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Add this to your firm policies right now

A recent opinion in Virginia made it clear for all lawyers— if your firm doesn’t have an  impaired lawyer policy, you need to create one.

Many lawyers aren’t aware that ethics rules require you to stop representing a client if you, individually, develop some material impairment.  Rule 1.16(a) says, “…a lawyer shall not represent a client or, where representation has commenced, shall withdraw from the representation of a client if…(2) the lawyer’s physical or mental condition materially impairs the lawyer’s ability to represent the client…” Essentially, this is a duty to act.  Your required action, is if I become materially impaired, I must withdraw. But a recent opinion went further and held that that there may be a duty to act imposed on other lawyers in the firm.  Specifically, if you’re in a supervisory role, you may need to take some action with respect to an impaired lawyer in the firm.

First, a reminder about the general rule on supervising: Lawyers in a managerial position have a duty to create policies which ensure that other lawyers in the office are complying with the ethics rules. In addition, lawyers who specifically supervise other lawyers need to ensure that the lawyers in their charge follow the rules. Rules 5.1(a) and  5.1(b). Now, on to the impairment issue…

In LEO 1886 (December 15, 2016) the Supreme Court of Virginia asked, “What are the ethical obligations of a partner or supervisory lawyer who reasonably believes another lawyer in the firm may be suffering from a significant impairment that poses a risk to clients or the general public?”  They posited two hypotheticals: one in which a lawyer finds out that there is another lawyer at their firm with a significant substance abuse problem, and the other that portrayed an older lawyer who appears to be suffering the onset of dementia. In both cases, the lawyers’ condition is affecting their work.

Virginia confirmed that, “When a partner or supervising lawyer knows or reasonably believes that a lawyer under their direction and control is impaired, Rule 5.1(b) requires that they take reasonable steps to prevent the impaired lawyer from violating the Rules of Professional Conduct.” LEO 1886 at 3.  The opinion didn’t say that you need to dismiss the lawyer. Quite the contrary, they said that, “the firm may be able to work around or accommodate some impairment situations.” LEO 1886 at 4. But the managerial/supervisory lawyer does need to step in and do something to protect the client’s interests.

The opinion gave some direction for how to deal with this, practically.  They quoted from the ABA’s Standing Committee on Ethics and Professionalism Formal Op. 03-429 and said,

“The first step may be to confront the impaired lawyer with the facts of his impairment and insist upon steps to assure that clients are represented appropriately notwithstanding the lawyer’s impairment. Other steps may include forcefully urging the impaired lawyer to accept assistance to prevent future violations or limiting the ability of the impaired lawyer to handle legal matters or deal with clients.”

Here’s the dangerous quirk— not only do lawyers need to accept their duty to deal with this situation after the impairment issues have surfaced, but the opinion explicitly states that this issue should be considered ahead of time, in law firm policies. I’m not so sure that many firms have accounted for this in their HR docs. Specifically, the opinion states:

“In order to protect its clients, the firm should have an enforceable policy that would require, and a partner or supervising lawyer should insist, that the impaired lawyer seek appropriate assistance, counseling, therapy, or treatment as a condition of continued employment with the firm. For example, the firm could recommend, encourage or direct that the impaired lawyer contact Lawyers Helping Lawyers for an evaluation and assessment of his or her condition and referral to appropriate medical or mental health care professionals for treatment and therapy. Alternatively, making a confidential report to Lawyers Helping Lawyers may be an appropriate step for the firm. The firm or its managing lawyers might instead find it necessary or appropriate to consult with a professional medical or health care provider for advice on how to deal with and manage an impaired lawyer, including considering options for an “intervention” or other means of encouraging the lawyer to seek treatment or therapy.” LEO 1886 at 5.

And don’t forget, if the impaired lawyer violated the rules by, perhaps, neglecting a client’s matter, the firm/supervisors may be required to report that lawyer under Rule 8.3(a). I’m sure you’re aware of that duty, but I can see a firm trying to help an impaired lawyer get better, but allow the reporting duty to slip through the proverbial cracks.

The moral of this story: if your firm doesn’t have an impaired lawyer policy, you need to create one.

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