Lawyers must act ethically 24/7. That is, we are held to a consistent standard of integrity that exceeds mere adherence to professional norms in our legal lives. We are also expected to behave ethically in our private business affairs. When that does not happen, judicial authorities have repeatedly, and sometimes severely, disciplined lawyers for peccadilloes that have nothing to do with the practice of law.
In a previous article,1 Rick Supple and I described in some detail the statutory and regulatory framework that empowers the Appellate Divisions, and the disciplinary agencies that serve them, to sanction private conduct. Principally, New York Judiciary Law §90(4) provides that any New York lawyer convicted of a New York State felony or an analog crime in another jurisdiction is automatically disbarred,2 and any lawyer who commits a "serious crime," as defined in the statute, is subject to professional discipline whether or not the conviction has anything to do with the attorney's law practice.3 "Serious crime" convictions generally result in public discipline, including even disbarment, following a hearing solely concerning sanction.
Since our last article, the volume and variety of criminal conviction cases involving conduct outside the practice of law are too numerous to adequately delineate in this column. It should suffice to note, sadly, that lawyers in New York continue to be arrested and convicted for, inter alia, illegal drug use, failure to file income tax returns, DWI, forgery, and acts of violence.4
Less well publicized, perhaps, are those discipline cases of a private nature that do not result in a criminal conviction. In such cases, the New York Rules of Professional Conduct (RPCs), and the predecessor Code of Professional Responsibility, provide broad bases for the imposition of professional discipline without reference to the representation of a client, namely, RPC 8.4, which states, in pertinent part:
A lawyer or law firm shall not:
(b) engage in illegal conduct that adversely reflects on the lawyer's honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer;
(c) engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation;
(h) engage in any other conduct that adversely reflects on the lawyer's fitness as a lawyer.
In short, attorneys cannot engage in illegal conduct or be dishonest in their business or personal dealings even if there are no criminal consequences.5 For example, New York lawyers have recently been disciplined, in some cases severely, for the following kinds of misconduct having nothing to do with their law practices: falsely accusing a state trooper of having uttered anti-Semitic slurs against him, and reaffirming those accusations on more than one occasion, in an attempt to get out of speeding ticket;6 willfully refusing, in violation of court orders, to timely pay child support;7 pursuing frivolous and vexatious litigation as a "party-litigant, not as an attorney;"8 telling the coexecutor under a will executed by the lawyer's uncle that the lawyer needed a power of attorney from the uncle to reinstate dormant bank accounts, but instead used the POA to restructure, and to attempt to restructure, his uncle's accounts for the lawyer's personal benefit;9 and, fraudulently occupying a rent-regulated apartment for two years after the death of the tenant of record.10
Two related questions arise in connection with the above cases. The first is fundamental: Why should lawyers be subject to any professional discipline, in addition to criminal, civil, or marketplace penalties, for acts that do not relate to the practice of law? And second, if professional discipline is warranted in such circumstances, then where should the line be drawn regarding private conduct properly subject to scrutiny by disciplinary authorities, as opposed to personal behavior that falls below recognized moral or ethical standards but nonetheless lies within a zone of privacy?
The answer to the first question is simply the fact that lawyers, as "officers of the court," have a duty to uphold the law at all times. Attorneys who engage in illegal or dishonest conduct reflect adversely on the integrity of the legal profession, and the reputation of the bar in the eyes of the public is something the bar and the judiciary legitimately strive to protect. Maintaining that good reputation is an obligation which comes with the privilege to practice law.
As to the second question, the answer is far less clear. There must be a zone of privacy, but at the same time, as stated, attorneys are bound by the broad scope of the RPCs. This columnist does not know precisely where that line should be drawnwhen our purely personal conduct becomes a proper subject for disciplinary scrutinybut perhaps the conclusion we reached over 10 years ago remains valid: