Being Well. Doing Well.

by Sarah McEllistrem | Jan 06, 2020
I tried to find a quote about the nobility of our profession to start off this article. In fact, I googled that very thing and do you know what quote came up? "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." Apparently, William Shakespeare felt strongly about us.

It got me thinking though - that quote is exactly on point. The public's perception is a significant force behind why we have rules of ethics, ethics committees, and even the Lawyers Board. Indeed, the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility (OLPR) states as its vision and mission to protect the public and strengthen the profession.

Few things in the legal field can scare each and every one of us like a phone call from the OLPR. Seeing that call, some break out with a sweat, there are those that answer and then talk sparingly, others simply do not pick up. But, as it turns out, they are really working to help us practice law, which is something that I have learned through my service on the Second District Ethics Committee.

Recently, the Ramsey County Bar Association Board met with the Director of Minnesota's OLPR, Susan Humiston, to get an update on all things ethics. Well, maybe not all, but a lot.

Interesting to note, the OLPR receives approximately 1,100 complaints a year. Roughly 40% of those complaints are dismissed outright based upon the Office's review. The remainder of the complaints are investigated by either the OLPR staff or the volunteers that serve on the District Ethics Committee. Susan Humiston estimated that around 30% of these complaints result in non-public discipline (non-serious, isolated conduct) and that approximately 40-45 lawyers are disciplined publicly each year. The most frequent areas of complaints and/or violations are seen in a failure to communicate and in a lack of diligence.

While none of us like to see those numbers, given how large a group we are (25,000 active lawyers), those numbers are relatively small.

The areas of law that see the most complaints are in family law and criminal law. However, as Susan Humiston noted: real estate, estate planning, and probate are the next biggest categories which have been increasing in complaints lodged. She also detailed that lawyers who receive the most discipline fall into the group that has been practicing law somewhere in the range of 11-20 years, with 80% men and 20% women.

However, none of this can be addressed without factoring in issues that arise in lawyer well-being. This includes mental health concerns and/or some aspect of substance abuse that has a direct correlation to discipline cases. Lawyer well-being issues constitute approximately one third of the public discipline cases tackled by the OLPR.

Knowing all of this, we need to take a step back to change how attorneys think about the OLPR. I am hopeful we can use their services to appreciate how the OLPR can help us in our practice. That usefulness comes, in part, in the form of the "advisory opinion hotline." Not a catchy name to be sure, but it works. They receive more than 2,000 calls per year providing advice on prospective conduct and insight to our questions.

Susan Humiston noted that a significant majority of the calls address conflicts, confidentiality, and how to withdraw ethically. The OLPR keeps a log of these calls, so should you ever be in need of proof that you made such a call, they are happy to provide a copy of the information noted which includes the advice given.

In addition, the OLPR has a helpful Well-Being Tool Kit for Lawyers and Employers, Board Opinions, Trust Account guides, and a link to a 2-hour free CLE called, "Everything You Need to Know About Trust Accounts." They also support and assist the District Ethics Committee at our monthly meetings and during investigations.

In the RCBA's effort to assist attorney well-being, we are jointly sponsoring, along with the MSBA, HCBA, and Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, a CLE called, "Answering the Call - The Path to Wellbeing in the Legal Profession" at the Science Museum in Saint Paul on Monday, January 13 from 1-4 p.m., with a reception to follow. This event will address wellness in our profession and is $20 for private practice attorneys and $10 for public attorneys. I encourage us all to attend.

As practitioners in a challenging and complicated line of work, we need to know all the resources that are available. Strengthening our profession, enhancing the reputation of lawyers, and building trust in our profession is something we can all get behind.