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Saturday, February 25, 2012

Lawyer’s Suspension Is Not A Vacation, Good Wife Writers Should Know

I was disappointed in the last episode of The Good Wife because one of the main characters, Will Gardner (who is also the heroine’s off and on love interest) faced a disbarment hearing. He was offered a 6 months’ suspension instead and he took it. I can’t blame him. He was very likely to lose his license.

But the way it was written, he was so blasé. The other lawyers in his firm were blasé. They acted like he was going to get a vacation. The writers on this terrific show usually do their research, so I was surprised at this gaffe.

A lawyer’s suspension is not a vacation. It’s deadly serious. I looked up the Illinois disciplinary rules, and they’re almost as harsh as Florida’s. Here’s what a suspension comes with:

Notification to all clients: He will have to notify all his clients of his suspension and the reason for it (and it was stealing trust account money, so he could expect a bunch of clients to flee the firm).

Notification to all courts: He will have to notify all judges before whom he has pending matters of the suspension. He has to move to withdraw in all pending cases. His credibility with those judges is now shot.

Notification to all opposing counsel: Can you imagine? This is the worst of all. Can you imagine the humiliation he will face? He’ll be taunted and put down for the rest of his professional career. Opposing counsel are frequently vicious. Worse than any playground bullies you ever encountered.

Removal of any indication he is a lawyer: The writers got this one right. His name had to come off the firm. That means changing the front door, letterhead, brochures, website, advertising and business cards. For a big firm, it’s wildly expensive.

Court approval for payment: If he is to be paid for any work he did before the suspension, he needs court approval.

Supreme Court approval for law firm purchase or transfer: He just handed the firm to his partners with a wink and a “see ‘ya in 6 months.” Ha! The Illinois Supreme Court had to approve any transfer of his ownership interest in the firm first. If he’s still an owner but off the letterhead, will there be problems? After all, non-lawyers can’t own a law firm, and he certainly can’t do anything resembling the practice of law.

At least he’s lucky he’s not in Florida. Here, even though the suspension is for a set period, he’d have to petition for reinstatement. In Illinois he’s automatically reinstated at the end of the suspension period.

So, will we see the writers use this suspension to the fullest? Will we see the firm’s associates having to deal with taunts from opposing counsel about their dishonest former boss? Will we see judges ask why they should trust him ever again once he comes back? Will we see clients fleeing in droves? Will there be articles in the papers about the fallen powerful attorney?

Or will they continue to act like a suspension is a vacation? I hope they’ll get it right. I’ll be watching to see if they do.

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