In Minnesota, a licensed attorney can face charges of violating ethics rules. These are not criminal charges. For example, the consequence do not include a prison sentence. Rather, the consequences may affect the lawyer’s license to practice law. This article discusses the consequences of ethics violations, the legal basis for ethics violations, disciplinary proceedings, and some practical considerations.
Discipline for Ethics Violations
When an ethics proceeding is concluded, if the lawyer violated ethics rules, the court may impose one of the following consequences:
- Reprimand the lawyer (a written statement that the lawyer violated a rule);
- Suspend the lawyer’s license temporarily or permanently;
- Order the lawyer to pay court costs;
- Order the lawyer to be on administrative probation and report to the Director as required;
- Order the lawyer to retake and complete the professional responsibility portion of the bar exam;
- Revoke, modify or extend a conditional admission agreement;
- Disbar the lawyer; and
- Make other dispositions as the court deems appropriate.
Minnesota Ethics Rules
Minnesota ethics rules are governed by the Rules of Professional Responsibility and the Minnesota Rules on Lawyers Professional Responsibility.
Minnesota Rules of Professional Responsibility
Attorneys in Minnesota are required by law to comply with ethics rules. These ethics rules are contained in the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct (MRPC). The comments to the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct have not been adopted by the Minnesota Supreme Court, so they are not law, but they provide practical value for attorneys seeking to understand their ethical obligations.
Minnesota Rules on Lawyers Professional Responsibility
Attorneys who violate ethics rules may be investigated for misconduct, charged with ethics violations, and disciplined. This process is provided in the Minnesota Rules on Lawyers Professional Responsibility (RLPR). The RLPR explains the roles of those involved, steps for ethics violations, and considerations for those serving in Minnesota’s lawyers’ professional responsibility system.
In re Petition for Disciplinary Action
When charges for lawyer discipline are filed, the title of the case begins with In re Petition for Disciplinary Action. For example, the case name might be as follows:
In re Petition for Disciplinary Action against [lawyer’s name], a Minnesota Attorney, Registration No. [lawyer’s license number].
“In re” means “regarding” or “the case of.”
“Petition” means “request.”
“Disciplinary Action” means some action that involves a consequence for the lawyer. In other words, “Petition for Disciplinary Action” means the government has brought a petition asking the court to impose some consequence on a lawyer for violating ethics rules.
The Ethics Process
Similar to the criminal justice system, a person charged with ethics violations is deemed innocent until proven otherwise. But it may not feel that way.
The government has substantial resources to invest in a case. Lawyers who have done nothing wrong must prove their innocence. Ignoring charges will usually result in discipline. In fact, failing to participate in the proceeding can be a basis for an independent charge against the lawyer for failing to cooperate.
Unfortunately, improper charges of ethics violations are not uncommon. On one hand, ethics charges should have a factual basis before the government brings them. On the other hand, the government may not have all the facts. The government may have brought charges with only biased or distorted facts from other parties. The lawyer charged may need to bring a robust defense, which often involves hiring legal representation and perhaps expert witnesses.
The administrative process for ethics proceedings is very different from court proceedings. The ethics violation system is provided in detail in the Minnesota Rules on Lawyers Professional Responsibility. Ethics charges can feel like a full legal battle when the lawyer is outnumbered and out-spent by the government.
The Role of Ethics Counsel
In general, lawyers charged with ethics violations should not be without legal representation for two reasons.
First, a lawyer will benefit from objective legal counsel. Lawyers are capable of handling the law. But handling your own legal matters is different. Like a surgeon who doesn’t do surgery on herself, a lawyer should not represent herself. A lawyer representing herself is too close to the situation and too biased to be objective in managing the case and presenting arguments. As the old saying goes, “a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client.”
Second, lawyers who are facing an investigation or charges of ethics violations are best served by an attorney familiar with the ethics process, rules, recent case outcomes, and options for navigating a more advantageous resolution. In disciplinary proceedings, experience matters.