Legal Ethics

Lawyer sanctions in Minnesota could set record; is economy a factor?

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Lawyer sanctions in Minnesota this year are on pace to overtake last year’s numbers, and could surpass the record of 55 set in 1990.

Twenty Minnesota lawyers so far this year have been disbarred, suspended, publicly reprimanded or placed on probation, the Minnesota Star Tribune reports. The article mentions several sanctioned lawyers, including:

• Minneapolis lawyer Peter Nickitas, accused of “bullying” an opposing lawyer by telling her he hoped she would “sleep with the fishes.” Nickitas was suspended for 30 days.

• Lawyer Thomas Lowe of Eagan, accused of having an affair with a divorce client and billing for the time spent having sex. He was suspended for at least 15 months.

• Lawyer William Morris Jr. of Minneapolis, convicted in an alleged scheme to obtain tax credits on behalf of education software companies, according to an opinion (PDF) by the Minnesota Supreme Court. He was disbarred.

Speculation varies on the reasons for the uptick, but some suspect the economy is partly to blame. Martin Cole, director of the state’s Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility, told the newspaper that the sanctions sometimes run in “inexplicable cycles.”

But Cole also said the bad economy may be spurring some lawyers to take on too many cases, or matters in which they have little experience. Discipline cases are also becoming more common among older lawyers, who may not be able to afford to stop practicing, he said.

“Sometimes people should no longer be doing this work, either because the stress level has gotten so high, compassion fatigue or maybe they’ve just been doing this so long that they’re burned out,” Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers Executive Director Joan Bibelhausen told the Star Tribune.

An uptick in practicing lawyers in the state could also be spurring the increase, according to Phil Duran, president-elect of the Minnesota State Bar Association. “There’s a lot more lawyers, and that means more are going to get themselves into trouble,” he told the Star Tribune.

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