One product of the pandemic that lawyers and related professionals may have experienced, or may be experiencing, is a kind of stasis, a difficulty in moving beyond the tasks of the day toward a broader goal or better vision. How do I know? Well – personal experience.
Hence the drop-off in blogging, among other things. I’m most fortunate and grateful to have been able to take steps to keep my family and me safe from illness or harm, and to be able to do the bulk of my work remotely. But as the abnormal time ground on, I found myself gravitating away from best productivity practices, and toward a method of just mirroring the grind of the times. Plug away, do my best on the task at hand and then shut off.
The new year, and the hopeful-if-still-uncertain horizon of the pandemic, brings clarity: that’s no way to go about things if you can help it. Bringing a different energy to the practice (and the blog) matters.
The Illinois Legal Ethics Landscape
In my last post about the 2019 ARDC Annual Report, I noted that the agency had filed 44 formal disciplinary cases during that year – yet another annual decline – and that the trends pointed to a similar number for 2020. The final numbers for 2020 are not in yet, but as of now, it looks as though I was wrong: the actual number will likely be about 35. In 2004, when there were 16,561 fewer registered Illinois lawyers, the agency filed 147 formal cases. Meanwhile, the number of investigations initiated during the year also took a hit, possibly even coming in under 4,000.
Surely the pandemic had some hand in the ever-decreasing numbers. Legal consumers had many things on their minds during 2020 that were more important than reporting potential misconduct or cooperating with investigations. Meanwhile, ARDC lawyers worked remotely, and the agency’s policies and procedures adjusted accordingly – likely and naturally producing some slowdown. The process of conducting formal hearings via videoconference has worked, but there were understandable bumps in the road as all parties became used to the technology and its advantages and limitations. That itself would not have caused a drop in cases filed – but it would have taken time away from the procedures that lead to those filings.
But pandemic aside, the slower pace and lower enforcement numbers still appear to be simply the reality of this moment and the foreseeable future. It seems likely that people will continue to forego seeking disciplinary investigations, when other options – like online reviews – can provide more immediate satisfaction to the complainant without requiring any follow-up work or even baseline credibility.
Why do I keep writing about this? Isn’t it a good thing for Illinois lawyers to be in less danger of catching a disciplinary investigation or formal disciplinary charges? If so, why think about it any further?
In exploring this issue, I’m really looking for ways to use data about the legal ethics landscape – and the landscape itself – for good. I am glad to be able to advise lawyers with some greater certainty about the severity of any accusations against them, and their possible consequences. Any interested lawyer can look at ARDC’s output for themselves and see what conduct has drawn formal charges: misuse of client funds; lashing out with profanity or obstreperous litigation directed at judges or opponents; neglecting multiple client matters; criminal conduct. That’s useful to know. It’s also useful to observe how long disciplinary proceedings may be expected to take if a lawyer finds herself in circumstances that lead to any of the more aggressively prosecuted conduct.
But more than that, Illinois lawyers can feel, now more than ever, that the practice of law is in our hands. We have long been defined as a self-regulating profession, and we remain so; but with decreasing centralized regulation, we can see ourselves as entering an era of creativity, innovation, cooperation, and a more individualized concept of professional responsibility. There are many more options available now than there were even just 10 years ago – when the current Rules of Professional Conduct were adopted – for lawyers to acquaint themselves with the basics, and some of the nuances, of the Rules. There are lawyers with deep experience in ethics and professional responsibility available for consultations; there are also on-demand CLE programs, texts, and other resources. We can invest in those, find a footing in ethical knowledge outside the operations of the ARDC, and become a stronger profession for it.
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