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Can California Associate Attorneys Be Disciplined For Their Boss’s Misconduct?

Posted on: February 27th, 2019

By: Gregory Fayard

The answer to this question is yes, in certain circumstances. In November 2018, after 29 years, California enacted new rules of professional conduct for lawyers. The new rules have some major changes from the old rules. One of the biggest changes applies to associate attorneys who are just doing what their boss-lawyer tells them. But what if the associate’s boss is instructing the associate to do something obviously unethical? In that case, the associate can be disciplined by the State Bar. The new rule on this point is 5.2. For example, if the associate’s boss advises the associate to lie to a client, or forge a signature, or divulge client secrets, then those breaches are so obvious the associate could be disciplined. All California lawyers must comply with ethics rules, even if acting at the direction of another. The Nuremberg defense does not fly.

What about a close call? What if the associate’s boss tells the associate to do the bare minimum on a case? That order arguably violates a lawyer’s duty of diligence (Rule 1.3). Or, what if the associate’s boss orders an associate to do everything and anything on a file? That order might violate Rule 3.2 which says lawyers shall not do tasks whose substantial purpose is to prolong or cause needless expense. In these two situations, the ethical breach is an arguable question—a “close call” if you will. In these situations the California associate would have a good argument for not being disciplined.

The new California rules of professional conduct, however, have created a potentially awkward employment situation for associates: if the subordinate lawyer believes his or her supervisor’s solution to an ethics issue would violate an ethical rule, “the subordinate is obligated to communicate his or her professional judgment regarding the matter to the supervisory lawyer.”  (See Comment to Rule 5.2.)

What should California lawyers keep in mind, then?

  1. Don’t blindly follow directions from your supervisor without thinking of the ethical implications;
  2. Doing something obviously unethical can get you in trouble with the State Bar even if the direction came from your boss;
  3. You probably will not be disciplined if an ethical question can be answered more than one way;
  4. You may have to have a talk with your boss if he or she is doing something obviously unethical.

My next blog will discuss whether a supervising lawyer in California can be disciplined for an associate’s unethical lapse.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Greg Fayard at [email protected].

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