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At the time of the publishing of this article, the Professionalism Seminar will have been presented on February 27, 2015 at Stetson University College of Law at the Gulfport campus. The seminar honored two amazing lawyers, Michael Keene and Marty Rice, who were the epitome of professionalism and ethics. The committee for this seminar worked with great enthusiasm on this project not only to promote professionalism but also to raise funds for the Foundation's many charitable causes. I know there will be more enlightening articles by others in this issue of theParaclete. Thus, I wanted to focus on other ethical and professional issues. I spoke to some of the Pinellas County judges about their experiences with lawyers and what sticks in their mind most. Our judges have a duty to rule on the law and in part must depend on the lawyers before them to present the facts and the law truthfully, but of course, with the necessary zealousness of representing their client. Also required as an ethical and professional lawyer, is the duty to present the law even if that law is against their very own client.
That, of course, is a very difficult decision to make because you will likely be fighting at odds with your client. But, when that duty arises and you present both sides of controlling court rulings or rulings that may be clear precedent against you, a judge will never forget that and years later your reputation will likely live on.
I cannot say that I have been put in that difficult position myself, but Judge Pam Campbell told me a story about two different lawyers who upheld this practice and presented law opposed to their position. Judge Campbell commented that even five years later that memory of their candor to the tribunal has never been forgotten.
That brings me to another subject, and that is handling the difficult client who initially may not be honest with you. Of course, anyone reading this article will be able to give many a "war story" on clients who have presented challenges like this. No doubt, in the case of litigation, a client comes to you upset, angry and has their own view of what the facts are. A lawyer who conducts extensive questioning and due diligence, whether it is for a civil litigation case or a bankruptcy case, is doing what they ethically should do and in the end will likely prove in the best interest of the client. First, you are more likely to get down to the merits of the case and what hurdles you may need to overcome when the case goes to trial or when settling is appropriate, so knowing the true facts are helpful to everyone and the judicial system in general.
However, what do you do when you find out that the client has blatantly lied to you? You have done your due diligence. You found out that the facts are contrary to what the client has said or worse, the client wants you to misrepresent the facts to the court. When you just read this out of context of the day to day challenges of practice, the answer seems obvious. You either try to convince the client to change their mind or you need to let the client go. But, we all have the financial challenges of running our law firm and sometimes it is easy to lose that focus.
This is where I tend to get back to one of the many reasons why I have enjoyed working with so many members of the St. Petersburg Bar Association. I know when those doubts come to mind or those challenges are there, I can pick up the phone and talk to a fellow lawyer. Although the public many times doesn't realize it, we are blessed with many ethical and caring lawyers who are there to be supportive of others in the community.
I know that my experiences at Stetson taught me that your word is everything, thereafter, I had the good fortune to work with a number of lawyers in different firms in the community and I learned by example.
Today, there are many lawyers who have opened up their own firm right out of law school. I admire them and I have to say I didn't have the guts to do that until many years later. Some of those lawyers are also active in our community and have been honored as Rising Stars at our Heroes event. Those lawyers are great examples of how to reach out to fellow lawyers if they are wrestling with any of these ethical challenges.
One example I have and I suppose it's an old one but I will never forget it. When I was an associate attorney at Riden, Earle and Keifner, P.A., one of the partners (and he will know who I am talking about), received a fax (I know we seldom even use faxes anymore, so I suppose this would really apply to emails in today's world) from opposing counsel. That fax was a letter laying out the pros and cons of opposing counsel's case. That letter was meant only for the opposing counsel's client. What would your client want you to do? Read it of course. And what should you do? Again, in the abstract, it seems easy to say of course you throw it out. Well, that is exactly what this lawyer did. He called opposing counsel and let him know that it was not read and it was discarded. I am not sure we even had shredders back then, but it was ripped and discarded. That example lived on in my memory. I also think those are the kind of issues that occur which are not necessary to discuss with your client; it is an ethical duty and a part of practicing law.
Right now, the hot news of course is the Bill Cosby lawsuits. This, based on the most recent media reports has allegedly demonstrated a horrible example of lawyers failure to conduct due diligence and the despicable harm to the reputation of a good man if in the end it is shown that the lawyers were not mindful of their ethical duties. I am sure you all are following this story and hopefully in the end, justice will prevail.
I thank all those who have been supportive of others in our legal community in the past, and please know that my phone line is always open to talk to those who need another lawyer to bounce ideas around and discuss client challenges.