• December 3, 2012

Anecdotally, the most common misconduct for which Minnesota lawyers are discplined by the state bar are: (1) mishandling (sometimes better known as stealing) client property (often in the form of money) or (2) badly screwing up in doing one’s job (i.e., going on a drunken bender for weeks, missing critical deadlines, and harming (or destroying) clients’ cases).

We can all agree that it is appropriate for the Minnesota state bar to police its members and hold them to standards so that this kind of conduct is condemned.  The lawyers who do it should be publicly identified for the integrity and proper functioning of our legal system.

But if a Minnesota lawyer engages in some lewd criminal conduct unrelated to his legal practice (for which he is criminally charged and pled guilty) should this also be grounds for attorney discipline?

My first reaction on hearing of the disciplinary proceedings against prominent Twin Cities attorney Clark Griffith was, “No.”  Enough is enough, I thought.  The man’s suffered and been widely reviled for his wrong-doing. What’s the point?  He was not practicing law when he essentially sexually attacked a young woman.  It’s not as if he attacked a client, where, obviously, the bar would have an interest.  Isn’t this just “piling on”?

On further reflection and also after conferring with others with different perspectives (that is, women), I reverse myself.  The Minnesota State Bar often does and should discipline lawyers for such conduct above and beyond the criminal system.  The conduct should be shared for all to see and the discipline by the state bar should be public.

For a while now, Minnesota Litigator has been emphatic about the recent decimation of the legal market in Minnesota and throughout the country.  In a nutshell, this simply means that there was an over-supply of lawyers. The demand/supply imbalance has been a traumatic jolt for many, including many good lawyers who cannot find jobs. What better time, then, to thin the herd of those whose conduct actually merits their being put out to pasture?

Furthermore, particularly as the legal profession is belatedly achieving another kind of balance — gender balance — (too slowly but inexorably), it seems appropriate that the state bar should adopt an extreme zero tolerance policy for this kind of misconduct.  Decades ago, this kind of misbehavior was seen as some kind of male prerogative or resulting from some immutable inherent characteristic of men that simply had to be tolerated.  No longer.

Still further, this was not completely outside the context of the lawyer’s professional life as the incident occurred in the context of his teaching a course to young aspiring lawyers.  (Even if it had been a sexual assault outside completely unrelated to any legal activity, however, condemnation by (and possibly expulsion from) the bar is correct.)

Finally, Minnesota citizens generally enjoy a talented and committed pool of lawyers and judges. They enjoy a system that undertakes extremely difficult issues and often at significant personal sacrifice.  Lawyers do not always enjoy a broad social esteem and the bar should undertake such measures to help our profession’s image.

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