This week in Young, Hungry and Committed, virtual office NYC attorney, Vivian Sobers explains how ethical dilemmas are anything but… (You know that gut feeling?)
Starting a solo practice out of law school is frightening.
Even more frightening, is that “voila!” I’m now a lawyer bound by ethical rules.
But, what does that even mean? Does it mean I can lose my newly minted license with a snap of a finger?
Ethical Violations = Losing Your License
Actually, yes it does!
As attorneys, we have to follow rules. In fact, rules are the spine of the legal practice. May it be working around them, within them, or expanding upon them to prove our point/case. The innate creativity of this activity is what makes practicing law so fulfilling: two adversaries can interpret the same rule in two different ways.
Now there is one set of rules that we all have to follow: ethical rules.
For most attorneys and professionals alike, when we think ethics, we think common sense. Of course we can’t have a misleading firm name; of course we can’t co-mingle client funds, and although sometimes “ethical,” many of us know that of course we cannot have relations with a current client. On their face, ethical rules should make sense. But, we can all probably agree that many ethical rules are anything but common sense.
My first encounter with the “rules” is when a former client asked for her money back.
The relationship had broken down and it didn’t make sense to move on. So I ended my representation. What followed was of course: “Can I get my money back?” Giving any money back when you’re just starting out is not an easy prospect. So of course I asked myself “Do I have to?” I had already spent a good deal of time on the case.
In order to follow the rules, you need help.
There is a resource that I have found incredible valuable throughout my career. The New York City Bar has an Ethics Hotline. Here is a short description of what they do:
1. The Hotline only provides guidance to New York lawyers about the New York Rules.
2. The Hotline only provides guidance concerning the caller’s own prospective conduct. We do not answer questions about past conduct or the conduct of other lawyers.
3. The Hotline does not provide legal advice or answer questions of law.
4. The Hotline provides general guidance. Due to the limited information we can obtain during a brief and informal telephone conversation, we cannot provide a definitive answer to Hotline questions.
5. The Hotline does not answer questions that are the subject of a pending legal proceeding or are before a grievance committee.
6. Although it is the Committee’s policy to maintain confidentiality of all Hotline inquiries, callers should be aware that the information is not protected by the attorney-client privilege or RPC 1.6.
7. The Ethics Hotline does not respond to complaints or inquiries regardingunethical conduct of other lawyers. Any such complaints or inquiries should be addressed to the Grievance or Disciplinary Committee for the county in which the lawyer practices (see http://www.nycourts.gov/attorneys/grievance/).
8. Lawyers who call the Ethics Hotline are required to provide their full name and telephone numbers.
For me, the most important number is 2.
It creates an accountability. If you get a weird feeling in your stomach that something is wrong with the case (You know, that kind of feel that is worse than indigestion and ogeda combined), then you must PROACTIVELY call.
Every time I call, and trust me, I call a good deal, I get amazing guidance that I need to practice effectively. I also consulted with an ethics attorney. Yes, those exist. There are attorneys out there who dedicate their entire practice to defending attorneys from allegations of ethical violations.
Ultimately, the answer hinged on how much work I had done on the matter, but I was able to get my answer without too much effort. These are just some resources that I feel lawyers underutilize.
As attorneys, we face unexpected ethical dilemmas on a constant basis. Do you know of any other good resources for attorneys that allow us to practice more effectively? Please post a comment.
Want to learn how to avoid ethical and other practice pitfalls?
Vivian Sobers is a commercial litigator pursuing a solo law practice right out of law school. She is a client in Law Firm Suites’ Virtual Office Program. Vivian’s weekly blog series “Young, Hungry and Committed” documents the trials and tribulations of a young attorney navigating her way through the challenging world of self-employed legal practice.