Typically, I give this column nothing more than a cursory glance. This month, however, the column referenced a local Erie lawyer who was disbarred for tax evasion. I read the entry, more with a sense of sadness than anything else. The lawyer had been widely regarded as an excellent practitioner who was honest with the Court, clients and other lawyers. His crime related to a chronic problem with taxes and he’d received the full punishment the law provides and was serving time in a federal correctional facility. Still, the criminal punishment wasn’t all that he suffered. On top of his criminal sentence, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court levied its harshest professional discipline: disbarment. No longer would this capable and otherwise well-regarded practitioner be permitted to use the skills he’d earned and learned to help clients or make a living.
I read the other entries in Discipline. Between February 19 and April 18 the Supreme Court disciplined ten lawyers. The circumstances that led to this discipline included criminal offenses like drug trafficking and professional no-nos, including one lawyer who failed to return an unearned retainer in a timely fashion, another who misappropriated client funds and another who was practicing under a suspended license.
I suppose that some people will read this and think, “Ten lawyers disciplined in two months? I’m surprised it’s that few. They’re all liars and cheats. The only reason there aren’t more being disciplined is that most of them are too smart to get caught.”
I have a different view. It’s a remarkable commentary on our profession that we publicly discipline our own. It’s remarkable, too, that we will discipline lawyers for conduct that is not directly related to the practice of law. We are a profession that, contrary to popular belief, depends on honesty in all matters and that harshly punishes those who fail to measure up to that standard, even when the failure is a personal one that does not directly implicate one’s service as a lawyer.
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