For our third profile of an interesting Minnesota litigators, we had the chance to sit down with Eric Cooperstein to talk about his ethics defense and advising practice. Cooperstein’s career has taken him from splitting time at Legal Aid and Mansfield & Tanick to the Office of Lawyer’s Professional Responsibility (“OLPR”) to administering a consent decree of one very large class action. Since 2008, Cooperstein has been on his own defending lawyers and prospective lawyers on ethics complaints while also finding time to make CLE presentations nationwide and serve as Treasurer of the Hennepin County Bar Association.
Check out our conversation below. He talked about his unexpected career path into legal ethics, what he thought was the most egregious lawyer behavior he saw while at the OLPR, administering the Pigford v. Glickman settlement, and his tips on how Minnesota lawyers can stay out of trouble.
Why did you decide to go to law school?
I had been interested in law school in college, but then I was able to get a job in a bank out of college. I wanted to do something that, to me, might have more impact on people than working in banking. I enjoyed the work but I didn’t find that it had the elements of argument or attention that I thought I might find in the law.
You grew up in Queens and Long Island and went to college in upstate New York. What brought you to the University of Minnesota Law School?
I wanted to leave New York. At that time, no one in my family had left New York. I had a friend from college who moved here after graduation, she was from the Midwest, and I had come to visit her. I pretty much never looked back.
Did you like your experience in law school?
I enjoyed law school right up until the second half of my third year. I enjoyed reading cases. For better or worse, I immersed myself in the legal experience by reading a lot of non-fiction that was not related to my coursework. So I read a lot of biographies of Supreme Court justices and books by some great trial lawyers like Louis Nizer and I was having a good time.
What was your first job out of law school?
When I got out of law school I actually had two jobs. I clerked the summer before my third year for the Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis and while I was there I was worked on a large class action case against the rent-to-own companies, where Legal Aid was co-counsel with Seymour Mansfield at Mansfield & Tanick. When I graduated, I managed to get a half-time job at Legal Aid, which was all they had available, and a half-time job at Mansfield Tanick, which was all they had, splitting my time between the Legal Aid’s north-side office and downtown.
After a year and a half working both jobs, another half-time slot opened up at Legal Aid and I had to choose what I was going to do. Having two half-time jobs at Legal Aid was slightly less frenetic than having a half-time job at Legal Aid and a half-time job at a private law firm. Legal Aid got some new grant money for a new housing position in the downtown office. It was primarily providing advice to people and bringing a couple multiparty actions for people who were having problems with their landlords. Then I took a full-time job at the south-side office of Legal Aid.
After working for Legal Aid for five years, you decided to change your practice and to go to the Office of Lawyer’s Professional Responsibility, did you have an interest in legal ethics before that?
No, I didn’t have any particular interest in legal ethics. I wanted to do something else but stay in the public sector. It just seemed like interesting work. In fact, I did very poorly in law school in professional responsibility – just goes to show you what grades mean.
What was your job at the OLPR?
The essential functions of the job are to investigate and in some cases prosecute violations of the rules of professional conduct. At the time, I was responsible for reviewing new complaints three days a week for my first three years there. I was also assigned to work on the overdraft notification program.
Having seen a lot of attorneys acting badly, are there cases that you worked on where you were shocked by their conduct?
My first disbarment case was against Helen Dovolis. The case was interesting because her secretary was the one who reported her and I was the one who initially spoke to her. The attorney had somewhat wantonly been forging her clients’ signatures on the backs of checks using a light board so that she could see the signatures clearly. The secretary got a guilty conscience and turned her in.
After your time at the OLPR, you left to join the office of a neutral that was charged with implementing a portion of the consent decree from the huge discrimination class action case Pigford v. Glickman, what was that like?
It was a nationwide class action venued in Washington D.C. A class of African American farmers had sued the Department of Agriculture for race discrimination in their farm loan programs. The case was settled in 1999. It was a very large class with around 23,000 members.
For most of the farmers in the class they had an opportunity to give a narrative account as to how they were discriminated against, the government had a chance to respond, and then a neutral decided whether they could get liquidated damages of $50,000. If they lost, then they got appeal rights to another neutral and got to present new evidence. I worked for the neutral that considered those appeals. We had the job of considering 5,800 appeals from claimants and the government in the class action.
You then decided to start your own ethics defense practice, what brought you back to that area of law?
I enjoyed my work at the Office of Lawyer’s Professional Responsibility, I really enjoyed legal ethics, I had continued doing some ethics seminars at a low level after I left in the Director’s Office, I volunteer at for the Fourth District Ethics Committee for four years and so I was still involved in ethics. I thought that instead of looking for a job, I would devote myself to legal ethics and see what happened.
Describe your practice?
I started my practice in the fall of 2006 and then went full time in spring of 2008. About 70% of my practice involves defending lawyers in disciplinary matters, including reinstatements of lawyers who have been suspended and representing law students in bar application cases. The rest of my practice is advising lawyers, expert work, law firm break ups, and similar law-practice related issues.
Is it more challenging to have lawyers or prospective lawyers as clients?
I don’t think it’s any more difficult to have lawyers as clients as it is to have non-lawyers as clients. I enjoy having lawyers as clients because I know lawyers, I’m a lawyer and I feel that I can relate to them. They have a certain amount of fundamental knowledge about the law and that makes my practice easier.
I have some lawyer clients who are very interested in working on every aspect of their case, and we have arguments about where commas should go in letters I write. I have other lawyer-clients who trust my judgment, but sometimes I feel like I should intentionally misspell their name at the end of a letter just to make sure they’re reading it.
Right now, what’s getting lawyers in trouble?
The same stuff gets lawyers in trouble that has always got lawyers in trouble. On the low level, the private admonition level, most complaints relate to neglect and non-communication with clients. There’s a statistic that, of the lawyers that get disciplined, they have an average of 15 or 16 years experience at the time of their first discipline. This runs against the notion that inexperienced young lawyers who get disciplined a lot or senior lawyers who have lost some capacity. I think there are a bunch of stressors that come out in middle age, the pressures of family, financial pressures, mortgages, things like that.
On a greater level, the public discipline cases, are typically lawyers who have made some greater mistake of judgment. I would include lawyers who have lied to clients because they haven’t done work on the case, lawyers who make a mistake and then try to cover up the mistake – that’s human error. To some extent, my practice runs doesn’t run on how the Lawyer’s Board prosecutes cases, it runs on human frailty. People have lapses that can get people in trouble.
What is one thing that lawyers could do to avoid professional responsibility problems?
Take notes. When I was a very young associate, I developed the habit that whenever the phone rang or a partner called me into his office, I grabbed a legal pad and a pen and I always had the date, the name of what I was doing, and something about what happened and put the amount of time spent in the margin.
Has the OLPR changed since you worked there?
Compared to the way that we ran the program 15 years ago, I think they’re being more aggressive in enforcement of the overdraft program now than they were before. My personal feeling from the cases I’ve seen recently, is that lawyers are receiving private discipline for trust account cases that would not have even been opened as a formal disciplinary file. Of everything that comes into the office, ultimately, 75% gets dismissed – but it used to be around 80%.
As someone who has given CLE presentations in town and around the country and have seen other legal communities, are there some things that the Minnesota Bar gets right?
We get a lot of things right here. Even for all of the concern and talk about a lack of congeniality amongst the Bar, I think we do as well as most other Bars in being good to each other, although there are plenty of individual exceptions.
You’re the Treasurer of the Hennepin County Bar Association, where would you like to see the HCBA go in the future?
I think it’s a really important time for geographical bar associations, in terms of justifying their existence and serving their members. I’d like to see more events for different phases of a lawyers’ life, more ways to connect with our transactional lawyers, connect more with parents who take time off from the practice, and for members who go in-house. The Bar used to be more about community and I want to do that again.
What kind of advice would you give to lawyers who are just starting out?
I think the lawyers who will be the most successful are lawyers who are willing to ask a lot of questions. I would tell younger lawyers to ask a lot of questions and to participate in Bar activities and other types of volunteer work, both for the purpose of participating as an end in itself and also as a means for developing a relationship with more senior lawyers who can serve in a mentoring role for them. Be involved.
One of the problems I see in more experienced lawyers who get in trouble is that they’re isolated. Working from a home office is fine, but that kind of isolation over a long period of time can be damaging to a lawyer and their career. It’s important to have a network or a community of people that you can pick up a phone and call when you have a problem. You can only develop that community by getting out of your office and going where the other lawyers are.