How long have you been practicing law and what was your early career like?
I received my law degree from DePaul University College of Law in Chicago, Illinois in 1987. My first job was as a Public Defender in Cook County, Illinois where I represented indigent clients in paternity and misdemeanor courts. I handled numerous civil and criminal (bench and jury) trials for two years. I left the Public Defender’s office to work for a public utility where I handled hundreds of hearings before administrative tribunals; as well as state and federal courts. I was a litigation partner in two boutique law firms and spent a decade in private practice where I handled products liability and commercial litigation for corporate clients.
How did you first become involved with ethics and the disciplinary process?
While I was in private practice, a client asked for my permission to nominate me as a candidate to serve on the Hearing Board of the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, better known as the ARDC. At the time, I was not familiar with what the ARDC did or what it would mean to serve on the Hearing Board, but it sounded like a great opportunity to serve the legal profession. Ultimately, I served in this volunteer position while in private practice for 7 years.
What was it like to serve as a Hearing Board Chair for the ARDC?
Being a Hearing Board Chair is like being a Hearing Officer. I telephonically managed attorney misconduct cases from the filing of the complaint through discovery until the matter is set for trial. I ruled on pre-trial motions and managed the discovery process. When the matter is set for trial, I am joined by a lawyer member and a non-lawyer member and as a panel we hear the case. I ruled on motions and evidentiary issues; and made sure the hearing ran efficiently and fairly. At the end, the panel meets to determine whether the Administrator met his burden and if so, what sanction to recommend. Our findings are issued in formal written opinions subject to review by the Review Board. Ultimately, every opinion is reviewed by the Illinois Supreme Court and it issues the final order.
Some years later you left private practice to join the ARDC as Litigation Counsel. What was that like?
It was a welcomed challenge to investigate and learn about different kinds of cases in almost every area of law. If for example, the attorney facing allegations of misconduct was representing a client in a patent case, I had to learn the substantive and procedural aspects of patent law in order to determine whether there was any basis for the allegations of misconduct. I also enjoyed the opportunity to try so many cases and to work with some very good trial attorneys during my almost 5 years with the agency.
What made you decide to leave the ARDC?
At a certain point, it seemed to me that many of the lawyers I investigated or prosecuted were solo or small firm practitioners. Many of them were good lawyers who made really bad choices. Many of them did not have malpractice insurance. I couldn’t help but think that if they had first consulted with an ethics attorney they might not be facing allegations of misconduct. Then I started to consider the possibilities of starting a firm that would focus almost exclusively on helping good lawyers stay out of disciplinary or malpractice trouble.
When did you start your firm and how would you describe your practice?
I started Legal Ethics Consulting, Inc., in 2011. That same year the ARDC reported that 90% of the lawyers disciplined were solo or small firm practitioners. I later learned that solo and small firm practitioners also have the most malpractice claims. I took all of this information as an affirmation that I should focus my practice primarily on serving solo and small firm practitioners. I would describe my practice as being an outside Ethics Partner or Loss Risk Partner for solo and small firm practitioners. They can reach out to me when they need help navigating the ethics rules; when they want confirmation that the action they are taking is ethically sound; or when they find themselves facing allegations of professional misconduct and they need an experienced ethics attorney to guide them through the disciplinary process.
Why do you think solo and small firm practitioners have such a high risk of becoming the subject of a disciplinary or malpractice claim?
To be clear, solo and small firm practitioners are just as hard working, competent, and passionate about helping their clients as practitioners in larger firms. They have a higher risk of becoming the subject of a disciplinary or malpractice claim because they often lack the support or the resources that are typically available to lawyers in larger firms; and they fail to implement systems or controls that would protect them from professional liability. Consider the fact that the solo or small firm practitioner is responsible for marketing the practice; obtaining clients; servicing the clients; billing the clients; collecting the fees; and managing the finances. On top of that, they have to keep up with their primary area of practice; understand technology; and try not to post anything wrong on social media. Practitioners who are overwhelmed or ill-prepared to manage the practice may make poor decisions that could result in professional liability.
What kinds of calls do you get from solo and small firm practitioners?
Some solos and firms have contacted me when they have a single ethical issue that they want an experienced ethics attorney to provide objective review and analysis. Often they are seeking assurance that they are on the right track and that they are not considering an action that could result in a disciplinary or malpractice claim. I have counseled attorneys on a variety of issues such as whether the firm website and marketing materials are ethically compliant; whether they have a conflict of interest; whether they have a duty to report another attorney; how to manage a motion to disqualify; how to ethically withdraw from a representation; and what they should do if they think they have committed an ethical violation or malpractice. Some firms have a retainer agreement with me so that they can contact me periodically as ethical concerns arise. I have provided advice and counsel for firms who wanted me to review their policies and procedures to help them assess their professional liability risk. A few lawyers who serve as ethics counsel for their firms have also reached out to me on occasion if they have a particularly complex ethics issue; or if they just want a sounding board to confirm they are on the right track.
Do you provide representation for attorneys who face disciplinary charges?
Absolutely. Having been a Hearing Board Chair and Litigation Counsel with the ARDC, I provide strategic defense of ARDC investigations, complaints, and appeals. I also handle reinstatement petitions.
Do you provide any services to law students or law graduates?
Yes. I help bar applicants navigate the Character and Fitness process so they can present the strongest case possible for gaining admission to the Bar. Even for those candidates who have passed the bar, a denial by the Character & Fitness Committee will mean a delay or in some cases, a denial of bar admission.
Do you ever give any ethics presentations?
Yes. I really enjoying creating and presenting ethics programming that help lawyers become more aware of their ethical risks. I have presented various ethics programs for numerous bar associations that include: the Black Woman Lawyers’ Association; the Chicago Bar Association; the Cook County Bar Association; the DuPage County Bar Association; the Hispanic Bar Association; the Kane County Bar Association; and the Lake County Bar Association. I really enjoy speaking and meeting with lawyers throughout the State. I have also presented programs about professionalism and character to law students.
Do you write about ethics?
Yes. I have an ethics column that appears monthly in The Chicago Daily Law Bulletin called WoodWiseEthics; and I have an email ethics newsletter called “Protecting Your Legal Reputation.”
Tell me about your involvement in the legal community?
I was appointed to the ABA Standing Committee on Lawyers Professional Liability; and the Illinois Bar Association Professional Conduct Committee. I served on each of these Committees for a three year term. I was also a Board Member and General Counsel for the Cook County Bar Association for a one year term. I am currently a member of the Board of Managers of the Chicago Bar Association; a member of the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility; and the Chair of the Law Practice Committee of the Cook County Bar Association. I am also a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation.
What can lawyers and law students expect if they decide to work with you?
First, let me just say that being a lawyer for lawyers and law students is amazing and humbling. I consider it an honor to serve the legal profession. It is paramount to me to provide the highest quality of client service that I can. No matter the problem or the issue that I am asked to assist with, it is not for me to judge. My role is to provide guidance and zealous representation to obtain the most favorable outcome possible. I am a good listener and I can emphasize with the feelings of fear and anger that most lawyers have when facing a disciplinary claim. I will give a candid assessment of the case and provide a recommended strategy. I will provide just the right amount of hand-holding for clients who need it.
What is the benefit to lawyers who work with you?
Peace of mind. Lawyers who seek ethics counsel before making a decision that could adversely impact their reputation and/or their livelihood benefit from having the opportunity to discuss their ethics issue with someone who is very familiar with the ethics rules and how they have been interpreted. As a result, taking preventative steps can reduce their risk of being the subject of a disciplinary or malpractice claim. For lawyers who become the subject of a disciplinary claim, they also have the peace of mind that an experienced ethics attorney is representing them. They can continue representing the clients they have with a little less worry about the claims they are facing because they have support and guidance throughout the process. Lawyers who represent themselves typically have little knowledge about the disciplinary process; and their emotional state for having to face a disciplinary claim can adversely affect their ability to represent themselves as well as their ability to zealously represent the clients they have.
Any final thoughts you would like to share?
Yes. Ethical issues need to be analyzed with a review of ethics rules; ethics opinions; case law; and statutes. Most issues will be fact specific and dependent upon relevant documentation. If you don’t take the time to investigate for example, whether you have a conflict of interest, you run the risk of making a poor choice that can result in a disciplinary investigation or a malpractice claim. If you don’t have the time or the desire to investigate your ethics issue, seek ethics counsel and get the guidance you need to make an informed decision. The cost of preventative ethics counsel will pale in comparison to the cost, personal as well as financial, that will result if you have to face a disciplinary or malpractice claim.