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Bar Buzz: Lawyers behaving badly

A total of 41 attorneys in Minnesota received some form of public discipline last year, making 2017 a “high average year” for lawyer misconduct, according to the annual report from the Office of Lawyer Professional Responsibility and the Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board.

That tally is far below the record high 65 attorneys who were disciplined publicly in 2015 but still above the average annual figure of 36.

Over the course of 2017, 26 lawyers had their licenses suspended, while six were placed on public probation, four received public reprimands, and five were disbarred.

In the first six months of 2018, nine attorneys have had their licenses suspended and five have been disbarred. If the trend continues, disbarments will hit double digits for just the fourth time since 1985. The record year for disbarments was 1998, when 15 lawyers were stripped of their licenses.

Meanwhile, private disciplines were down modestly in 2017, with 90 lawyers receiving admonitions and 14 lawyers placed on private probation. In 2016, those figures were 115 and 17, respectively. Thirteen suspended lawyers had their licenses reinstated.

The report also provides a demographic insights into lawyers who were sanctioned. Practitioners with between 11 and 20 years of experience were most likely to be disciplined, followed by those with 10 or fewer years of experience. As usual, male lawyers account for a disproportionate percentage of those disciplined. While men make up about 60 percent of active practitioners, they represented 77 percent of the disciplined cohort.

The most common violations of professional rules were related to trust account books and records, neglect and non-communication and conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice. But there was some good news on the trust account front, too. According to the report, the OLPR received 43 trust account overdraft notices in 2017, which was down from 52 in 2016 and 75 in 2015.

The OLPR is still struggling to reduce a backlog of cases. As of June 2018, 149 1-year-old files remained open, which is above the LPRB’s target goal of no more than 100 1-year-old files. It is also a step backward from the June 2017 tally, which was 115.

The report attributed those numbers in part to unusually high staff turnover at the OLPR. Over a four-month period, the office, which employs 12 attorneys and 10 support staff, saw two senior lawyers retire (Deputy Director Pat Burns and Craig Klausing) and the resignation of two others (Megan Englehardt and Kevin Slator). Those posts have since been filled, the report said.

In a note, new LPRB chair Robin Wolpert credited OLPR Director Susan Humiston with helping to lead the transformation of the office through “significant outreach to the legal community.”

“All attorneys in the office conduct outreach and training, creating a more accessible disciplinary system and elevating attorneys’ understanding the standards of professional conduct,” Wolpert wrote. “In the long term, we expect this proactive compliance work to benefit the public by reducing instances of ethical misconduct and discipline.”

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