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Racine lawyer reprimanded for misleading firms, clients about inactive license

A Racine lawyer has been publicly reprimanded for misleading her employers and clients about her inactive law license.

On Tuesday, the Wisconsin Supreme Court announced that a public reprimand was the appropriate punishment for the misconduct of Heather Downs Russell, who currently works at Modine Manufacturing Company in Racine.

The Office of Lawyer Regulation filed a four-count complaint against Downs Russell regarding the status of her law license while working for her previous employers, the law firms of Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek and Husch Blackwell. The OLR said she misled Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek about reactivating her law license upon her hiring in 2015. She needed to complete 60 hours of continuing legal education to return to active status.

The firm merged with Husch Blackwell’s Milwaukee office about a year later, and Downs Russell signed an employment agreement making her senior counsel. The OLR said she continued to practice at Husch Blackwell without an active license, misleading the firm and her clients.

According to the referee in her case, Downs Russell said she was busy with family obligations and raising three children, and earning the CLE credit she needed to return to active status took longer than she expected. The referee said she was an intelligent lawyer with no previous disciplinary history, but her conduct posed a “serious risk” to her employers.

“It is difficult for me to understand how she thought, after practicing law for two years while inactive, that she could return to active status without anyone realizing she had practiced for two years while inactive,” the referee said.

Downs Russell argued in favor of a private reprimand, but the referee and the OLR thought a public reprimand was warranted. The state Supreme Court agreed the tougher punishment was merited.

“We agree with the referee that although Attorney Downs Russell apparently did not view the practice of law while inactive to be a serious problem, in fact that conduct did pose a significant risk to the law firms where she practiced and was a violation of her fiduciary duties to those firms,” the opinion said.

The court also ordered Downs Russell to pay the full costs of the proceeding, which totaled $5,235.37 by October.

The State Bar of Wisconsin records list her as an active member with her license in good standing. She did not immediately return a request for comment.

About Michaela Paukner, mpaukner@wislawjournal.com

Michaela Paukner is the legal reporter for the Wisconsin Law Journal. She can be reached at (414) 225-1825 or by email at mpaukner@wislawjournal.com.

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