In today’s highly polarized political environment, lawyers find themselves in the crosshairs. Representing high profile, unpopular causes or clients can result in not only the loss of a job, but also accusations of professional misconduct from state bar organizations. For example, several lawyers involved in lawsuits regarding the outcome of the 2020 election are facing disciplinary actions, including Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, Sidney Powell, Professor John Eastman, and Jeffrey Bossert Clark. A new organization called the 65 Project—which is dedicated to holding accountable lawyers “who raise fraudulent claims to overturn legitimate election results, while also creating a rule-based system to prevent future attempts and to strengthen mechanisms for accountability and deterrence”—is also pursuing ethics complaints against additional attorneys.
During the ABA’s 47th Annual National Conference on Professional Responsibility, past and present lawyer regulators participated on a panel entitled, “The History of Regulation: The Pathway to Protecting the Public and Ensuring the Integrity of the Profession.” Panelists included Wallace ‘Gene’ Shipp, Jr., former Bar Counsel in the District of Columbia, Billy L. Walker, Chief Disciplinary Counsel in Utah, Renu M. Brennan, Bar Counsel for the Virginia State Bar, and Lydia E. Lawless, Bar Counsel for the State of Maryland. James J. Grogan, former Deputy Administrator and Chief Counsel of the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, moderated.
According to James Grogan, the panel began with a discussion of the National Organization of Bar Counsel (NOBC), which was established in 1965 to “enhance the professionalism and effectiveness of lawyer disciplinary counsel throughout the United States.” He noted that before that, lawyer discipline was haphazard and underfunded with little uniformity in proceedings across the country. Grogan stated:
At the ABA Mid-Year in New Orleans in February 1965, thirteen Bar Counsel converged in a day-long session and opted to create a national organization of lawyer regulators. The founders decided that such a new group would permit Bar Counsel to exchange ideas, circulate briefs & pleadings, and facilitate reciprocal disciplinary procedures.
This organization soon came to be known as NOBC. Ironically, another political controversy—the Watergate scandal, which involved several high profile licensed attorneys—soon spurred additional changes in lawyer discipline.
Like bar organizations, the NOBC has expanded its focus in recent decades. The original charter documents emphasized protecting the public and courts against unethical conduct and protecting attorneys from unfounded complaints. Grogan stated that the organization’s values now include “protecting the public, regulating the practice of law in the public interest, promoting respect for the rule of law, ensuring the integrity, professionalism, and competence of legal practitioners and the judiciary, furthering professional well-being, and advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in the legal profession.”
There were not specific predictions made about what lawyer regulation will look like in the future, but if groups like the 65 Project continue to flourish, lawyers may find it increasingly risky to represent controversial clients.
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