YourABA: June 2013
YourABA October 2013 Masthead

Warning! Ethical learning curve ahead

When it comes to avoiding some of the common mistakes in a new legal career, young lawyers should recognize that they are vulnerable and may need to rely on the advice and wisdom of more experienced counsel, a panel of legal experts noted in an American Bar Association program.

The panel offered advice on how young lawyers should protect their reputations and careers in the webinar "Ethical Pitfalls for New Lawyers." The webinar provided a roadmap of tips to guide new lawyers around sensitive ethical areas of concern.

Dolores Dorsainvil, who has specialized in attorney ethical matters, warned young attorneys that "what you don’t know can hurt you." She said it is important to recognize "when you are in over your head on a matter" and urged new counsel to seek the assistance of a more seasoned lawyer, if the client gives his or her consent.

"Young lawyers are probably most vulnerable when it comes to Rule 1.1 because they don’t necessarily have the experience or the knowledge to know that they are the ones most at risk for violating this rule," said Dorsainvil, senior staff attorney for the D.C. Office of Bar Counsel, where she investigates and prosecutes lawyers for ethical misconduct.

Rule 1.1 requires lawyers to have the legal skills and knowledge to properly assist clients. "Know your limitations," Dorsainvil added. "If you are a practitioner and you’ve only done family matters and an immigration case walks through the door … you have a duty under the rule to become familiar in that matter." If not, in many cases, it could prove detrimental to the client, Dorsainvil said.

Dorsainvil suggested that if young lawyers feel uncomfortable with their level of competence in a case, they should decline representation, withdraw or decide to become competent and enroll in a CLE or conduct the proper research to get up to speed on the matter.

The panel discussed the ethical bounds of a legal career by exploring the Model Rules of Professional Conduct in detail.
Theresa Gronkiewicz, deputy regulation counsel for the ABA, focused on Rule 1.1, noting that honesty is required in everything, even information that one would post on a website. Gronkiewicz said it is important that personal information shared on websites "does not exaggerate the level of competence or experience that you have."

Ethics Rule 1.3 is Joshua Camson Rigby’s favorite. He said an area where young lawyers get "tripped up" on is diligence.
"The rule of diligence requires that we do what is hard … within the bounds of professionalism, you have to fight for your client," added Rigby, an attorney at Camson/Rigby in Washington, Pa. "Sometimes young lawyers 'cave in' to settling cases too soon when faced with mounting pressure from the court or other counsel."

The panel also discussed best practices for acting as the fiduciary, which is responsible for handling funds for a client.

Dorsainvil suggested that one way not to land before a disciplinary board for fiduciary concerns is to take the Model Rules with you to open a bank account. She said, "It’s important to know these rules because mismanagement of clients’ funds, whether intentional or reckless, is considered misappropriation or commingling, and that can result in very harsh consequences to your bar license."

The program "Ethical Pitfalls for New Lawyers" was sponsored by the American Bar Association Center for Professional Development and the Center for Professional Responsibility.

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