The blawgosphere has been fired up recently over the case of Joseph Rakofsky. For those of you who haven’t followed the matter, Rakofsky is a 2009 graduate of Touro Law School, and was admitted to practice less than a year ago. Despite being new to the profession, his website touts his experience in “Murder, Embezzlement, Tax Evasion, Civil RICO, Securities Fraud, Bank Fraud, Insurance Fraud, Wire Fraud, Conspiracy, Money Laundering, Drug Trafficking, Grand Larceny, Identity Theft, Counterfeit Credit Card Enterprise and Aggravated Harassment.”
Rakofsky was hired by the family of Dontrell Deaner, who is facing a first-degree murder charge in Washington, D.C. Unfortunately for Deaner, Rakofsky significantly misrepresented his experience. In his opening statement, described as “rambling” and lasting over an hour, Rakofsky told the jury that he’d never tried a case before. Rakofsky, who is licensed in New Jersey and was admitted to the D.C. bar pro hac vice, had repeated disagreements with his local counsel. This visibly frustrated Deaner, who told Judge Jackson on Thursday, March 31 that he wanted a new lawyer.
The final straw for Judge Jackson was a filing he received on Friday, April 1 from an investigator hired by Rakofsky, who Rakofsky later fired and refused to pay when the investigator failed to carry out his request to “trick” a witness “to say that she did not see the shooting or provide information to the lawyers about the shooting.” Judge Jackson declared a mistrial and fired Rakofsky and his local counsel that day, and will appoint new counsel for Deaner.
Rakofsky’s response? Unexpectedly, he bragged about it on Facebook!
There are many lessons here for new attorneys, especially those in solo practice. I think the most important lesson to learn, though, is the importance of honesty – with yourself and with your clients – about your skills and experience. We’ve all been tempted, I’m sure, to pad the résumé a little, especially early on in your career – it’s easy to overstate your experience. But for Rakofsky, that led to an attorney who’d never even tried a case describing himself as a “criminal law specialist” and attempting to defend a first-degree murder charge. Carolyn Elefant wrote an excellent piece about Rakofsky and the slippery ethics slope, and made the point much better than I could. Read it here.
The Comments to Rule 1.1 of Professional Conduct (“Competence”) make clear that an attorney need not have special training or prior experience to be competent to handle a matter. However, the case of Joseph Rakofsky shows us that recognizing our own limits is important. When attorneys overreach and accept matters they are not competent to handle, no one benefits.
Other coverage of Rakofsky: