Reporting Misconduct

A lawyer has a general duty to maintain the integrity of the legal profession. In most states, a lawyer MUST inform the appropriate professional authorities if he has knowledge that another lawyer has acted in a manner that raises a “substantial question” as to the lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness, or fitness as a lawyer. A lawyer will be subject to discipline for not reporting when he is required to do so. However, a mere rumor of wrongdoing by an attorney does not give rise to a duty for another lawyer to report the rumor.

EXAMPLE: Attorney Attila heard a rumor that Lawyer Laverne, another attorney against whom Attila has argued, paid off a judge in return for some kind of privilege. Must Attila file a report with the state ethics board? 

On these facts, it is not possible to infer a duty on Attila to report Laverne. Attila is not associated with Laverne in a firm. It does not appear that Attila is in possession of concrete facts related to the purported misconduct. For all we know, Attila might have heard someone say that she heard this information from someone who heard this information. It seems that Attila obtained some sketchy gossip through the grapevine. If Attila is not in possession of evidence of the wrongdoing, she should not be held responsible for a failure to report Laverne’s purported misconduct.

(We will see later, when we discuss the roles of supervisors and subordinates, that if Laverne were a colleague or subordinate in Attila’s firm, Attila would be obligated to investigate whether there was an ethical violation. If the rumors prove true, Attila would be required to take remedial steps, which in this case might include a filing with the ethics board.) 

The duty to report ethical missteps is trumped only by the duty of confidentiality, which we will also explore in detail later in this course. Think about the following example: 

Say a lawyer, Lawrence, steals money from a client. Lawrence tells his own attorney what happened in the hope that the attorney will adequately represent him in an upcoming ethics hearing related to the stolen funds. 

The attorney’s duty of confidentiality to Lawrence trumps the attorney’s obligation to report Lawrence’s misconduct. The attorney may not divulge the information Lawrence provided because it is information communicated for the purpose of obtaining representation. 

Attorneys who are charged with an indictable offense are usually required to report the indictment to a state ethics board. Convictions for “serious” crimes may result in an automatic and immediate suspension of a law license. For sure, a lawyer who makes personal use of a client trust fund will be subject to disbarment. The rationale behind the suspension even for non-law related crimes is that committing a crime demonstrates to the public that an attorney is unfit to be an officer of a court that is designed to uphold the laws of a state.