In 2019, an American Bar Association revealed more than 2,000 lawyers were publicly disciplined in 43 states and the District of Columbia that year alone. Of those disciplined, nearly half experienced a suspension. While suspensions are not uncommon in law, could a suspended attorney threaten the business and reputation of the firm they represent?
Just this summer, Washington D.C., attorney William Francis Trezevant was indefinitely suspended by the Maryland Supreme Court after he practiced in the state without a license, as reported by The Daily Record. When Trezevant took on his great-niece’s child custody case in Baltimore County, he failed to disclose two key issues: first, that he was not licensed in Maryland, and second, that he was related to the client. Trezevant continued to misrepresent himself throughout the case and his investigation.
When a lawyer begins to make questionable choices, those actions have implications for the clients they represent. In Trezevant’s case, by failing to follow the proper protocols to practice in Maryland, by neglecting to report his relation to the client and by refusing to comply with the investigation, Trezevant could not properly represent his client. An attorney operating in such a fashion is not only placing undue risk on his or her client, but they are also placing reputational and insurance risk on their law firm.
The actions of one affect many
An attorney can be disciplined for a multitude of reasons ranging from administrative errors to gross misconduct. In any case, disciplinary action that withstands investigation can suggest potential negligence that can lead to additional problems down the line. Insurance professionals recognize this as increased risk exposure, both for the attorney and their firm.
Further, an attorney facing discipline will likely file a malpractice claim with their insurer to assist with defense costs associated with the proceeding, causing insurance premiums for the firm to rise. If the attorney is suspended, they will likely be excluded from malpractice insurance. In some situations, insurers may opt to cancel the attorney’s coverage – or the firm’s if the error is egregious or chronic within the firm. If the attorney is later reinstated, the firm’s malpractice insurance costs will likely rise.
In addition to the insurance-related costs, law firms could endure reputational damage should they choose to maintain a suspended lawyer’s employment, either before or after reinstatement. Clients seek attorneys for help, guidance and peace of mind. If clients associate a firm with the negative actions of one attorney, they may choose to take their business elsewhere – not to mention that cases like Trezevant’s can stir up negative media attention for the firm.
Responding to a suspension
Unfortunately, attorney suspensions are a reality in the business of law. While not an ideal scenario, firm leaders should understand what is expected from them and their attorneys if a lawyer in the firm is suspended. Consider the following crucial steps to take in the event of an attorney suspension.
- Review, understand and comply with the rules around the suspension: When a lawyer is suspended, they will be notified through a lawyer suspension order. This order will outline the attorney’s infraction and the duration and terms of their suspension. First, and foremost, a suspension of course means the attorney may not practice law for a defined period and must notify their clients and reallocate their cases. Additional stipulations around a suspension will vary by state and could include proof of rehabilitation, a court ordered reinstatement or retaking the bar exam. Failing to follow rules under a suspension order could result in an attorney’s license being permanently revoked.
- Speak to an insurance professional: Law firm leaders would be wise to consult an insurance professional who specializes in insurance for lawyers to ensure proper steps are being taken to mitigate any risk to the firm related to the suspension. During a suspension, transparency with your insurance partner can help ensure the firm’s insurance coverage remains intact.
- Decide the course of action: An insurance professional can also help determine what level of risk a recently suspended attorney could pose to the firm. Understanding the risk can help law firm leaders determine if maintaining a disciplined attorney’s employment makes sense and in what capacity the attorney should be involved with the firm. For example, an attorney who should not be practicing law could serve as a paralegal.
When an attorney behaves in a manner that warrants a suspension, law firm leaders will want to keep a close eye on the situation. By understanding the situation and the risk to which it has exposed the firm, law firm leaders can minimize the impact of one’s action on their operations. Consider speaking with an insurance professional who specializes in insurance for lawyers about risk mitigation considerations in the event of a suspension.