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Editorial Advisory Board: It’s time for mandatory ethics education

There are approximately 40,000 attorneys licensed to practice law in Maryland. In fiscal year 2017, the Office of Bar Counsel received 1,917 complaints of professional misconduct. Of those, Bar Counsel docketed 272 matters for investigations, many containing multiple violations of the Maryland Rules of Professional Conduct. Fifty-six Maryland lawyers lost their licenses to practice law in the state and another 37 lawyers suffered a lesser consequence. That’s pretty sad if you are one of those lawyers or an affected client. It’s sad for our profession. And these numbers hold steady every year.

Surprisingly, a percentage of these attorneys appeared not aware that Rules of Professional Conduct require competency. A number of these lawyers got in Dutch when they failed to adhere to, or even document, their agreements regarding the scope of their representations, and some failed to communicate with their clients. Then there were the lawyers who apparently failed to recognize a conflict and those who did not understand that they were obligated to maintain their clients’ confidences.

Some lawyers failed to keep their clients’ property safe, and some did not understand how to decline or terminate their representation. There were trial-publicity cases that resulted in investigations and charges, and there were cases regarding improper supervision of non-lawyer assistants and subordinate lawyers. There were charges involving direct contact with prospective clients and there was a docketed case brought over a lawyer’s communication of services. The list of all alleged transgressions is longer than we want to recount here. But looking at past years, the subject and number of the 2017 charges are representative of what the Attorney Grievance Commission and bar counsel deals with year after year.

Some of these docketed charges involve issues of dishonesty and criminal practices. In fact, they account for about 26 percent of disciplinary actions in FY 2017. Education likely won’t avoid these issues, but bar counsel can root them out when they appear and remove a lawyer’s license to protect the public.

Other violations of the Rules, however, may be preventable if Maryland lawyers are reacquainted with their ethical responsibilities every couple of years.

In FY 2017, for example, approximately 19 percent of charges resulted from failure to properly maintain records, the failure to account for client funds and comingling of fees that had not been earned, by depositing these fees into a general operating account. Eighteen percent of charges related to conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice or the unauthorized practice of law.  Seven percent of claims related to conflicts, post-engagement duties owed to clients, or supervision of subordinates, lawyers and paralegals. Many of these charges could have been avoided if the lawyer was aware of the Rules’ importance and consequence.

As it now stands, Maryland licensed lawyers need never take a substantive or ethical continuing education credit in order to remain barred, yet almost every licensed profession in this country requires some ongoing education. Year after year, lawyers get in trouble for ethics violations, and we have to believe that an ethics course, taught by the Office of Bar Counsel would prevent some of these problems. We see this course as a half-day program highlighting the violations of the prior fiscal year. If a lawyer is required by another state to take ethics courses, these credits earned should be counted. The point is, do something ethics-related. This course would be informative to the lawyers, and would also help protect Maryland citizens and the reputation of our profession.

Forty-seven states require their lawyers to take ethics courses to maintain their licenses and we believe that Maryland should do the same. Even if a lawyer believes it is unnecessary, several hours every two years is hardly a burden to engage in the practice of law and would assure the public that lawyers are current on ethical issues that could affect their interactions with clients.

Editorial Advisory Board member Wesley D. Blakeslee did not participate in this opinion.

EDITORIAL ADVISORY BOARD MEMBERS

James B. Astrachan, Chair

James K. Archibald

John Bainbridge Jr.

Wesley D. Blakeslee

Martha Ertman

Arthur F. Fergenson

Susan Francis

Marcella A. Holland

David Jaros

Ericka King

Stephen Meehan

C. William Michaels

Angela W. Russell

Debra G. Schubert

H. Mark Stichel

 

The Daily Record Editorial Advisory Board is composed of members of the legal profession who serve voluntarily and are independent of The Daily Record. Through their ongoing exchange of views, members of the Board attempt to develop consensus on issues of importance to the Bench, Bar and public. When their minds meet, unsigned opinions will result. When they differ, majority views and signed rebuttals will appear. Members of the community are invited to contribute letters to the editor and/or columns about opinions expressed by the Editorial Advisory Board.

Find out more about the members of the Editorial Advisory Board.