by Chris Loy
University of Florida Levin College of Law’s Professional Week continued this Wednesday with a Legal Ethics and Professional Panel put on by the John Marshall Bar Association (JMBA) and the Honor Committee. The panel was comprised of three professionals—each representing a different sector of the legal profession. The discussion centered around two main points many students will inevitably face during their summer—professionalism in billing and communication.
“Professionalism starts right now; right here, right now in law school,” advised Professor Teresa Reid, an expert on professional legal ethics and UF professor who teaches Professional Responsibility.
Professor Reid provided insightful advice to a room full of students that ranged from 1Ls seeking summer internships to 3Ls who have already accepted associate positions from law firms around the state. Professor Reid’s perspective is invaluable being that she has worked in the private sector and has since moved into academia where she can provide students with real world ethical situations and advice.
“The [Honor Committee’s] goal is to help students understand the rules . . . and provide a link from school to practice,” said Joshua Reiger, a 2L member of University of Florida Levin College of Law’s Honor Committee.
“I personally thought the billing discussion was interesting,” Reiger stated. However, even as students we are not immune to ethical dilemmas that undoubtedly influence our professional portrait. “For instance,” Reiger continued, “whether or not to sign a friend’s name on the attendance sheet is something we all face.”
Peg O’Connor, a Gainesville attorney who practices in professional licensing and discipline, shed some light on the issue of billing not only as an associate, but also as a law clerk in a private firm. Specifically, O’Connor highlighted both concepts of “double dipping” and “bill padding” as two examples that can get law clerks and associates into trouble. She stated that even though one could theoretically get away with fudging billing numbers, the ultimate responsibility comes down to the individual to know that morally questionable conduct is not the standard to which attorneys should hold themselves.
Professor Reid backed up O’Connor’s advice with summer associate hypothetical. She stated that many times students come to her embarrassed and admit to working for ten hours on an assignment that should have taken less than five. O’Connor responded that, as a younger associate, it is difficult to admit a less-than-perfect performance; however, she warned against reporting fewer hours than the assignment actually took. She suggested looking at the assignment as an opportunity to learn and grow. Under-reporting hours will only rob an associate of an opportunity to become more proficient through a post-mortem discussion with a supervising attorney. She advocated seizing every opportunity as a young lawyer to become better—the attorney becomes more proficient and builds value for the firm.
Moderator and JMBA member Amber Lengacher leveraged her prior experience as a paralegal to provide context to the discussion and instill the importance of professionalism throughout the entire industry. When questioned afterwards, Lengacher shared her experience. “All my attorneys made a point to confirm that I knew and understood the rules. If for some reason I didn’t understand or made a mistake, my attorney could have been held liable for that mistake. That’s why it is so important to understand legal ethics and professionalism and make sure that everyone working on your team is on the same page.”
Cannan Goldman, an Alachua County public defender, provided insight on how to handle ethical questions that arise in practice. He recounted a situation as a young attorney when he was confronted with a document production issue, witnessed a blatant ethical violation, and was stuck in indecision, unsure of what to do. He followed the story up with advice that each of the panelists stressed: get a mentor. Whether it be a previous professor, a partner, or long-time friend at another firm, “older attorneys want to tell you things,” Goldman stated. As a closing remark, he reminded students that having a license to practice law is worth much more than having the current job—you can always get another job.
The aspect of professionalism in communication through email was another highlight of the talk. O’Connor stated that other attorneys are more likely to be nasty and unprofessional through email than through other means of communication. Her solution—don’t respond to the nasty-gram, and pick up the phone—an uncomfortable situation for many younger attorneys. Reasoning with the other party through back and forth real-time discussion will not only be more likely to lead to an amicable resolution, it will help build a young associate’s credibility and professional reputation.
JMBA’s Professional Week winds up today with a Clerkship Panel featuring Kathryn Kimball, a 2012 Levin College of Law graduate and a recently selected 2018 United States Supreme Court clerk, at noon in 285C. This is a joint event put on by the John Marshall Bar Association, UF’s Young Lawyer Division (YLD), and the Federal Bar Association North Florida Chapter.