Will Lawyers get in trouble blowing smoke?; Be careful what you share with an Inmate; 3-2 vote on an Agreed Discipline – what does that mean?

Good to see a Bar Association help out the member lawyers on difficult ethics issues. The King Co. Bar Assoc. in Washington State has asked for guidance from the State Supreme Court on how to handle a conflict in the drug laws. Marijuana use will soon be legal under WA state law, but the federal law has not changed. So is it unethical for a state licensed attorney to use dope? Is it unethical to advise companies on how to comply with the state law on selling dope?

There are other issues where state law and federal law are at odds in various states. Voting rights issues come up, gun possession issues, campaign finance, and abortion laws.  Are lawyers at risk for following state laws, and not federal laws?  Will drug laws be different?

Wait and see.

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When will lawyers learn to be careful when visiting inmates?

Lake County lawyer Carl Jones should have followed the rules about sharing information with a jailed client.  He could have sent the inmate’s girlfriend’s letter through the mail, but it would probably be read, and her promise to lie for the inmate at trial would have been found.

More importantly, he could have told the Disciplinary Commission the truth about the matter when first asked.  When he was later testifying he told a different story, and for that he got a suspension for six months, without automatic reinstatement.

Lawyers interactions with inmates are constitutionally protected, up to a point. The inmate is entitled to private conferences so that a legitimate defense can be presented to the court.  But because we have special privileges, we must be extra careful to follow the rules.  Jones is the second lawyer this year to get disciplined for an improper interaction with a prisoner-client.  Earlier this year this blog reported this story.A Google search found: “About 66,000 results (0.31 seconds)”  to that lawyer’s name – most for this event.

Be careful out there, or more especially, when you are visiting someone in there!

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Value of a Conditional Agreement for Discipline

Plea bargains are a way of life for criminal defense lawyers, and negotiated settlements are the rule for civil litigators, it makes sense to try to work out a disciplinary matter as well.  At least today, that is.

In the Matter of Noah Holcomb, Jr. is a case on point.  Holcomb’s opinion shows that he violated several pretty important rules, 1.15 (3 subsections as different violations) on safekeeping of client funds, commingling client and attorney funds; 8.4 fraudulent conduct (hiding cash from the IRS); 1.5 setting and honoring fee agreements, not charging unreasonable fees, 8.4 conversion, and four different A&D Rules on handling trust accounts.  In addition he neglected client files (Rule 1.3).

By the time the matter got to the Supreme Court he still had not made restitution, but — he had cooperated with the Disc. Comm.

The Court starts its discussion with the following:  “This Court has disbarred attorneys who committed the type of misconduct to which Respondent has admitted.”  The important part is next: “The discipline the Court would impose might have been more severe than proposed by the parties had this matter been submitted without the Commission’s agreement.”

Now the agreement did not result in a slap on the wrist – Holcomb got a three-year suspension, without automatic reinstatement – and the  strong language of warning that reinstatement could be hard to come by:

We note, however, that regardless of the date on which Respondent is eligible to petition for reinstatement, reinstatement is discretionary and requires clear and convincing evidence of the attorney’s remorse, rehabilitation, and fitness to practice law. See Admis. Disc. R. 23(4)(b). Moreover, the parties agree that restitution should be a condition for Respondent’s reinstatement. 

The vote to approve the outcome was an unusual 3-2 with Justices David and Rush dissenting with the comment: “believing the Respondent should be disbarred.”

It sounds unlikely that Holcomb will return to the practice, but he might. After reading the opinion, you might wonder, as I do, if we want him back in the profession.

Did the Commission go too light on Holcomb in order to get an agreement, and if so, why? Apparently three justices accepted the reason (assuming it was explained somewhere), although they did not include the reason in their rationale.  Will they accept that next time?  Is this opinion a shot across the Commission’s bow?

Or is it a shot across the bow of those attorneys who stand their ground?

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2 thoughts on “Will Lawyers get in trouble blowing smoke?; Be careful what you share with an Inmate; 3-2 vote on an Agreed Discipline – what does that mean?

    • Six months was for committing the crime of trafficking with an inmate, and lying to the commission. It also was without automatic reinstatement. There is a full description of automatic reinstatement and its terms in the earlier post shown here: http://wp.me/p2JggP-63

      In Holcomb, he “paid himself about $30,000 from the estate, the vast majority of which he did not earn.” Holcomb got 3 years suspension, also without automatic reinstatement, plus two dissents.

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