”  In reply, the lawyer said that the associate had no responsibilities regarding the office’s finances, and purported to “relieve [the associate] of any ethical obligations regarding the firm’s financial business…”  The associate soon left the firm.  (A lawyer in such circumstances might need to consider whether Model Rule 8.3, “Reporting Professional Misconduct,” could be applicable.)

In 2014, the lawyer pled guilty to a criminal charge of first degree theft, and was sentenced to nine months of electronic home monitoring.

“Opioid haze”

The lawyer had been in successive car accidents in 2003, 2004 and 2006, and had developed chronic pain.  After the lawyer unsuccessfully tried several pain management techniques, her doctor prescribed a variety of opioids in 2006; the lawyer started taking the medication in increasingly large amounts and became dependent.

In her disciplinary filings, the lawyer said that she was in an “opioid haze,” and that her chemical dependency caused her to “overlook the proper disbursal of the trust funds” to the client.

Evidence at the hearing depicted the lawyer’s personality changes.  As her drug use mounted, she became chronically lethargic, “would pass out midsentence and was unable to complete simple tasks.”

Finally, in 2012, the lawyer entered a detox program.

No mitigation

Under the ABA’s Standards for Imposing Lawyer Sanctions and Washington law, the presumptive punishment for client theft is disbarment.  Only “extraordinary” mitigation will merit reducing that sanction, the court noted.

The disciplinary hearing officer found that the lawyer had a physical disability due to her chronic pain; that she was chemically dependent; and that these two factors justified a three-year suspension rather than the presumptive disbarment penalty.

But the full disciplinary board — by an 11-0 unanimous vote — disagreed, and the state supreme court adopted the board’s recommendation of disbarment.

The court rejected the argument that the lawyer’s significant pain was an “extraordinary mitigator”:  “We do not wish to minimize the debilitating and disabling impact that chronic pain has on many individuals’ lives.  Nevertheless, such pain does not excuse extreme lapses of an attorney’s moral judgment.”

And the court held that the lawyer’s chemical dependency, either alone or in combination, would not justify a sanction short of disbarment — even if the lawyer had been able to show that her opioid dependence caused her to steal client funds.

The court wrote that it has consistently found that alcohol and drug addiction are not extraordinary mitigating factors in cases involving client theft.  Rather, the court said, despite her “opioid haze,” the lawyer was to some degree “culpable and responsible for her actions.  At some point, she ‘chose the path’ that led to her misconduct.”  The court refused to view the lawyer as an “innocent victim of forces beyond [her] control …. We must hold her responsible for the harm she caused to the real victim here [the client].”

Harsh result — or appropriate?

This was a tragic situation — for the client, whose money was stolen by the fiduciary who was supposed to protect his rights; and for the lawyer, whose professional life has now been foreclosed by a terrible lapse.

As a profession — and as individuals — we need to do a much better job of intervening in the chain of life events that led to the result in this case.  Our failure to do so when we are aware of a situation like this makes us bystanders.  Our obligation as humans demands more.

Putting your law firm name on coffee mugs and giving away donuts to prospective clients is apparently not enough anymore.  Recent firm branding campaigns have included sponsorships of pro golfers and cricket players, including emblazoning the bats with the firm name.

That may be the trend of the future in Biglaw, but a much more modest marketing effort recently landed an Ohio lawyer in disciplinary trouble.

No Justice, no peace?

According to the opinion, from 1981-1997, the lawyer in question practiced with another attorney, who eventually became (and continues to be) a Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court.  Fast forward to 2015.  With the permission of the Justice, the lawyer began using their old firm name, including on business cards, and hung a sign outside the office saying “O’Neill & Brown Law Office (Est. 1981).”

That only lasted for a few weeks before the local bar association began investigating.  After the disciplinary authorities advised the Justice that the sign violated Ohio ethics rules, the Justice instructed the lawyer to remove his name from the sign, and eventually the lawyer did so.

False and misleading

The Ohio Supreme Court (with the Justice in question not participating) agreed with the Board of Professional Conduct that the firm name on the sign and business card, and the reference to the firm having been established in 1981 were false or misleading communications that violated Ohio’s version of Model Rule 7.1.  The court also found a violation of Rule 7.5(c), which prohibits using a judge’s name in a firm name or other firm communication, unless the judge regularly and actively practices with the firm.

By a 4-3 vote, the court imposed a two-year stayed suspension on the lawyer.  A significant aggravating factor contributed to the sanction:  this wasn’t the lawyer’s first rodeo — he’d been disciplined several times before, according to the opinion, including a previous suspension for threatening a judge who served as chair of the local bar grievance committee.  But in mitigation, the court noted that his conduct “did not involve the provision of legal services,” that no clients were harmed, and that the Justice participated in the decision to use the “O’Neill & Brown Law Office” name on the sign.

The three-judge minority would have imposed an “indefinite” suspension, which in Ohio is a term of at least two years.

Stick to the tchotchkes

A good lesson here.  A prominent legal moniker on your office sign may be good marketing, but it would be best to stick to the coffee mugs — or cricket bats.

Hot on the heels of the publicity for Brian Cuban’s new book, “The Addicted Lawyer:  Tales of the Bar, Booze, Blow and Redemption,” comes the searing account in the New York Times of the 2015 death of a former IP partner at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, who secretly battled drug addiction and reportedly died of a bacterial infection that often afflicts intravenous drug users.

Cuban’s book (he is the brother of billionaire Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban) is, by all accounts, a story of perseverance and recovery; Cuban redeemed his life, although he does not practice law any longer.

But the New York Times article, authored by the Wilson Sonsini partner’s ex-wife, is a harrowing call to arms about the need to do a better job — in the organized bar, in BigLaw, small law, corporate law and everywhere else — of identifying and helping addicted lawyers.

“Last call” — dial-in to a work conference

The Wilson Sonsini partner, identified in the NYT article only as “Peter,” is described as successful, driven and work-obsessed.  After a stellar law school career, in which he graduated first in his class, he replicated that success in a legal career that saw him regularly working 60-hour weeks over the next 20 years.

His ex-wife, with whom Peter maintained good relations, found him dead on the floor in his house, near half-filled syringes, a tourniquet, and crushed pills.  She had no idea that he was struggling with a severe addiction — reflected in detailed notes the lawyer kept of the times and amounts of his drug injections — although she writes that she noticed wild mood-swings in the months before his death, and voice mails consisting of “meandering soliloquies.”

Most poignantly, the lawyer kept working right up to the end.  The last call he made from his cellphone, his ex-wife wrote, was to dial in to a work conference call, even though he was “vomiting, unable to sit up, slipping in and out of consciousness.”

At Peter’s memorial service, his ex-wife wrote, while a weeping young associate eulogized the partner he had come to know, firm lawyers were bent over their own cellphones, tapping out e-mails — unable to put down their work even then.

Grim statistics

The statistics on lawyers and alcohol abuse are grim, and well-known.  More than a fifth of all lawyers are problem drinkers, according to last year’s joint report of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association Lawyers.

The statistically-robust report drew responses from 12,825 licensed and practicing lawyers from 19 states.  But only 25 percent of respondents answered questions about drug use — out of fear of answering, according to the study’s lead author.  Quoted in the NYT story, he said that  “I think the incidence of drug use and abuse is significantly underreported,” because in contrast to alcohol use, drug use is illegal.

In his book, Cuban describes snorting cocaine in his former law firm’s bathroom, to keep going after boozing it up and using drugs the night before.  Other memoirs, like “Girl Walks Out of a Bar,” by a former Pillsbury Winthrop lawyer, underscore the reality of lawyer drug addiction.

What is the profession doing to help?

Accounts like Cuban’s and the death of the Wilson Sonsini lawyer spotlight the need for the legal profession to step up its efforts to help.  The ABA’s Model Rule on Continuing Legal Education calls for just one credit of CLE every three years on mental health or substance abuse.

Some states, like my home state of Ohio, have moved away from a specific substance-abuse requirement;  since rule amendments in 2014, many subjects qualify to meet our “professional conduct” CLE requirement, so a lawyer never needs to have any substance abuse CLE.

Yet, in the days before that change was made, when lawyers still needed to get one hour of  substance abuse training every two years, each time I spoke on ethics at a CLE seminar, I observed at least one lawyer going up afterwards to the person who had spoken on substance abuse, and speaking earnestly.  These were lawyers in trouble — and we need to do more to help them.

Jurisdictions like Illinois seem to be moving in the right direction, as reported by Chicago ethics lawyer Allison WoodUnder amended rules, Illinois lawyers are now required to take one hour of mental health and substance abuse CLE as part of their six-hour professional responsibility requirement.  Both the directive to have at least some substance abuse training, and the size of the PR requirement are laudable.

Law firms also have a huge role to play — there’s room to ask whether firm culture “enables” alcoholism.  De-emphasizing the historic link between lawyering and drinking , including at firm events, would help.  So would increasing access to law firm employee assistance programs, as highlighted in guidelines here, from Massachusetts “Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers.”

And as I have done before, here’s a state-by-state list of links to lawyer assistance organizations.  No problem is ever made worse by seeking help.

Being inexperienced can contribute to getting into disciplinary trouble, but it can also be a mitigating factor in a bar disciplinary case.  That’s the message of a recent opinion of the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which imposed a six month suspension from state practice as reciprocal discipline on a lawyer who had already been suspended from federal bankruptcy court practice for five years.

Raising the risk?

Something like 37,000 students likely graduated from law school this year; that’s a lot of newly-minted JD’s coming into the world of practice.  And while they might know more about legal ethics when they graduate than they ever will again (as I tell the law students I teach as an adjunct ethics prof), it’s also surely true that simple inexperience can play a role in going astray and getting into disciplinary trouble.

For one thing, with the legal job market being what it is, many new lawyers will likely be hanging out their own shingles.  There are lots of opportunities for a novice to get mentoring, advice, and hand-holding from more-veteran members of the  bar.

But failing to take advantage of those resources can mean that an inexperienced solo lawyer is stuck in an echo-chamber, without the corrective that a more-seasoned viewpoint can contribute.  And even in a firm, it’s easy to make a mistake if the proper supervision is lacking.

Sooner State of confusion 

The lawyer in this disciplinary case was admitted to the Oklahoma bar and started practicing in 2013.  About 18 months later, she got her first client — a couple who were attempting to set aside a bankruptcy court order.

Her attempt on the couple’s behalf went badly wrong, and then spiraled out of control:  the bankruptcy court found the lawyer’s set-aside motion to be without any legal or factual basis; she missed the deadline to supplement the filing; and then she sued the trustee, the judge, the state courts of two counties and the layers representing the creditors.

The court dismissed that suit with prejudice, and the creditors moved for sanctions against the lawyer in the bankruptcy court, asserting among other things that she had filed frivolous litigation, misrepresented facts, and had threatened the bankruptcy trustee and attorneys with criminal prosecution in bad faith.

Before the sanctions hearing, the lawyer entered into a settlement, accepting a five-year suspension from practice in both Oklahoma bankruptcy courts.

Inexperience counts

It’s a little-known fact that drawing professional discipline in one jurisdiction where you are admitted to practice (including before federal courts), can bring reciprocal discipline in other jurisdictions where you are admitted.  That’s what happened here.

In response to the state bar’s disciplinary charges, the lawyer creatively argued that because her bankruptcy suspension was a result of an agreed settlement and not an “adjudication,” there was no basis for reciprocal state discipline.  The Oklahoma supreme court swept that argument aside, and held that her conduct violated the Sooner State’s versions of Model Rules 1.1 (competence); Rule 3.4 (unfairness to opposing parties and counsel; and Rule 8.4(d) (conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice.

But in weighing the appropriate reciprocal discipline, the court significantly took as a mitigating factor that the lawyer “was new to the practice of law and without supervision or training.”  Without intending to hold “new legal practitioners to different standards from  more seasoned lawyers,” the court nonetheless took account of the fact that the lawyer “was practicing on her own with little prior training or supervision and refused to ask for help.”

Thus, although acknowledging that the lawyer exceeded the bounds of zealous advocacy, and “displayed a lack of competency and insolence in the practice of bankruptcy law,” the court imposed only a six-month suspension from practice.

Don’t let this happen to you 

If you’re a newbie, recognize the limits of your knowledge and get help.  Don’t count on your inexperience to save you from harsh professional discipline; you don’t want to go there in the first place.  If you practice by yourself, take advantage of all the formal and informal mentoring and training resources available via state and local bar associations and law schools.

My hometown Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association, for instance, has a solo and small firm practice section.  The Ohio Supreme Court has a lawyer-to-lawyer mentoring program, linking veteran lawyers with new practitioners.  Last, here are other mentoring programs, listed by state.

Businessman with boxing gloves punching man in the faceWe’ve written before about deposition conduct that crosses the line between valid advocacy and sanctionable misconduct.  Here’s the latest example, in which a New York federal magistrate imposed sanctions on a defense lawyer for the City of New York, who interjected over 750 statements on the record, including more than 600 objections across 84 percent of the deposition transcript pages.

Deposition duel

The case arose after the plaintiff was arrested at work, held in jail and released the next day.  The discovery trouble broke out at the deposition of one of the defendant police officers.

As described in the opinion, defense counsel’s conduct ran the gamut of obstructionist deposition tactics:

  • she instructed the witness not to answer at least 20 times;
  • she made speaking objections that suggested the answer to the witness — including objections that encouraged the witness to resist the question;
  • she objected to questions on the basis that they had already been asked and answered, even though they had not been answered;
  • she objected to questions on the basis of relevance, although that is an improper objection under Second Circuit law; and
  • she threatened to walk out of the deposition.

The lawyers called the judge’s chambers twice during the deposition.  The first time, the judge’s law clerk instructed that objections should be short and concise “and there is really nothing else that needs to be said, other than ‘objection to form.'”  The second time, the judge herself directed that any contested questions were simply to be marked in the transcript.  But despite the calls to the court, defense counsel failed to curtail her objections.

Excessive objections = sanctionable conduct

The magistrate judge granted plaintiff’s motion for sanctions, ordered the city to pay reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs associated with the deposition, and gave plaintiff an additional shot at deposing the witness.

The judge noted that Federal Civil Rule 30(c)(2) mandates that deposition objections be stated concisely, “in a non-argumentative and non-suggestive manner,” and instructions not to answer are limited mainly to preserving privilege.  Rule 30(d)(2) authorizes sanctions for impeding, delaying or frustrating the “fair examination of the deponent.”  Bad faith is not necessary, and making an excessive number of unnecessary objections may itself constitute sanctionable conduct, as the Rules Advisory Committee notes provide.

The court held that defense counsel’s behavior “clearly impeded the progress of and unnecessarily extended the length of the deposition,” meriting sanctions.

Effect of Haeger ruling?

Curtailing deposition misconduct means that judges must be willing to penalize lawyers who cross the line.  In April, the U.S. Supreme Court arguably made that prospect somewhat more remote, unanimously ruling that when based on the district court’s inherent authority to sanction bad faith discovery conduct, the amount of sanctions cannot be punitive, and must be tied to the costs and fees proximately resulting from the misconduct.  That obviously limits the potential sting of sanctions for deposition misbehavior.

In the New York federal case, the basis of the court’s ruling was Rule 30(d), and not its inherent power, as in Haeger.  And the court expressly said that its ruling didn’t require bad faith on the part of the sanctioned counsel.  But the court still limited the amount of the sanction to the plaintiff’s fees and costs resulting from the deposition.

That is a measured response to conduct that derailed a deposition.  In egregious cases, more is called for if the persistent problem of deposition misconduct is to be addressed effectively.  Courts and bar associations can continue to extol the virtues of professionalism, but if more trial courts don’t become engaged and take forceful action against it, and courts of appeal don’t confirm that forceful action, discovery abuse will continue to undermine our justice system.

Caution text and sign.There should be a word that’s the opposite of “schadenfreude” — you know, that evocative German term that means “secret pleasure at another’s misfortune.”  Maybe there is such a word, but the one I’m searching for would convey the sense of “Please, let me not fall into the same error” as some other person did, because under the right (or wrong) circumstances we can all make ethical mistakes.  Here are three cautionary tales. You may read them and wonder how the lawyers involved came to such grief — or you may just be thankful that it wasn’t you, or that the demons these lawyers struggled with aren’t yours.

If you’re carrying meth, don’t forget your briefcase.

A Colorado lawyer left his briefcase in a courtroom overnight.  The judge’s law clerk found it and identified the lawyer by looking at the documents in the briefcase.  Unfortunately, as the disciplinary opinion describes, “a vial of white power and a syringe were also in the briefcase; a field test by courthouse deputies identified the power as methamphetamine.”  The lawyer retrieved the briefcase later and identified it as his.

A month later, police responded to a domestic violence call at the lawyer’s home.  His spouse told police that after the spouse found meth in the home and confronted the lawyer, the lawyer assaulted the spouse.

The lawyer also neglected clients in six cases, including leaving a client at trial without counsel, and failed to refund at least $7,000 in unearned fees, constituting conversion of client funds.

The court ordered disbarment for among other things, violating the state’s version of Model Rule 8.4(b), which makes some types of criminal conduct into ethical violations.  The court said that it could not consider any mitigating factors, despite the circumstantial evidence of the lawyer’s difficulties, because the lawyer failed to participate in the disciplinary case.

If you’re driving, wear a seatbelt. 

A California deputy district attorney and her co-worker got pulled over and received citations for the D.A.’s failure to wear a seatbelt.  The D.A. called a family friend, a sergeant in the police department’s traffic division, who agreed to dismiss the citations without talking to the traffic officer.  The D.A. then told her co-worker to destroy co-worker’s own citation, but co-worker refused.

The D.A. was tried and found guilty of conspiracy to obstruct justice, and two counts of altering a traffic citation — all misdemeanors.  The appeals court affirmed the conviction.  And in an order that took effect in November 2016, the D.A. was suspended for 60 days, ordered to take the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination, and placed on two years’ probation.  In aggravation, the court found that the D.A.’s conduct damaged the integrity and credibility of the criminal justice system and the legal profession.

If you work at a firm, hand over the client fees.

A former partner in a Utah law firm worked on two client matters and directed that firm personnel write off some or all of the fees.  The client in each matter did construction work at the partner’s home:  one built a shed worth more than $15,000 and had all his legal fees written off and his retainer refunded; one built a railing for the partner, received $3,500 in cash from the lawyer for the work, and had more than $7,000 in legal fees written off, with the firm receiving just $700.

Each client testified that he had a deal with the lawyer to provide construction work in exchange for the lawyer’s legal services.

The district court concluded that the lawyer had violated the state’s version of Model Rule 8.4(c), barring dishonesty, fraud, deceit and misrepresentation.

As a sanction, bar counsel argued for disbarment, which is the presumptive sanction for misappropriating funds.  The lawyer argued that misappropriating funds from his law firm didn’t rate the same sanction as stealing from clients, and on its review, the state supreme court agreed, in an opinion suspending the lawyer for 150 days.

The court wrote that “that not all misappropriation is created equal. Misappropriation of firm funds does not ‘undermine the foundations of the profession and the public confidence’ in the same way that misusing client funds does,” and does not merit the same presumptive sanction.

Be careful out there

Takeaways?  (1) If your friend, associate or law partner is grappling with addiction or any other brain disease or mental health issue, reach out to your state’s lawyer assistance program.  It just might save their life, in addition to their license.  A list of every state’s program is here.  (2) Keep your moral compass in front of you at all times.  And, oh yes:  (3) Buckle up when you’re behind the wheel.

2017 Happy New Year typeYou may have some holiday leftovers lurking in your fridge (potato latkes, Xmas goose, black-eyed peas, New Year’s Eve caviar), and we too have some interesting ethics topics that we didn’t have room for during 2016 — so here’s a potpourri, touching on positional conflicts, coercive settlements and maybe how not to use your firm’s letterhead.

Arguing damage caps, pro and con

The U.S. district court for the Middle District of Tennessee in October turned back a disqualification motion aimed at Butler Snow, ruling that the firm could  continue representing a personal injury plaintiff who was potentially contesting the constitutionality of the state’s punitive damage caps, while at the same time asserting the caps defensively in at least one pending case for another client.

In its DQ motion, the trucking company defendant said those positions were inconsistent and raised a positional conflict in violation of Tennessee’s version of Model Rule 1.7 and its cmt. [24].

Not so, said the district court.  First, the trucking company waited until two months before trial to try to disqualify the law firm; it would cause severe prejudice to the plaintiff if she had to find new counsel.  Second, the firm retained separate counsel to represent the plaintiff on all post-trial issues challenging the damage caps, an arrangement that plaintiff agreed to at the beginning of her representation.  Third, there was no evidence that the potential conflict had actually affected the injury case, or was likely to compromise the firm’s representation of clients who simply asserted the caps to limit their liability rather than expressly defending their constitutionality.

On all these bases, the court held, the firm could stay in the case, part of which has now been settled.

Threat to publicize sexual allegations

In November, an Arizona lawyer who threatened to use press releases to alert the public to sexual allegations in order to obtain a settlement consented to a 30-day suspension.

In 2015 the lawyer filed a federal sexual harassment complaint on behalf of a client.  In a letter to the defendant, he announced he had created a specific website regarding the allegations, and said he would put up a public “shame on you” banner near the defendant’s restaurants.  He also told the defendant that he had scheduled meetings with police and the federal Department of Justice about the alleged hiring of undocumented workers.  In response to a settlement offer, the lawyer told the defendant’s lawyers that he “intended to destroy” the defendant’s businesses.

The judge in the federal case insisted that the lawyer stop his unprofessional behavior; the parties settled; and the state Disciplinary Judge accepted the lawyer’s admission that his conduct violated Arizona’s versions of Model Rules 4.4 (respect for the rights of others) and 8.4(d) (conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice).  The lawyer also agreed to two years probation and to pay costs.

The rules in my home jurisdiction, Ohio, include Rule 1.2(e), a specific prohibition against threatening criminal charges or professional misconduct allegations solely to obtain an advantage in a civil matter.  Interestingly, the Model Rules lack an express prohibition, although this case illustrates that disciplinary authorities can get there via other rules.

Using firm letterhead

Last, here’s a cautionary tale about using your firm letterhead for a personal legal dispute.

According to plaintiffs in a federal complaint filed in November, a Pepper Hamilton partner entered into a lease-to-own deal with a couple for a $750,000 house he owned.  The couple terminated the contract and moved out, and the lawyer claimed that they owed about $10,000.  The lawyer sent a demand letter for the money in September, using the firm’s letterhead.

That drew a suit from the couple against both the lawyer and the law firm for allegedly violating the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.  “Once [the lawyer] sent the Sept. 19 letter … on [the firm’s] letterhead, he was no longer acting as an individual collecting his own debt, but rather a debt collector subject to the FDCPA,” the couple said in their complaint.

It remains to be seen whether that theory will fly — the case docket does not yet reflect any response to the complaint.  But it points to an issue that you should probably think about in your personal dispute before putting a piece of firm stationery in the printer.

Technophobia dinosaurTechnophobia isn’t  confined to U.S. lawyers.  No surprise, it affects Canadian members of the bar, too, with the same potentially disastrous results.  A cautionary tale:  a lawyer who was technologically illiterate failed to supervise his wife, who ran his office and used his bar credentials to misappropriate more than $300,000 without his knowledge.  Canadian disciplinary authorities last month permitted him to surrender his license voluntarily, instead of revoking it.

“Complete care and control”

First reported under the apt headline “Dinosaur in the Dark” over at Legal Profession Blog, the opinion describes how from 1996-2013 the lawyer totally abdicated administrative responsibility for his corporate and real estate practice to his non-lawyer wife, who served as his “law clerk.”

The 68-year-old lawyer had started out as a corporate/commercial litigator with a firm, where his practice was supported by an extensive staff and he never had to learn the nuts and bolts of running an office.  Nested in this comfortable cocoon, he remained technologically ignorant:  he dictated all his correspondence and documents; he did not access his own e-mail account, and “did not even know how to turn a computer on;” all accounting responsibilities were taken care of for him.

When the firm folded 22 years after he joined it, the lawyer began a solo practice, including real estate, running it out of his home with his wife as his clerk.  The wife, who had always dealt with the family finances, now took on all the tasks of running the business end of the law practice as well — she had “complete care and control” over the firm finances, had full access to the business account and trust account, opened all the mail and supposedly attended to all the bills and accounting.

The lawyer continued to be ignorant of all things technological — he did not even use a cell phone.  He remained unaware of Ontario’s mandatory Teranet system, the electronic registration facility implemented in the late 1990’s, in which client financial transfers and charges are required to be registered electronically using a computer key unique to the lawyer to whom it is issued.  The wife obtained the key on the lawyer’s behalf and used it without his knowledge, authorization or supervision.

Recipe for disaster

You can see where this sad story is headed.  When the income from the law practice failed to meet the couple’s modest expenses, the wife started robbing Peter to pay Paul out of the client trust accounts.  She testified “I always thought it would be a temporary thing.  I always thought things would get better and we’d … have more work or come into money, or something and I’d pay it all back.”

The wife’s delusional scheme continued based on the lawyer’s ignorance; he never saw e-mails that came from the bank or, eventually, from disciplinary authorities, and his wife intercepted postal mail and even phone calls that would have alerted him to the problems.  She admitted that she kept the lawyer totally in the dark about her increasingly desperate misappropriations.  Eventually, $373,000 in client funds had been misappropriated and more than $530,000 had been “misapplied.”

Keeping your eye on the ball

The house of cards finally fell after disciplinary authorities carried out a random “spot audit” of the firm.  (The 30-year marriage apparently ended, too.)  The lawyer was allowed to surrender his license by agreement, rather than having it revoked, partly because of his remorse, admitted misconduct and the wife’s admitted deception.

The lawyer’s counsel described him as a “dinosaur,” and the disciplinary opinion said he “refused or could not be bothered to become computer-literate, during a time when the practice of law and business in general was evolving rapidly and becoming much more dependent on electronic media and devices.”

Here in the States, of course, Model Rule 1.1 cmt. [8] says that the duty of competence means that “a lawyer should keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology.”  Here, the lawyer was found to lack “the technological knowledge necessary to conduct a successful legal practice in the twenty-first century.”

Although the lawyer had every reason to trust his wife, being so ignorant that he could not “actively review and supervise” her actions was misconduct, as it would also likely have been under our Model Rule 5.3.

These circumstances make for sad reading, to be sure, but as we’ve pointed out a couple times before, you have to keep up with the times.

 

 

Copyright stampUnder deadline pressure to produce a brief?  You’ve found one online in a public database that fits your case to a T?  If you’ve always thought that  you can make free use of another lawyer’s brief, think again.  You just might get sued for copyright infringement — successfully.

In Newegg Inc. v. Ezra Sutton, P.A., a California U.S. district court made that point earlier this month, when it granted partial summary judgment to plaintiff Newegg on its infringement claim — but Newegg has come in for some criticism for pushing the case.

Here’s the background:  In an IP case before the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, on-line retailer Newegg was one of several co-appellants in a cross-appeal on the issue of attorneys’ fees.  Newegg’s lawyers had taken the precaution of copyrighting the draft brief they planned to file.  Newegg offered to prepare a joint brief if its co-cross-appellant, Sakar International, would share part of the cost.  Instead, lawyers for Sakar filed a brief that copied substantial portions of Newegg’s draft brief without  permission.  Newegg sued Sakar’s lawyers and their law firm for copyright infringement.  The district court rejected the lawyers’ fair-use defense, and held that they were infringers.

Copyright — or wrong?

First, can you copyright a brief?  If you don’t practice in the IP area, you might not know that you can copyright an original work by filing a simple form with the United States Copyright Office.  That’s apparently what Newegg ‘s lawyers for had done, before providing the draft to Sakar.

Further, the protection of federal copyright law has been held to extend over legal briefs.  In White v. West Publishing Corp., the district court for the Southern District of New York considered whether West and LEXIS were infringing when they put briefs in their database without permission.  In 2014, the court assumed without separate analysis that legal briefs were copyrightable, but held that the mega-publishers had a right of fair use — partly because the lawyers had filed the briefs, making them publically available, before registering them with the copyright office.

In the most recent case, the lawyers had apparently protected the work and then shared it.  That was an implicit factor for the California district court in finding infringement.

No fair use

Even if a work is copyrighted, a  party’s “fair use” of the material is a complete affirmative defense to a claim of infringement.  There is a four-factor test, which is to be applied flexibly on a case-by-case basis, with the factors being weighed against each other:

  • Is the infringing work “transformative,” in altering the copyrighted work to create “new expression, meaning or message”?  Or has the work simply been taken and used for the same “intrinsic purpose” as originally?
  • Is the infringing work a presentation of facts?  Priority is given to expanding the dissemination of factual works, so they receive more fair-use protection.
  • How much of the copyrighted work was copied?  If all of it, the copier has probably not made anything new or “transformative.”
  • Is there a market for the copyrighted work that might be harmed by an infringing work?  If not, then fair use is more likely to apply.

The balance of the factors weighed in favor of Newegg, and thus Sakar’s lawyers failed to meet their burden of establishing fair use, said the court.

Behind the scenes

Over at Techdirt, they do a nice job of deconstructing this opinion — and the bottom line is that you probably shouldn’t go out and register all your briefs with the copyright office.

Blogger Mike Masnic explains that although they originally discussed sharing the cost of producing a joint brief, Sakar’s lawyers and Newegg decided not to go that route.  Newegg sent over a draft of its brief so that Sakar’s lawyers could make their brief “complementary.”  Instead, the day before Newegg’s brief was due, Sakar’s lawyers filed on behalf of their client, using large portions of the Newegg draft.  When Newegg complained, Sakar’s lawyers withdrew the brief and substituted a shorter one.

Newegg’s infringement suit, said the company’s GC, in an interview with Masnic, was not primarily about damages, but about “send[ing] a message, strictly directed at unethical and lazy lawyers, to do what they learned in the first year of law school in terms of properly crediting others’ work, and to do what anyone with common decency would do.”

Maybe not what the copyright statute is meant for?  Masnic thinks not.  We agree.