It’s a common complaint that all lawyers are crooked. After practicing as a lawyer for over 30 years, I can agree that some are crooks—but very few, thankfully. On the other hand, more lawyers act unethically. Their behavior doesn’t rise to the level of criminal activity but can still harm the public.
Each state has written ethical rules for the direction of lawyers. In Minnesota where I practice, they’re called the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct. When a new lawyer is sworn-in to practice law, the lawyer is automatically subject to the ethical rules and if he fails to obey them, he may be disciplined accordingly.
The rules cover the attorney-client relationship, the duties of a lawyer to the courts and other lawyers, and the duties to the public. Probably, the most common ethical problems are:
1. Chemical dependency issues. Obviously, if a lawyer is using, it’s possible for him to screw-up many things. The lawyer may forget to file papers on time, come to court high, miss court appearances, and fail to fully counsel and advise a client about all the aspects of their case.
2. Miss-use of funds belonging to the client. The rules state that any money the lawyer receives from a client must go into a designated bank account called a “trust fund.” The lawyer cannot use the money for personal things or any other purpose except when directed by the client.
Many ethical complaints are filed against lawyers because they dipped into those funds. Sometimes, it happens because the lawyer is short of cash and just wants to “borrow” from the trust fund with the intention of paying it back. Even if it’s paid back, it’s still an ethical violation. Or, if chemical dependency is a problem, the lawyer may take the money out to pay for other expenses or personal use. Miss-use of trust fund money constitutes one of the most common complaints.
If the lawyer has violated the ethical rules, what can happen to him?
Once a complaint is filed with the State Board of Professional Responsibility, an investigation begins. Evidence is obtained from all parties involved. The conclusions of the investigator are reported to the Board and all parties. The lawyer can agree that he violated the rules or, if he disagrees, has a right to an administrative hearing before the Board. The hearing is similar to a trial.
If the lawyer agrees to the accusations or it is determined after a hearing that he violated the rules, the Board has several disciplinary options:
1. The lawyer may be disbarred and prevented from ever practicing law in the state again is the offense is serious enough
2. The lawyer’s license may be suspended for a period of time, with the possibility of regaining it
3. The Board may require the lawyer to take remedial actions before getting the law license returned. For instance, he may be required to pay-back trust fund money, complete chemical dependency treatment, attend educational classes to learn how to avoid future problems, etc.
One of the strangest violations that occurred in Minnesota involved a lawyer who had sex with a client. The ethical rules prohibit this. Not only did the offending lawyer have sex, he billed the client for the time they had sex! That takes guts. Of course, the ethical rules also allow a lawyer to charge extra for skills in which he has a special expertise. . .