Minnesota lawyers as well as lawyers nationwide are under unprecedented economic pressure these days and they have been for several years now. (On June 3, 2013, the Atlantic Monthly said that Minnesota ranked 11th out of the 50 states for worst job market for law school graduates, with nearly three new lawyers for every single available job.)
Not coincidentally, ethics complaints and disciplinary actions against Minnesota lawyers are up. (Here is the latest public petition for discipline.) Given the pressure and the stakes, mistakes and wrong-doing are unfortunate and inevitable.
What is particularly disappointing to me, though, is when lawyers flat out lie. Minnesota attorney Christopher Stephen Petros is alleged to have falsified several documents to conceal his alleged failure to give clients timely notice of important case developments and deadlines.
Misconduct of lawyers takes many forms: simple negligence (aka, missing a deadline), incompetence (aka, overextending past one’s abilities or expertise), and, arguably, the most common and hard to detect, stealing by “padding” bills (that is, charging hourly for work but increasing claimed time on matters).
It is simply inevitable that economic hardship, that is, adverse market forces, will trigger increases in these forms of wrong-doing (intentional, unintentional, and quasi-intentional). Most of us would steal sustenance if it were a matter of our survival and so the question is when, not if, people will crack under the pressure, when they will take the risk of, and, maybe, ultimately pay the price of moral lapse.
But a lawyer’s outright lies, in particular, deserves particularly harsh sanction in my view. “Under penalty of perjury” means little or nothing to many people. Any lawyer who has taken a minimum number of depositions will attest (truthfully) to that.
The question then becomes what is the appropriate punishment for an intentional liar lawyer? Once a person has been exposed in his or her professional life as a liar, how deep is that character flaw? Can one ever give oneself, give one’s trust, to this person again? Should a state bar try to rehabilitate a liar lawyer or should the state bar disbar him or her? Particularly in times of over-supply of lawyers? Is the hard and uncertain work of rehabilitation fair to Minnesotans or to the majority of honest and capable Minnesota lawyers? I would suggest that the Minnesota bar and Minnesotans deserve bettter.
(Is there any data on recidivism? Shouldn’t there be and shouldn’t that matter?)