The Goal of the Public Reprimand: Rehabilitation
It’s not my favorite role as president of The Florida Bar when a disciplined lawyer makes a public appearance before the 52-member Board of Governors to receive a public reprimand. As the attorney stands before the board, I sum up details of that lawyer’s offense and read the reprimand, as ordered by the Florida Supreme Court, such as this:
“Attorneys have a unique place in our system of government, and when you showed disrespect for the court, you damaged not only our reputation, but you harmed the legal profession as a whole. Actions such as yours reduce respect for the legal profession and diminish the effectiveness of our system of justice.”
The public reprimand underscores how seriously our Bar and Board of Governors view unethical behavior. The objective is changing bad behavior. Since the practice was reinstituted, eight to nine reprimands per board meeting have been conducted.
Believing they carry more weight and lasting impact when conducted publicly before the board, the Special Commission on Lawyer Regulation, as well as input from nonlawyers on the Citizens Forum, unanimously recommended personal appearances before the board for public reprimands for disciplined lawyers instead of other options, such as having the reprimand administered by a local judge or the referee in the case or by publication of the reprimand.
In early 2007, the board approved that recommendation, which had also been reviewed by the Bar’s Disciplinary Procedure Committee. The committee actually recommended the Bar study setting standards for determining when reprimands should be administered by the board. However, the board voted to reject that suggestion and instead adopted the commission’s original recommendation: that all reprimands are administered in front of the board, unless waived by a two-thirds vote.
Public reprimands have been ordered for the following offenses: failure to “act with reasonable diligence and promptness in the representation” of clients; failure to “promptly comply with reasonable requests for information” from clients; failure to “respond, in writing, to an official inquiry by Bar Counsel when the Bar was conducting an investigation” into the attorney’s conduct; failure to follow “minimum trust accounting procedures; and failure to closely supervise a paralegal’s work.”
Another public reprimand was ordered after the court found a member “had willfully failed to timely pay child support.” Several reprimands have involved violations of the rules regulating lawyer advertisements. One Bar member entered into a “law firm partnership agreement with a California attorney who was and is not licensed to practice law in Florida” and did not disclose the California admission status on the letterhead. Additionally, the letterhead carried an Orlando office address where no one in the firm “was regularly present.”
Lawyer disciplinary actions are public record and become part of a lawyer’s permanent record. reading the disciplinary page of The Florida Bar News, members are made aware of the more severe cases that result in suspensions or disbarments by the Florida Supreme Court. There is no doubt this page is checked by members who want to know whether something they may have done or thought about doing rises to the level of a prosecutable action.
At a fall professionalism retreat, Justice Raoul Cantero, who chairs the Commission on Professionalism, said his colleagues on the high court are “finding unethical behavior that maybe 10 years ago wouldn’t have been prosecuted or maybe wouldn’t have been considered unethical.” Offensive conduct that at one time was only privately grumbled about among lawyers is now resulting in suspensions, he said.
The goal of the public reprimand is not to embarrass an individual who has fallen short of what is expected of members of our profession — but to rehabilitate. The hope is that not only will the action change the disciplined lawyer’s future behavior, but prevent other lawyers from making the same mistakes.
Each reprimand is ended with this cautionary advice:
“This public reprimand is now part of your permanent Florida Bar disciplinary records. You are further advised that while the public reprimand does not affect your privilege of practicing law, future misconduct will. The lawyers of Florida expect your future conduct be in compliance with your oath, and you should demand the same of yourself.”