Text book word close-upSmall lapses can sometimes snowball into big problems, as an in-house Pennsylvania lawyer for a large pharmaceutical company found out when she was suspended for six months for the unauthorized practice of law.

The lawyer failed to comply with her yearly continuing-legal-education requirements; as a result, she was placed on inactive status in 2009, and administratively suspended in 2010.

While her license was suspended, the lawyer still continued to work on mergers, acquisitions and product transactions for her corporate employer, in her role as associate general counsel.  She also provided pro bono advice at two small business clinics in 2013 and 2014.

Over a span of nearly five years, the lawyer received annual bar registration packets at her designated postal address, and the packets referred to her suspended status — but the lawyer said she did not recall reviewing the packets.  This led to her failure to remedy her CLE deficiency; and she also failed to pay her annual registration fees.

Finally, in January 2014, the lawyer learned that she had been administratively suspended since 2009.  She made up the missing CLE credits, and informed her employer.  She also ceased practicing law on her employer’s behalf, and her function became entirely executive and administrative.

In a petition in support of discipline on consent, submitted jointly with the Pennsylvania Office of Disciplinary Counsel, the lawyer admitted that her conduct violated Pennsylvania’s Rule 5.5(a), barring the unauthorized practice of law, as well as several provisions of the state rules of disciplinary enforcement.

The result:  a six-month suspension from practice, a penalty in line with that imposed in other cases for similar infractions, plus payment of the expenses of the investigation and prosecution.

The take-aways:

  • Lawyers who work in-house have some unique issues, arising from the fact that they work for only one client.  In that setting, whether you work for a large employer or you are the only counsel, it can be easy to forget some practice basics — like keeping up with CLE requirements, or even renewing your license when needed. 
  • Even if you don’t sign pleadings or appear in court on behalf of your corporate employer, you are still practicing law when you give advice and participate in business transactions on the employer’s behalf.  Doing so without being duly licensed constitutes unauthorized practice, in violation of ethics rules — and in many jurisdictions, in violation of statutory law.
  • And finally, remember that if you are licensed in a jurisdiction other than the one where you are serving as in-house counsel, you may be engaging in the unauthorized practice of law if you fail to adhere to the corporate counsel registration requirements of the jurisdiction where you are located.

Discipline of in-house lawyers is fairly rare —  but it happens.  License requirements can trip you up:  pay attention to them, wherever you work.