Friday, October 30, 2015

Professionalism & Ethics Committee: What Is Your Professionalism Quotient?

By Caroline Johnson Levine

     A lack of professionalism can have wide-ranging consequences for an attorney, and disciplinary sanctions can be severe. Professionalism may be an easy concept in theory; however, it can become challenging in practice. Overwhelming caseloads, conflicts with distressed clients, and challenging communications from opposing counsel can sometimes create unexpected pitfalls for an attorney. Importantly, attorneys must consider that professionalism is intractably tied to the ethical Rules Regulating The Florida Bar.

     Pursuant to its constitutional authority, the Florida Supreme Court routinely issues disciplinary decisions regarding unprofessional behaviors exhibited by some attorneys. See Art. V, § 15, Fla. Const. These decisions, which demonstrate the court’s authority to regulate the Bar, can be viewed on the Florida Supreme Court website. A recently issued decision in The Florida Bar v. Dupee, 160 So. 3d 838 (Fla. 2015), elucidates how quickly a 20-year legal career, with the attainment of board certification in real estate law, can be dismantled over malfeasance in one single case.

     Zana Dupee represented a wife in a dissolution of marriage proceeding. The wife owned a credit union account in her name only, which contained a large amount of funds. Dupee advised the wife that this account should be closed and a cashier’s check should be issued in the name of a non-existent charitable trust. “Because the named payee was fictitious and the check was never negotiated, the money represented by the cashier’s check remained the property of [Dupee’s] client.” Id. at 841; see also § 673.4041(2), Fla. Stat. (2014). During the course of litigation, Dupee submitted the wife’s false financial affidavit and did not timely or truthfully respond to discovery requests. Finally, Dupee personally secreted away the husband’s treasured coin collection, which the husband obtained in the final judgment. Dupee “did not disclose that she had the coins until she was ordered to produce them in a postjudgment contempt proceeding.” Id. at 843. Dupee was found guilty of violating several rules and was disbarred by the Florida Supreme Court for one year. 

     “Professionalism” is a word that is frequently extolled by attorneys. However, it can sometimes appear to be an elusive ideal in practice as we dwell in a world that appears to be losing its hold on civility. Oftentimes in the legal field, one’s intelligence quotient (IQ) is celebrated. However, an attorney’s “professionalism quotient” (PQ) may be more important to cultivate in a profession that protects clients and the rule of law. 

     Dupee clearly demonstrates that it is critical for attorneys to continually develop and guard their professionalism skill set. One of the best methods for attorneys to grow and improve their PQ is to join and actively participate in the Hillsborough County Bar Association! Participating in the HCBA’s various sections and committees can lead to service opportunities in unexpected ways and create exposure to countless examples of excellent leadership.