Here’s a year-end reminder to in-house counsel: make sure that you are properly registered and licensed, or you may run into disciplinary problems. An Ohio lawyer who worked in a company’s law department learned that the hard way earlier this month, when she received a two-year suspension from the Ohio Supreme Court, with six months stayed.
If I don’t open that scary envelope…
The lawyer was suspended in 2013 because she failed to renew her registration with the state supreme court. A year later, while still lacking any license, she got a second suspension based on her failure to complete CLE requirements. She later stipulated that although she didn’t open letters she received from the supreme court, she was aware of her suspension.
A year after that, still without an Ohio or any other license, she started working for a company’s law department as staff counsel and (ironically) director of institutional compliance.
Shortly after being hired by the company, the lawyer completed a securities industry application form, and falsely stated that her authorization to act as an attorney had never been revoked or suspended.
In 2015, after the lawyer had been working for the company for about a year, the GC noticed that she hadn’t received a request from the lawyer to reimburse her Ohio attorney-registration fee for the upcoming biennium. When the GC checked the supreme court’s website, she learned that the lawyer had been suspended since 2013.
The lawyer later admitted that she had known about her suspension, and that before filling out the securities application form falsely, the lawyer had delayed completing it, because she knew that it asked about prior suspensions.
The company fired the lawyer immediately.
Making a bad problem worse
The disciplinary case proceeded by stipulation, and the supreme court found numerous ethics rule violations, including of the state’s versions of Model Rule 5.5(a) (unauthorized practice); Rule 5.5(b) (misrepresenting oneself as authorized to practice law); Rule 8.1 (false statements in connection with a disciplinary matter); and Rule 8.4(c) (conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation).
As in many disciplinary cases, the initial problem (failing to register) was made a lot worse by what my family calls “avoidant behavior” — like the lawyer’s failure to open the letters from the supreme court informing her of the suspension and what to do to cure it. And of course, things were made even worse by the subsequent misrepresentation on the securities registration form. An emotional shut-down in the face of a mistake can be a normal human reaction, but fighting against it is the best course. (That’s easy to say, I know.)
As a side note, the lawyer here was working for a corporate employer in Ohio and was (or should have been) licensed in Ohio. Most jurisdictions permit a lawyer to work in-house with a license from a different jurisdiction — as long as you are validly licensed by the highest court of some jurisdiction.
But it’s dangerous to let that license lapse through inattention. And many jurisdictions also have special in-house counsel registration requirements in their court rules or other regulations. (The ABA Center for Professional Responsibility has a list with links, here.)
Pay attention to all those requirements, and reach out for help if you have dropped the ball in meeting them.