William and Mary Law School

Ethics Hearing

Continuing my action packed week, today I watched the oral arguments for an ethics hearing. The attorney representing the lawyer being charged with an infraction was the longtime law partner of one of the consulting judges for NCSC. It was possibly his last oral argument, so the judge invited Amanda, myself, and our boss Tim to attend the argument. The arguments were at the D.C. Court of Appeals, so after lunch we caught a cab to Judiciary Square.

Even before making our way into the court, I was once again struck by the impressiveness of the building’s architecture. For me, the visual power of these buildings both enhanced and accentuated the importance of the courts. In front of the court as well was a statue of Abraham Lincoln. While I thought it might just be a simple tribute to one of our greatest presidents, my love of history was captured as I learned that the statue commemorates the place where President Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation. Yet again, I had stumbled upon an amazing piece of history. Having grown up in the suburbs of Michigan, I find myself continually amazed by the history and importance of Washington D.C., and how easy it is to find yourself standing where something pivotal happened – for instance the emancipation of all slaves. Amusingly, during all this we actually first failed at entering the building. We tried to enter through what appeared to be the front door, indeed the large stairs led up to it, the row of columns enthroned it, and the statue of Lincoln stood in front of it. However, following renovations that had taken place at the court, although this really was the front door, it was no longer the front entrance. We made our way around the building and found the correct entrance, through the glass cube (I guess the French had already claimed the glass pyramid for the Louvre, so the D.C. Court of Appeals decided to go with a cube).  We went through security and ascended to the courtroom, where I waited to witness my first oral arguments.

The case was an intriguing one. The judge provided us with part of his partner’s brief in defense of the lawyer, and I have to admit that from at least reading their side of the story, there didn’t seem to be much of a case. Indeed, both sides seemed to present the case as a situation of “no good deed goes unpunished.” The lawyer had been approached by a friend, another lawyer, who needed his help. The friend had a case that needed to be filed within the next few days or else the statute of limitations would run. The complication was that that the friend’s license was suspended for unpaid fees. So as a favor, the first lawyer signed on to the case filing in order to beat the statute of limitations, with the understanding that it the case was to be handled by the friend. The case did not make it under the statute of limitations, though, despite further phone calls and actions taken by the lawyer. In addition, the friend would end up falling apart in many ways, including disbarment and a malpractice suit for his handling of that case. Consequently, after some investigations, the Bar decided to charge the first lawyer with certain ethical violations.

That brought us to today. For my first real oral argument experience, this was fairly unique. The case was argued in front of an Ethics Board. As such, the bench of this relatively small room was filled with 9 judges, lawyers, or laypersons who sat on this Board (actually 8 because one never showed oddly enough). Additionally, for all we are told in Moot Court of the formalities of oral arguments (at least in appellate court), this hearing seemed fairly informal in comparison. For example, one of the aspects that stood out to me the most was the amount of time given to the first attorney. Each side was supposed to be given 15 minutes, and indeed there was a clock counting this down. The attorney representing the lawyer had reserved some time for rebuttal, but also wanted to reserve some time for his client to speak. But the lawyer started to go over and run into the time saved for his client, so the latter only had a few minutes when he got up to the podium. Despite this, though, the Board did not stop the client when his time ran out, and indeed he ultimately was given about as much time to speak as his lawyer had already used. And while I glanced around to see if anyone else thought this was odd or was going to do something about it, no one seemed to blink an eye.

Another interesting component of the arguments was the subjects on which the Board members focused. While the brief I had read raised a plethora of issues, many concerning the makeup and jurisdiction of the Board, the arguments themselves focused on the alleged violations themselves. Ultimately that was the crux of the matter, so it made sense that it would be where both the lawyers and the Board members wanted to focus. But you could tell that a few of the members, those that asked the most questions, had a few certain points that they were fixating on. The question that I found most telling was posed to the lawyer for the Bar. He was asked what lesson the Bar wanted this case to teach lawyers. He responded vaguely about the responsibility of signing your name to a document and the accountability that followed. It was this question I realized that may be the most injurious to the lawyer charged with the violations. While the answer was not particularly profound, it illustrated the idea that the lawyer may be used as a teaching example for all lawyers. It will be interesting whether this will control the case, and I’m anxious to see how the case is resolved.