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Jax Daily Record Monday, Apr. 16, 201212:00 PM EST

Help raise the level of public trust in our profession

by: The JBA Board of Governors member Katie Dearing

Earlier this month I read with dismay the Daily Record article summarizing the Florida Supreme Court’s discipline of 22 attorneys, including three from Jacksonville.

The infractions leading to the suspension or disbarment of these lawyers included, among others, commingling and misappropriation of client funds, neglect of cases, lack of communication with clients, making false allegations in testimony and the willful abuse of the judicial system.

In one particularly egregious case, a lawyer misappropriated $5,000 of client funds held in trust for a client who is mentally disabled and legally blind. The lawyer admitted to using the funds for personal bills and expenses, including private school tuition for his children.

Since my practice includes legal malpractice defense, I often see lawyers make mistakes, most of which could have been avoided with careful attention to detail.

The conduct attributed to these suspended or disbarred lawyers is more than just a mistake and it hurts more than just their individual reputations. The willful violations outlined in the Supreme Court’s disciplinary opinions demonstrate a culture of arrogance, ignorance and desperation creeping into our profession at a new pace. According to The Florida Bar, 84 lawyers were disbarred in the 2010-11 fiscal year and another 174 were suspended, representing, on average, an 18 percent increase over previous years.

When lawyers engage in conduct such as these lawyers did, the public trust in our profession is eroded. No amount of volunteering or good deeds by other members of the Bar can compare with the popular sentiment this conduct reinforces: that lawyers are dishonest people just out to make a buck for themselves.

Although the Great Recession has affected the legal community as badly as other industries, to excuse this kind of conduct on that ground misses the point entirely. Stealing client funds is no more or less wrong whether the economy is good or bad and lying to a court to help your client isn’t OK just because the market is down. Without too much preaching here, what’s right is right all the time, and what’s wrong is wrong.

Since we tend to rise and fall together as a profession in the court of public opinion, we must ensure we are accountable to one another for our actions. Our self-regulatory Bar takes care of the discipline — and quite effectively — but we can do more to prevent these situations from happening. This can ensure that our members don’t feel compelled to cross that line in the first place.

After years of hard work by many people, The Jacksonville Bar Association’s mentor program has finally taken flight in earnest. If you do not have the benefit of an experienced lawyer in your firm or your practice area, please sign up to be a mentee. If you remember what it was like to need help and advice (most of us still turn to others after years of practice), please sign up to be a mentor.

Some other easy ways to not find yourself in the dire situations that can lead to the misbehavior these lawyers engaged in include the obvious: choose your clients correctly, learn and follow the rules relating to client funds and communicate with your clients.

Finally, we must all participate in the process of self-regulation. Whether you serve on a grievance committee, approach a lawyer informally about a problem you see or simply serve as a sounding board for colleagues faced with ethical dilemmas (especially those like the ones facing the lawyers recently suspended or disbarred), we must all be aware of our responsibility as members of this profession. With the continued influx of lawyers into our community and the competition for business across all practice areas, the pressures are not likely to subside.

It’s how we handle these pressures that will define our profession.

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