All the Rules of Professional Conduct are not intuitive

Standard

…but this one is: be honest!

Some of the rules we learned in our professional responsibility classes in law school were problematic because they didn’t seem intuitive. I found the advertising rules to be particularly prickly. The rules surrounding financial recordkeeping require extreme attention to detail in accounting, and we went to law school because we aren’t strong in math, right? Even the rules surrounding competency require careful study for each practice area.

But Rule 407’s requirement of honesty is identical to the directive our parents imposed and, for that reason, absolutely intuitive. As lawyers, we must be honest in our professional relationships.

One lawyer learned this lesson the hard way according to a November 23 attorney disciplinary opinion from the South Carolina Supreme Court. *

This lawyer worked as a law clerk for a firm after graduation and became an associate attorney when he was admitted to practice in November 2017. He was paid on an hourly basis. The firm used computer software to track working hours in real time, and throughout 2018, the lawyer used software to clock in and out during times when he was not in the office or otherwise working to inflate his hours and increase his pay.

Fortunately, the lawyer did not bill clients directly, so no client overpaid because of his misconduct. At tax time, though, the lawyer’s supervising attorney discovered the discrepancy and confronted the associate. The total overpayment was just short of $18,000. After confronting the lawyer, the firm allowed the associate to self-report. His report included a signed restitution agreement in which he agreed to repay the law firm in full. 

The lawyer also filed an affidavit in mitigation, in which he expressed remorse and explained that his preoccupation with financial security arose from his disadvantaged upbringing. He said he was desperate to prove his personal worthiness and to achieve financial security. Those goals eclipsed his better judgment. He also stated he has worked with counselors to understand why he committed this misconduct.

He entered into an agreement for a six-month suspension, which the Court accepted. He was also required to complete the Legal Ethics and Practice Program Ethics School and to pay the costs incurred by the ODC in investigating and prosecuting the matter.

Stay honest out there, lawyers, and take the time to mentor young lawyers with regard to their ethical responsibilities.

*In the Matter of Jacob, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion No. 28122 (November 23, 2022).

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