Bar's ethics school aids the errants


Does the State Bar do anything to help the average attorney who is trying to operate a law practice, please his clients and stay out of trouble? You may be surprised to learn the answer is an emphatic yes.

In 1989, an article entitled Lawyers at Risk appeared in California Lawyer and stated that the attorney most likely to be disciplined is male, between the ages of 36 and 55, in practice for 11 to 20 years and a sole practitioner. Although most sole practitioners may believe they are targeted by the State Bar's disciplinary system, this is untrue. In fact, less insidious and more obvious reasons undoubtedly account for these statistics.

Sole practitioners lack the back-up and organizational structure of a firm or partnership. If they get in over their heads, often there is no one to whom they can turn for assistance. In most cases, nothing stands between them and their procrastination if they choose to ignore a potential problem. Sole practitioners may also lack mentors to help with brainstorming a legal issue or strategizing a litigation plan.

In some cases, attorneys simply lack the foresight to envision how their representation of a client will evolve. After all, they reason, if a problem develops down the line, they can simply withdraw from the case. Unfortunately, the problem does develop, they are not being paid, the court will not let them withdraw, and they are at odds with the client.

How did all this happen when they were just trying to do the right thing? Perhaps some of the answers to these dilemmas are being found at State Bar Ethics School and the other "ARTS" (Attorney Remedial Training System) programs.

Most attorneys don't set out to harm their clients. Unfortunately, while the practice of law is a profession, it is also a business. The average attorney receives little, if any, training regarding how to operate a business. Interpersonal skills, file documentation, tickler systems and simple client trust accounting, while not exciting, are essential tools for the operation of a law practice. Certainly, these skills will make the difference between client satisfaction and becoming another State Bar disciplinary statistic. How do I know? Because in the last five years, many of the 1,500 attorneys I've taught in ethics school have shared their experiences with me.

Often the discipline accident waiting to happen begins when the lawyer takes a client against his better judgment -- the difficult client he knew he would never please. But the client arrived in his office with a story and a retainer fee and the lawyer took the case. Then the problems really begin. Maybe the lawyer didn't know enough about this particular area of the law; maybe he just didn't pay enough attention to the case. It stands to reason if you don't like the client, you probably don't like working on his or her case. As so often happens, the file goes to the bottom of the stack and the lawyer never quite gets to it. He probably avoids the client's telephone calls, too, because he doesn't want to admit that he's neglected the case.

About this time, disaster strikes. A deadline or court appearance is missed and the case is compromised. The client becomes suspicious and goes to the courthouse to look at the court file. It is apparent that the case is in trouble and, at this point, the client is unwilling to listen to any more stalling by the attorney's receptionist -- so a call is placed to the State Bar's 800-line and a complaint is filed.

The story may vary to some degree, but unfortunately, this is too frequently the scenario.

The ARTS program, designed to assist attorneys in efficiently handling their law practice, creating good client relations and avoiding ethical misconduct, began in 1990 with ethics school.

Ethics school is an eight-hour course which includes instruction regarding an attorney's professional responsibilities, questions and answers, a hypothetical, information about substance abuse and stress management and a final examination. Students also are encouraged to submit a feedback form regarding the course content which is submitted anonymously to encourage candid responses.

It has evolved into a highly interactive session concentrating on risk management strategies while interweaving disciplinary cases into the presentation.

In 1991 the State Bar Court began ordering attorneys to attend ethics school as a condition of probation in formal disciplinary matters and since then, more than 1,700 attorneys have taken the course. According to a 1995 recidivism study, only 6.6 percent of the 1,450 attorneys who successfully completed ethics school have even had a subsequent inquiry to the bar.

In the last five years, numerous ARTS programs have followed -- Handbook on Client Trust Accounting for California Attorneys, client trust accounting school and the ethics school highlights videotape, to name a few. These products and programs are available to the membership and are designed to provide attorneys with guidance regarding their ethical responsibilities and practical methods for carrying out those responsibilities.

Student input

To a significant degree, input by the students has resulted in the formulation of other uses for ethics school. What better way to create presentations for the general membership than to utilize the "war stories" of the attorneys who have learned by experience the pitfalls of the practice of law. In addition to teaching 450 attorneys in the discipline system last year, ethics and client trust accounting school highlights were presented to more than 1,200 attorneys not involved in the discipline system at the State Bar Annual Meeting and various bar associations throughout the state.

Because of the success of the ARTS program, the State Bar is exploring other innovative ways to assist attorneys in meeting their ethical responsibilities.

More handbooks and schools are contemplated and our outreach programs to the membership continue to expand.

I hope if you have the opportunity you will attend one of the ARTS programs in the near future and see for yourself what the State Bar has to offer.

Dominique Snyder is a senior trial counsel in the Office of the Chief Trial Counsel's intake unit in Los Angeles.