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February 26, 2021 Ethics

Pandemic and financial stress could push some lawyers to act unethically, experts warn

By Debra Cassens Weiss

Mental health and lawyer ethics experts are warning that financial stress and isolation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic may push lawyers to act imprudently or unethically. spoke with several experts who feared that lawyers could be tempted to dip into client funds in their lawyer trust account or take on areas of practice outside their expertise—to the detriment of their clients.

The story said practice areas such as matrimonial law and trusts and estates are doing well during the pandemic, but criminal defense and other practices that involve in-court practice are seeing a downturn. Solo and small firm lawyers are also more likely to face economic hardship.

Pennsylvania lawyer Jennifer Ellis, who represents lawyers in ethics cases, sees the risk.

“When we are in a panic and trying to keep our families fed and keep our employees employed, lawyers can be led to do all sorts of things,” she told “When you are 40 years old and have $100,000 in student loans and you see your firm going downhill and you look at not being able to pay your heating bill, I could see people doing the wrong thing.”

Another expert who spoke with is Stacey Dougan, a former Big Law attorney who provides “attorney well-being” services in Atlanta. When finances are imperiled, off-limits behavior such as dipping into client funds may suddenly seem justified, she said.

Dougan recommends that lawyers make sure they take care of themselves by eating well, getting enough sleep, maintaining relationships and having fun.

“Just because we can’t take that vacation doesn’t mean we can’t go anywhere. It doesn’t mean we can’t have fun. It really is keeping work in perspective,” she said.

Ellis also offers advice to lawyers trying to take on a new practice area. To get up to speed, the lawyers should attend a continuing legal education program on the subject, find a mentor who can help, or work with an experienced co-counsel, she said.

Another one of the experts who spoke with, Marc Garfinkle of New Jersey, thinks few lawyers will cross the line. Lawyers who end up stealing from clients “were previously at risk, psychologically or financially, and maybe the pandemic pushes them over the edge,” he said.