Photoshopping Lawyer – More Than Just Bad Advertising

It’s rare when a lawyer ethics story attracts the attention of the general press.  But it happened last week when the California Staphotoshoppinglawyer_screenshotte Bar Court proposed a six-month suspension for a Southern California lawyer who posted dozens of pictures – most (likely all) of them apparently fakes – on her firm web page showing  her in the company of dozens of celebrities, including President Obama, Hilary Clinton, Arnold Schwarzenegger – the list goes on.

The story started in the legal press, but has since been picked up by the Los Angeles Times, CNN, TMZ, the International Business Times, the UK Daily Mail – this list, too, goes on.

The essence of the State Bar Court’s opinion is that attorney Svitlana Sangary engaged in “deceptive advertising” in violation of California Rule of Professional Conduct 1-400(D)(2).  The court stated that the “photographs were part of an advertisement and solicitation for future work, directed by Respondent to the public through her website, and they were false, deceptive, and tended to confuse, deceive, and mislead the public.” Though the original recommended sentence ultimately was doubled as a result of Sangary’s reported non-cooperation with the disciplinary process and her failure to return a client file.

All of the news stories – and even most of the expert commentary – have centered around Sangary’s apparent attempt to boost her professional reputation by showing herself in the company of the rich and powerful.  However, a more significant issue appears to lurk below the surface, based on the excerpts in the opinion of Sangary’s response to the charges against her.  Described as a “16-page soliloquy,” the response – if the quoted excerpts are even slightly representative – raises serious questions about the author’s mental state, let alone her ability to practice law. Which in turn raises the question, What – if anything – is to be done?

If California were one of the states following the Model Rules of Professional Conduct, the answer would be reasonably straightforward.  If an attorney becomes aware of conduct that violates a rule of professional conduct (including the duty to provide competent representation) in a way that “raises a substantial question as to that lawyer’s . .  fitness as a lawyer in other respects,” Model Rule 8.3(a) requires him or her to inform the appropriate professional authority. The requirement that a lawyer must “rat out” a colleague may seem harsh, but probably less so than letting an impaired attorney get deeper and deeper into problems, until the harm to all – including the client and even the lawyer – becomes irreparable.

California is not a Model Rule state, however.  We have our own Rules of Professional Conduct which differ in many ways from the Model Rules. And one of those ways is that we don’t have an analog for MRPC 8.3.  California does have rules and statutes which require a lawyer who violates rules of professional conduct to self-report.  Except that an impaired lawyer isn’t likely to recognize his or her self-impairment, which is a real problem in these cases.

In this instance, the Bar is well aware of the situation, and hopefully is poised to do the right thing.

 

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