Let me start off with a warning that as I write this column I am angry. I’ve decided enough is enough and am now willing to address this issue, and the attorneys who do what I am about to describe, head on.
‘Ethics’ is a Dirty Word
Professional ethics is supposed to be a code by which we lawyers operate to ensure that we are maintaining the highest level of integrity as we practice law. Unfortunately, many experienced attorneys have taken to using the word “ethics” and all of its connotations as a weapon against any attorney serving their clients in a way with which the criticizing attorney is unfamiliar or does not approve. Sadly, given that young and innovative lawyers are blazing a trail for new ways to both practice law and deliver their services, we tend to be the target for such ridicule. I have even seen some lawyers claim that young lawyers, especially solos, cannot possibly be ethical without the hand-holding (otherwise known as chiding) of more experienced attorneys.
Well, I beg to differ. Young lawyers are fully capable of being as ethical as their more experienced colleagues as they serve their clients. Yes, and that includes young solos. As lawyers, we are trained to research the law and apply it to real life scenarios. Why would young lawyers be incapable of looking up the ethics rules and decisions in their state and applying those rules in their practice? Why would young lawyers be against being ethical? Because we have an online presence? Because we, dare I say it, actually market our practices to potential clients? Because we have the nerve to start law practices after completing law school and passing our state bar? Or because we practice law in a non-traditional way?
I have been subject to such claims. I have been accused by ‘more experienced’ colleagues’ of being an unethical attorney simply because I practice law online or because I practice law in a state where I do not live or because I market my practice online. Apparently, many experienced attorneys cannot understand how I could possibly have a non-traditional law practice and still be ethical. Well, too bad! Too bad that you do not understand. Too bad that you are so rigid in your ideas of how law should be practiced that you criticize and attempt to ostracize any attorney trying something new instead of asking yourself, ‘what could I maybe learn from her?’ And too bad that you won’t pull a young lawyer aside and point out areas you think present an ethical hazard but instead choose to publicly discourage and belittle them. And too bad that you are quick to judge and react apparently before you have read the ethics rules and requirements in the states where I am barred. I have. And I have applied them to my practice. Thank you very much.
Old Dogs Need to Learn New Tricks
What further toasts my muffins about the so-called unimpeachable ethics of some highly critical, experienced attorneys is that they themselves could certainly take notes from younger attorneys about professional ethics.
Things that have been accepted as “ethical” for years are being questioned by young lawyers, including myself. For example, is it ethical to charge an hourly rate to clients when doing so puts the monetary interests of the lawyer at odds with the monetary interests of the client? Is it ethical to subtly bully clients into doing what the lawyer wants to do instead of what the clients wants to do (unless it would be truly detrimental to the client)? Is it ethical to charge the client for every thought the lawyer has about the client and/or their case? Is it ethical to cut a client off after taking substantial amounts of their money because they are unable to pay still more? Is it ethical to lead a client to believe they are hiring a partner at the firm and then have a young associate do all the work but not let the young associate appear in court when she knows the case better than the partner? Is it ethical to terrify young lawyers from going solo because its not what you would do?
My answers to these questions are no, not at all! Yet, I have seen this kind of behavior over and over again from experienced, so-called “ethical” attorneys who my family has hired, who I have worked for and during my clerkship. If that’s what ethical lawyering looks like, it’s time ethical lawyering was redefined.
To many young lawyers, being ethical is not something that is only associated with bar rules. It involves basic morality, something young lawyers are very interested in. It’s about being honest with clients in our advertising, creating environmentally responsible businesses, not chasing money but providing value, not being condescending to clients with our vast legal vocabulary but speaking to them in plain English. Young lawyers are also interested in giving back to their community by supporting local and international charities and taking on pro bono work. There are plenty of experienced lawyers who could benefit from incorporating some of this morality into their “ethical rules” and into their practices in a substantial way.
In conclusion, my point is this: Experienced attorneys stop trying to scare young lawyers half to death with your scary ethics anecdotes about lawyers who were disbarred or suspended due to unethical behavior. Most of the stories involve gross misconduct on many levels and they only serve to disproportionately scare young lawyers when the news tells a very different story about some of the most experienced lawyers landing in jail for fraud, thievery and every imaginable ethical and moral violation. Let’s see you talk about them. You don’t own the exclusive real estate on any ethical pedestals.
Instead, why not give tips on how to look up and apply ethics rules and/or make young lawyers aware of the top ethical pitfalls that lawyers face? And young lawyers, my message is do not be afraid. Do not let the word “ethics” prevent you from establishing a law practice, even one that is cutting edge. Instead, do your research and apply the rules to your practice. And when in doubt, call your state’s ethics hotline.
And one last thought: Young lawyers, we need to get involved in our state bar’s ethics committees and begin redefining ethics so that it actually protects the public while not unnecessarily restricting lawyers from innovative ways to practice or financially preventing them from ever launching a practice.
All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.