A new California Bar ethics rule requires attorneys to report each other to the State Bar of California when there’s evidence of misconduct.
The Rule of Professional Conduct 8.3, approved by the state supreme court, becomes effective Aug. 1.
“It’s long overdue because we are the last state to enact such a formalized ethical obligation,” said June Monroe, an employment and agricultural attorney at Fennemore Law in Irvine. “It’s a sad connotation for our state because we are usually a front runner for so many groundbreaking laws.”
Misconduct can include fraud, embezzlement of funds or property as well as certain instances of dishonesty, incompetence, reckless or intentional misrepresentation. The Office of Chief Trial Counsel will investigate complaints.
“The big wrongdoing is related to trust funds, and that comes on the heels of all the misconduct alleged against Tom Girardi,” Monroe told OrangeCountyLawyers.com. “It’s a wave of rules to prevent that from happening again.”
In the 1960s, Tom Girardi was celebrated for litigating the highest medical malpractice judgment statewide after just having graduated from law school but in recent years he’s accused of law violations, ethics rules violations and acts of moral turpitude for allegedly robbing clients of millions of dollars in large settlement cases.
The 84-year-old and his Girardi Keese law firm were forced into a $6.5 million Chapter 7 bankruptcy proceeding two years ago. Girardi & Keese Chief Financial Officer Chris Kamon was arrested and charged with fraud while Girardi was placed under a court-appointed guardianship.
“What we see with the Girardi case is how a couple of bad apples can really sour the whole bunch so hopefully this new rule will elevate our profession in the minds of the public,” said Alphonse Provinziano, a family law attorney in Los Angeles. “If everybody in the profession has a mandatory obligation to report, then we can weed out those unethical lawyers.”
The State Bar of California turned a blind eye to Girardi’s alleged misconduct instead of investigating it, according to a report. The study found that one complaint settled in 2002 showed evidence of misappropriation but no disciplinary charges were brought.
“I think Tom Girardi is proof that we have a problem with rogue attorneys in California,” Monroe said in an interview. “The delay is because we wanted to be thoughtful before we approved it. There was fear that the rule would be weaponized politically and as a tool among practitioners.”
Newport Beach family law attorney Holly Moore has serious concerns and frustrations about the new mandatory reporting provision.
“It feels like an unnecessary burden, especially for successful attorneys,” Moore told OrangeCountyLawyers.com. “I see it as yet another way California makes things needlessly difficult for professionals. It puts us in a tough spot, torn between upholding attorney-client privilege and the ethical obligation to report misconduct.”
Under the new rule, complaints against colleagues must be based on credible evidence. If not, penalties for false and malicious reports are imposed and can include discipline or criminal penalties.
The name, address and contact information of an attorney who is the subject of a misconduct report is kept confidential. But once found in violation of the ethics rule by the Chief Trial Counsel office, sanctions can range from public or private reproval, suspension of license, or disbarment. Criminal conduct may also be referred to law enforcement.
“Attorneys did previously snitch on each other prior to this law but if you were in doubt before, now there’s no doubt,” Monroe added. “It’s been formalized. You have an obligation to report.”
Juliette Fairley covers legal topics for various publications including the Southern California Record, the Epoch Times and Pacer Monitor-News. Prior to discovering she had an ease and facility for law, Juliette lived in Orange County and Los Angeles where she pursued acting in television and film.