No Do Overs in Solo Practice

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.