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No Do Overs in Solo Practice

by Carolyn Elefant on May 3, 2011 · 6 comments

in Ethics & Malpractice Issues

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One of the aspects of solo practice that I love most is that it keeps us engaged. We spend most of our professional life on the wire – dealing with clients and small businesses instead of mindlessly researching and reviewing documents, while always wondering in the back of our minds where the next case is coming from.

But though we solos thrive on the wire, we don’t have a safety net either – a painful reality brought home by this heartbreaking tale disbarment of a well-intentioned trusts and estates lawyer and dad. The disbarment arose out of a simple estate matter, where the lawyer, John Coppola represented a woman who subsequently referred Coppola to her mom. The mom needed to update her will which left her home to her four children equally. The updates would reduce the costs of administering the estate. Coppola spoke with the mom and prepared the documents, but the mom failed to follow through and sign. Several months later, the daughter (Coppola’s original client) asked him to come to the hospital because the mom was dying abd tge children wanted her to sign the document to facilitate administration of the estate. By the time Coppola arrived, the mom was unconscious and the children pleaded with the Coppola to forge her signature. Coppola explained that forging the document was fraud. But the children’s distress combined with a belief he was effectuating the intent of both the mother and the children lead Coppola to give in – and he had his employees falsely notarize the document.

Of course, no good deed (if you believe this is a good deed, and personally, I do) goes unpunished. As you probably guessed, a dispute ensued amongst the children over the disposition and the daughter retained counsel — George Meng — who also happened to serve on the Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission. Meng filed the complaint against Coppola that lead to disciplinary charges. Coppola tried mightily to make up for his moment of weakness. First, he offered to undo the fraudulent transfer when one of the children (who’d initially agreed to it) took issue. Coppola returned the money that he had charged to update the estate plan, cooperated fully with the bar and took full responsibility for what he’d done. Coppola also had a pristine disciplinary record during his 20+ years of practice. Even so, Coppola could not avoid disbarment. That’s because Maryland takes a firm line – on the order of strict liability – with respect to intentional misconduct. A seminal Maryland case, Vanderlinde holds that disbarment is the appropriate sanction for fraud, misappropriation and other intentional wrongdoing; mitigating circumstances such as the gravity of the conduct or the harm caused to others doesn’t matter. Harsh.

I assume that Attorney Meng knew where this case was headed when he reported the Coppola; after all, he served on the disciplinary committee. Though I’d like to, I can’t fault Meng either. There’s no indication that he brought the charges to better position his client (indeed, his client – the daughter – most likely wanted to preserve the original disposition). Moreover, law is a self-policing profession and we have a duty to report misconduct – so Meng had no other choice. Still, regardless of my professional responsibility, I’m just not sure that I could have pulled the trigger here knowing what the consequences would be: that a lawyer who tried to do the right thing – carrying out the desires of all involved – would forever lose his license and his livelihood. Of course, if Maryland’s ethics rules weren’t so draconian, it might be easier for lawyers to report well-intentioned colleagues’ misconduct knowing that they might receive some mercy.

Still, at the end of the day, the lesson for us solos is that we can never – not for an instant – let our guard down. We can never falter or give in to our sympathy or even show a little bit of humanity if it means putting our license on the line. To me, that’s the toughest part of this crazy life on the wire that we call solo practice: we’ve got to always be always on because we operate without a safety net. One false move can end our career.

  • Anonymous

    What a disturbing story! I have recently moved my practice from one state to another, and I am alarmed at how much more aggressive the disciplinary action is here in comparison to the state I came from. “Draconian” is an appropriate description. The Supreme Court’s Office of Attorney Regulation considers themselves prosecutors of attorneys.

    In my mind, the practice of law is similar to driving a car. No matter how “safe” a driver is, no matter how clean their record is, there is not a driver out there who does not violate some aspects of the traffic code on every trip to the grocery store. If police officers followed us around everywhere and wanted to, they could issue us tickets every day. Perhaps we exceed the speed limit, signal a turn too early or too late, stop in a cross walk, or whatever.

    Likewise, I think if the disciplinary prosecutors looked hard enough, they could find disciplinary violations in any law office. Unfortunately, the eyes of the disciplinary authorities fall disproportionately on solo attorneys, especially those of us dealing day in and day out with individual clients: divorces, criminal defense, wills and trusts, plaintiffs’ personal injury, etc. We solos are doing the best we can day-to-day to help people–that’s why we do what we do! Our clients don’t have an unlimited bag of money from which to pay us. Therefore, we often have to make tough decisions about how best to help our clients within a budget. And yet the boards of discipline often make very difficult for us to help those who need our services most.

    This is not to say there is no place for discipline among lawyers. There are unscrupulous and incompetent attorneys out there, and the public deserves to be protected. But let’s be pragmatic about our self-regulation. In the situation you described, disbarment was not an appropriate remedy. The attorney deserved to be disciplined, and a probationary sanction would have made him a better lawyer.

  • Carolyn Elefant

    I agree. Even a 30-60 day suspension to drive the point home would have been reasonable. But to lose a license over this is over the top in my view.

  • Vince

    I agree with the general position that the disciplinary rules are heavy-handed and applied in an overly-aggressive manner.
    The result was draconian indeed: from Draco, or Drakon, author of the first written law of Athens that prescribed death for seemingly minor offenses – appropriate considering career death.
    Like Draco, the bar has few levels of punishment and applies the most severe to far too many situations.
    However, I find it very difficult to sympathize with Mr. Coppola. Certainly he was in an uncomfortable position, with the woman dying and her grieving children pressuring him, but he knew what he was doing was fraud. He then induced others (his employees) to commit fraud.
    The fact that he cooperated fully should have counted for him, but it did not, giving other lawyers of course no incentive to ever cooperate with bar counsel.

    But don’t think this is unique to the legal profession. I am reminded of someone who worked for UPS. He put a small scratch on one of their trucks one night; perhaps half an inch long. He could have kept quiet and it probably would not have been noticed, or he could have grabbed some paint from the body shop and touched it up quickly. Instead he told the supervisor about it. He was fired on the spot and told he could never work for UPS again in any capacity. It did not knock him out of the industry, but I’m sure UPS would have done so if they could.

  • Alfred

    “Of course, no good deed (if you believe this is a good deed, and personally, I do) goes unpunished.”

    He was stupid. You are stupid.

    Get outta here!

  • Lee Kaster

    I don’t think what he did is even close to ok. Whether the punishment was too harsh is a different issue.

  • http://twitter.com/BruceGodfrey Bruce Godfrey

    Hi, Carolyn. As a father of two disabled kids like this fellow was, I simultaneously wanted to slap him and embrace him.

    I’ll play Dracon/devil’s advocate here. Coppola only admitted the scheme, which involved multiple forgeries at different times and locations, after he got caught when one of the relatives balked at maintaining the fraud – something Coppola should have expected would happen eventually. If a veteran estate planning attorney cannot game this scenario out – if the will’s not done, there will be trouble, that’s why we do wills! – and that the relatives won’t stay united in the fraud until the last person aware of it dies without Tweet-ing about it, he’s not a wartime consigliere. Even the more moderate Judge Murphy and Chief Judge Bell wanted him gone for two years in their dissent.

    I’ve met George Meng, who is a long-standing practitioner in Calvert and PG Counties with an excellent reputation. He had knowledge that a violation had occurred and that the violation raised serious questions as to the lawyer’s fitness – the “squeal” standard in MD. He was on the Grievance Commission and has been practicing specifically in estates and probate work for almost 40 years; not squealing would have been career suicide. He had zero choice, unless Meng was ready to retire.

    Carolyn I love your blog and am grateful to have the chance to disagree warmly with one of my heroes! Be well!

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