Is Being A Bad Lawyer An Ethical Violation?

The Legal Profession Blog has a post linking to a lawyer discipline case from New York where an attorney was suspended for two years after being sanctioned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Even after the two years is up, he can only practice again after the entry of a court order allowing it.

This is a pretty serious sanction. What did he do? Steal from a client? Miss a filing deadline? Get a criminal conviction? Was he a tax cheat? Nope. He got suspended for being a terrible lawyer. The court noted that on multiple occasions he had submitted briefs of “shockingly poor quality.” Things like getting the names of his clients wrong, including irrelevant boilerplate, referencing evidence that was never submitted, and filing the work of a paralegal without reviewing it.

I am so happy to see a court take a stand like this. My practice is 100% litigation, and you would not believe the astonishingly poor quality of some of the written material I see submitted to both trial and appellate courts. I’m not talking about proofreading or citation errors. Everybody makes a mistake sometimes. I mean stuff so appalling that it is clear that no attempt was made to edit or even read it before filing.

I have a case now where opposing counsel has filed papers with the court certifying that pleadings and discovery were served on me three weeks before the date they were actually mailed to me. When I got them, they were unsigned and turned out to be mostly gibberish. The best part is that they were printed in the Comic Sans typeface. I asked twice, in writing, for the filing to be corrected so the court knew the correct dates I received the material. Nothing. It’s the most astonishing thing I’ve seen in 14 years practicing law. I’m now awaiting a ruling on my second motion for sanctions.

I wish courts were more active in policing this kind of thing. But the reality is that most of the time nothing gets done about it unless the behavior is particularly egregious or it is repeated often enough that, eventually, a judge ends up getting really mad.