Saturday, January 5, 2013

Double Standards in Legal Ethics

When reading my $500 per year Wisconsin Lawyer Magazine—which appears to be free to everyone who does not pay bar dues—I saw an article about an out-of-state lawyer discipline case.  The lawyer was publicly censured, fined, and got stuck with “the cost of the proceeding” for some advertising claims that were confusing, probably misleading, and, in some cases, false.  Here’s an example: “the lawyer stated that attorneys in the firm focused their practice in one area of law, but the firm’s web page listed 27 distinct practice areas.”  Obviously, the word “focused” could have different meanings to different people.  For example, some attorneys in the firm may spend half of their time in a single area, thus qualifying as a “focus,” while still practicing in multiple other areas of law for the other half of their work.  Alternatively, maybe some of the firm’s lawyers do “focus” exclusively on one area, while other members don’t focus and instead practice multiple areas of law.  So why was the lawyer disciplined? 

The lawyer was disciplined for the usual reasons.  While the language will vary from state to state, essentially this behavior is punishable because the advertisement is misleading or creates unjustified expectations on the part of the prospective client.  So where is the double standard in legal ethics?

The double standard is happening at our ivory towers of legal academia.  The lawyers that work at law schools—the place where legal ethics are supposed to be taught—are getting their schools sued all over the country for making false and misleading statements on their own web pages.  These web pages are intended to induce prospective students to spend up to $150,000 (in tuition alone), and include false or misleading statements about the schools' job placement data, and outright falsified statements about student test scores and GPAs.  (These two things directly impact a school's US News rank, which increases its prestige and number of applications.)    

The problem, however, is that lawyer disciplinary bodies will never sanction these lawyers for making false or misleading statements.  And these lawyers know it.  That’s why, despite the numerous lawsuits (some of which have survived the summary judgment stage of litigation), these lawyers are not deterred: they continue to make false and misleading statements to increase enrollment at their schools, even though our country currently produces more than two lawyers for each available legal job

After writing this, however, I stumbled upon this article.  At least one person is calling for consistent application of the ethics rules—even for the so-called “elite” of our profession.

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