Jason Beehler is an associate in the Professional Responsibility and Disciplinary Proceedings group at Kegler Brown Hill & Ritter in Columbus, Ohio. He has represented attorneys involved in disciplinary inquiries and proceedings, as well as attorneys accused of malpractice. He is also a regular contributor to the firm’s Ohio Legal Ethics blog and has published and presented on legal ethics and professionalism across the state. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Jason about his work and to ask him what advice he would give associates who want to avoid violating their professional and ethical responsibilities. This is what Jason had to say.
Jason, what are the most common types of ethics/professional responsibility cases you see?
The most common complaint we see involves attorneys who have mismanaged client funds. We also see cases alleging a lack of diligence, failure to communicate with the client, and advertising issues. It’s also not uncommon to see cases where an attorney failed to pursue the client’s case or file proper paperwork on behalf of the client.
What advice would you give to associates who want to avoid ethical pitfalls?
First and foremost, especially for attorneys entering a firm, it is important to remember that the rules apply to every lawyer. You can’t avoid a disciplinary issue by giving the excuse that a partner told you to do something improper. That excuse is tried often, and it virtually never works. If you find yourself in a situation where you think a partner may be asking you to do something unethical, as difficult as it may be, you need to talk to the partner about it. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to a partner, see if there’s someone else in the firm you talk to. Remember, you only get one law license—you don’t want to lose it because you were simply following someone else’s orders.
Another thing I always tell younger attorneys is that clients will often ask you to do things that are unethical. Especially if it’s a client you have brought into the firm, and you’re getting the origination credit, it can be tempting to rationalize the client’s request. But you have to be honest and draw the line the first time a client suggests something that isn’t consistent with the rules. Tell the client that the ethical rules prohibit you from doing that but that you will work to figure out another way to accomplish the client’s goal.
The third piece of advice I have is take an hour or so every year to flip through the rules. There are lots of rules that most attorneys aren’t even aware of. If you review the rules every year, you can keep them somewhat fresh in your mind, while also looking out for new rules or rules you’ve never seen before. For example, the Ohio rules contain a provision prohibiting attorneys from using the word “specialist” or “specialty” in their advertising unless the attorney has actually been certified as a specialist by the bar. This is a rule that lawyers can easily break simply because they don’t know it exists.
Finally, it pays to be very cautious about the information you share with other people about your cases. This includes not only friends and family but also paralegals and office staff. This is especially true if a case is newsworthy or has interesting facts. People, including staff, like to share what they know. You should be thoughtful about who you are talking to about your cases, because telling the wrong person could land you in a lot of trouble.
To learn more, you can visit the Kegler Brown legal ethics blog, Ohio Legal Ethics.