There has been a great hullabaloo lately about Wisconsin’s system of attorney discipline.
People are outraged that a convicted felon was recently reinstated by the Supreme Court. Others are outraged that a complaint against a district attorney didn’t lead to any discipline. The general consensus is that the system is too lenient.
As a general rule, I agree. But it is important to recognize that, while the system is lenient in some respects, in others it is anything but. Consider the Office of Lawyer Regulation’s shameless witch hunt against attorney Stephen P. Hurley for zealously representing a client and discovering exculpatory evidence in his client’s favor. The Supreme Court ultimately held, quite correctly, that Hurley had violated no rules. And I would safely guess that a majority of complaints are just plain frivolous.
But, barring a witch hunt or a frivolous complaint, it really should not be that hard to avoid running afoul of the rules. I’ve managed to do it for years.
Let me relate the biggest trouble I ever walked into.
When I was a young attorney, the vast majority of my clients were born in Puerto Rico, and lived in a relatively small neighborhood on the south side of Milwaukee. When your client base all comes from one small area like that, potential conflicts abound.
There was a family of four brothers; two were regular clients of mine. The other two were not. On the contrary, I once defended a man they had accused of gunning them down in the middle of the street. But that was no ethical conflict, just an awkward situation.
One day, however, a powerful gang leader in the community contacted me to represent a friend of his, and said he would pay me. A good opportunity, I thought.
But as it turned out, the district attorney’s only interest in the friend was getting him to cooperate in their investigation of the gang leader. Needless to say, it violates the rules for an attorney to be paid by A to represent B, when the government only wants B to testify against A.
So, I refused the representation and the gang leader found himself a less ethical attorney, one who has now been disbarred for quite some time.
I sometimes wonder how that case played out. I assume the attorney was well paid by the gang leader and the “friend” received lousy legal representation, kept his mouth shut, and went to prison.
I paid a pretty steep price for my decision. My client base, which, as I said, had been majority Puerto Rican, disappeared. They all lived in the same neighborhood as the powerful gang leader, and I assume that I was blackballed for crossing him. The only client from that neighborhood that I kept after that incident was the one the jury found not guilty of shooting the two brothers.
But I found other clients, and I’ve still got my law license, while the other attorney does not.
Honestly, though, I’m David Ziemer. If a reprobate like me, with no more morals than an alley cat, can manage to practice law for years without violating the rules of professional responsibility, any attorney should be able to do the same.