The law is a tough business and it gets tougher year over year. Old and even middle-aged lawyers will tell you so ad nauseum, even though the nausea comes rather quickly. I often find myself thinking how much the practice has changed in a mere three decades and how much more unpaid work we do now that we didn’t do in the past. Stress is higher, pay is lower and it is only January. When older lawyers reminisce, we tend to overlook the things that are easier now- electronic filing, word processors instead of carbon or onion paper and so on.
My perspective is different from minority and female lawyers. They see the future more brightly because, while opportunities may still not be as good as white males enjoy, the past was darker. Nostalgia is a cloudy mirror, selfies are clear.
A profession based upon precedent will always look backwards for guidance- the rear-view mirror is more reassuring. At the end of each year, my local bar remembers the attorneys who died since the last memorial service. My mentor used to scan the list for his friends. Better to read the list than be on it was and is the common refrain. The memorial service is bittersweet at best, but the stories we share about the fallen are fantastic.
Another list of lawyers came out recently. These lawyers didn’t die, but their careers likely did. We don’t share stories about them if we mention them at all. I am talking about the Bar’s annual disciplinary report.
The report was in the monthly Bar Journal and I didn’t see it until January. It served as a New Year’s warning rather than winter mourning. I mourned a little just the same as we should when someone else is unfortunate. It was sadder for me because a couple of my friends lost their licenses this year.
If practicing law is like driving a car (it isn’t, but indulge me here) and you do it long enough, you’re going to run a stop sign. Bar complaints that lead to discipline are more like driving a Titanic into an iceberg. A big iceberg.
I was discussing the report with a friend who recounted the story of a lawyer who was disbarred and got his license back only to lose it again. He got it back a third time, which may have been the charm. His story is an anomaly as such a stain is usually permanent.
I know a lot of attorneys who have responded to a bar complaint, and I have done so myself. Knowing that you are innocent doesn’t restart your heart when you open a letter from the disciplinary counsel of the Bar.
The most egregious cases make the national news, as they did for a certain celebrity lawyer who extorted money from a sportswear company and defrauded clients out of money for services promised but never rendered. It is easy to identify such bad acts after the fact. It is much more difficult to understand how someone smart enough to earn a law degree didn’t recognize the gravity of the situation before being sucked in.
I am not making excuses for wayward brethren, but stress and substance abuse are rampant among lawyers. Subtract the truly bad actors and the truly desperate fill in the gaps in the bar complaint statistics.
Lawyers are expected to self-report our missteps. This is because the foundation of a professional relationship between lawyers and clients or courts is trust. When that trust is betrayed, the Bar regulates members like no other profession. Unpaid taxes or past due child support can lead to losing one’s ability to earn a living. Debtor’s prisons are gone (except in Kansas) but money woes will lead to discipline in our profession. There may be other licenses that can be similarly revoked, but I can’t think of any. A political commentator would remind the lawyers in the United States Senate of this fact.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that dishonesty was only the fifth most frequent Bar violation, well behind lack of communication for first place. Most bar complaints either involve money or communication, with the occasional lack of communication about money. Popular myth assumes that greedy tort lawyers have the most complaints. After all, we are the ones “as seen on television” or advertising on the internet. Tort lawyers were a distant third behind domestic and criminal lawyers in the report. We are still offensive, but not as often or as seriously as our detractors think. Somewhere, a lawyer is reading the disciplinary report and thinking, “Hold my beer and watch this.”
Legendary lawyer Clarence Darrow is often quoted as saying, “I never killed anyone, but I have read some obituary notices with great satisfaction.” No one says that about Bar discipline. I was saddened to read about my unfortunate friends’ loss of their licenses. They remain my friends, and I hope their lives rebound. Losing a lawyer this way is much sadder than reading an obituary. Hopefully it is not as final.
©2020 under analysis llc. under analysis is a nationally syndicated column. Spencer Farris is the founding partner of The S.E. Farris Law Firm in St Louis, Missouri. Wolves get an unfair rap. Comments or criticisms about this column may be sent to Under Analysis via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.