Husband can’t control his wife, gets disciplined.

Sometimes titles for posts are tough to come up with, sometimes they are far too easy.  This is one of the latter and is offered both with a spirit of tongue-in-cheek silliness and because it is a truly perfect seven-word summary of a recent disciplinary case of note.

It is, of note, at least for discussion purposes, because it appears to be: (1) the right outcome; and (2) a quintessential example of the harm that my state, Tennessee, seeks to prevent through the existence of a very specific, black-letter rule.  Despite that, I’d still like to explain why I happen to think that the Tennessee rule, in particular, is still too harsh and the wrong public policy approach.

The case comes out of Illinois and involves a public censure handed down earlier this month.  The ABA Journal online wrote an article about it a couple of days ago but here’s the pithier description of events published by the Illinois disciplinary authorities:

Mr. Niew, who was licensed in 1972, was censured. His wife, Kathleen Niew, an Illinois lawyer, was disbarred in 2013 for misappropriating $2.34 million belonging to a client who she represented in a real estate matter. After her disbarment, Mr. Niew failed to ensure that his wife no longer maintained a presence in their law office and he also failed to supervise his associate, to prevent that associate from aiding Ms. Niew in the unauthorized practice of law.

The ABA Journal piece points out a bit more detail, explaining that the wife was disbarred in November 2013 but kept coming into the law offfice she had shared with her husband multiple days a week until June 2014.  You can get the highly unfortunate details of the wife’s wrongdoing at the ABA Journal piece.  (Spoiler:  financial wrongdoing.)

The reason that the husband’s role in the wife continuing to come into the office was, itself, a disciplinary problem is that Illinois has a Supreme Court Rule, Rule 764b, that bars a lawyer who has been disbarred or suspended from the practice of law for at least six months from maintaining a presence in any office where law is practiced.  That Illinois rule also imposes a direct duty on other lawyers affiliated with the disbarred or suspended lawyer to stake steps to insure that the rule is complied with.

This kind of rule, which we also have in our ethics rules in Tennessee, is one that I and other Tennessee lawyers have described to people as a rule that means, if you’ve been disbarred or suspended, you can’t even push a broom in a law office as a way of trying to make a living.

In Tennessee, over the objections of the Tennessee Bar Association, our Supreme Court put such a prohibition housed in our rules as RPC 5.5(h).  It acts similarly to the Illinois rule by completely barring involvement in anything surrounding the practice of law for disbarred or suspended lawyers, but it is solely focused on the other lawyers involved and is actually even more harsh than the Illinois rule in two respects.

The Tennessee rule reads:

(h) A lawyer or law firm shall not employ or continue the employment of a disbarred or suspended lawyer as an attorney, legal consultant, law clerk, paralegel or in any other position of a quasi legal nature.

It is harsher than its Illinois counterpart, first, because it applies (on its face) with respect to a lawyer suspended for any period of time not just for six months or more.  Arguably even where a lawyer has been suspended for only 30 days or, possibly, even when they are subject to merely an administrative suspension.  Second, it is harsher because it is not just limited to a prohibition on being physically present in a law office but applies to any employment of such a person by a lawyer or law firm.

In Illinois, for example, the public policy objections I have to such a harsh rule might be less pointed beccause the ability to work from home or otherwise remotely be employed to perform certain tasks could be a saving grace against the otherwise absolute barrier to opportunities for lawyer rehabilitation.  But not so in Tennessee.

While the Niew Illinois case that has gotten some attention certainly appears to demonstrate the right outcome for its circumstances, I still think rules like Tennessee’s are far too harsh.  Problems posed by the classic scenarios that such rules seek to prohibit can otherwise be addressed through provisions in RPC 5.5 that make it unethical for a lawyer to assist someone else in the unauthorized practice of law.

It seems that there ought to be exceptions to such an absolute prohibition; exceptions that it would be hard for reasonable people to argue against.  One could readily construct a hypothetical involving a lawyer who gets herself suspended because of problems associated with the handling of client funds or other deficiencies in their ability to handle the business aspects of the practice of law, but who might be an incredibly gifted researcher and writer.  Seems unduly harsh to foreclose that person’s ability to continue to contribute and benefit clients of other lawyers through performing such work for other lawyers with no access to client funds or even to the clients in question while rehabilitating themselves on their deficiencies.

At present, there simply is not.  The only potential route to rehabilitiation that could be available in Tennessee, apropos if for no other reason than our being called “the Volunteer state,” is that it does look like a disbarred or suspended lawyer could take on such assignments for free.

Administrative suspensions -another far too often route to UPL problems.

I’ve long been torn about lawyers losing their license and ability to practice law through administrative suspensions.

In Tennessee, for example, this can happen to a lawyer through failing to get your required CLE hours (TN requires 15 annually), or failing to pay your registration fees, or failing to turn in the necessary forms about compliance with certain trust accounting requirements.   There are other ways, but you get the drift; they almost all involve failures that are primarily about not keeping up with paperwork or missing repeated deadlines.  Thus, at some level, it seems like a harsh result to lose the right to practice for a petty offense.

Yet, in most situations, a lawyer has to be really, really delinquent, forgetful, or careless and miss multiple opportunities to correct the oversights before an administrative suspension actually comes to pass.  So, given that you are talking about a profession in which compliance with administrative details and deadlines is a pretty fundamental skill set and can make or break a client’s case, then it can be hard to argue against administrative suspensions as being fair.

Where it really becomes unfortunate is when the lawyer subject to the administrative suspension either does not know or does not care he is suspended and continues to handle client matters and places not only himself but his clients in jeopardy.  The jeopardy for the lawyer is disciplinary charges in the nature of engaging in UPL can be heaped on top of the administrative suspension.  The jeopardy for the client can be questions about whether the actions taken by the suspended lawyer are null and void, and potential questions about whether the privilege applies to dealings or not.

An instance (though admittedly a pretty extreme one) of a lawyer ending up disciplined for UPL while administratively suspended caught my attention thanks to a write-up earlier this month by the folks at the Legal Profession Blog.  The New Jersey Supreme Court on October 7 accepted the recommended decision from the Disciplinary Review Board and issued a reprimand against a lawyer for representing a New Jersey business 8 years after having her New Jersey license administratively revoked.

The May 31, 2016 decision of the DRB, involving a lawyer named French, can be found here.  It caught my fancy not only as an example of the time delays often involved before an administrative suspension kicks in but also because it offers parallels to a recent bad Minnesota UPL decision I wrote about earlier this year.

French, also licensed in New York where she apparently has been working in house for an accounting firm for almost 20 years without incident, was licensed in New Jersey back in 1991.  It is possible she never actually paid the required annual registration/assessment fees in New Jersey, but eventually her law license in New Jersey administratively revoked in 2005 on the basis that she had failed to pay the annual assessment for seven consecutive years.

French testified she was unaware of the revocation and actually unaware of the need to pay an assessment — she says her original law firm never told her.

This disciplinary mess came about when she proceeded to do a favor for a friend in a budding unfair competition/breach of non-compete matter involving two salons.  Interestingly, she went to the trouble of creating her own separate private letterhead for purposes of sending a cease and desist letter for the company owned by her friend, and (unsurprisingly) it was counsel for the other salon that brought to French’s attention the fact that her New Jersey license had been revoked.

Ultimately, the DRB decided only a reprimand (which is a lesser sanction in NJ than a censure) should be imposed despite being “troubled that respondent made no effort, for over fourteen years, to ensure her compliance with [assessment] obligations, and no effort, for over twenty years, to verify her status as a New Jersey attorney.”  French was certainly helped by the finding that her testimony was credible on her actual mens rea of just not knowing.  And the credibility of her testimony was helped by the fact that she had always kept her New Jersey CLE obligations up to date over the years.

Interestingly, two of the members of the DRB voted to impose a three-month suspension against the lawyer, which loyal readers (or NJ lawyers) will remember is the kind of suspension you get in New Jersey for acts of violence.