In the majority of jurisdictions in the US and Canada, lawyers are governed by rules of professional conduct. Numerous ethical standards prohibit suspended lawyers from practicing law; they also forbid duly licensed attorneys from facilitating the unauthorized practice of law (a broad term that includes the practice of law by a suspended lawyer).
Unauthorized practice of law can manifest itself in a variety of ways, and in order to protect themselves from the fallout, all legal practitioners must remain vigilant as to the licensure status of other lawyers.
When a suspended lawyer engages in unauthorized legal practice, not only is the suspended lawyer subject to further sanction, but so may be the lawyers who assisted the suspended lawyer.
In light of a lawyer’s ethical responsibilities, it is incumbent upon them (and perhaps their firm’s internal resource managers) to conduct routine professional license checks on other attorneys at the organization. These verifications ensure that the practitioners are in good standing with the state or provincial bar, and that they have no disciplinary actions pending against them.
The case of Friedberg and Pinkas, detailed below, demonstrates that hiring a suspended lawyer and allowing that individual to provide legal services can constitute "aiding and abetting" an unauthorized practice of law, which can carry severe consequences.
Failure to Check License Status: The Friedberg and Pinkas Case
In the case in question, two New York lawyers, Bruce D. Friedberg and Edan E. Pinkas were lawyers licensed to practice law in that state.
Friedberg and Pinkas hired Eric Gonchar - who at the time of his hiring had been suspended from the practice of law for prior conduct - to work as a paralegal at their law firm.
While working as a paralegal, Gonchar was found to have held himself out as a lawyer and provided legal advice. For their part, Friedberg and Pinkas were found to have "aided and abetted" Gonchar in the unauthorized practice of law and were suspended from the practice of law in the State of New York for a period of 18 months (more details on this case can be found here).
The suspensions of Friedberg and Pinkas illustrate the risks and consequences that can arise from the lack of a proper vetting procedure and credentials check, which could have been satisfied with a third-party solution offering a simple online license verification that enables employers to check if the applicant has a license suspension.
Upon discovering that Friedberg and Pinkas had failed to conduct a professional background screening on Gonchar and that both had participated in Gonchar’s unlicensed and unauthorized practice of law, the state’s regulatory administrator barred both lawyers from practicing law in any capacity, whether as principals or as agents, clerks, or employees, for a period of one year.
The Importance of Credentialing
For all lawyers, regardless of practice area or jurisdiction, the case of Friedberg and Pinkas should serve as a cautionary tale, especially for smaller firms with busy practices that may be tempted to forego performing a full professional credentialing check owing to a lack of time or resources to do so. The potential consequences, which could include a suspension from the practice of law, are not worth the risk, even if it's tempting to do so.
Similarly, lack of diligence in credentialing can also bring a firm's reputation into a spiral of disrepute. Not only would Friedberg and Pinkas have had to notify certain clients about their temporary suspensions, but they may have been held accountable for Gonchar's actions if he had misled clients or participated in other malfeasance while working at the firm.
To avoid such situations, the law firms and those in charge of hiring within the law industry should take the time to ensure that they are hiring attorneys who are in good standing with the state or provincial bar, and that new attorneys have no disciplinary actions pending. Additionally, there should be processes in place at the firm routinely verifying that the foregoing remains true on an ongoing basis.
For every law firm, it is necessary to invest in developing strategies that enable them to conduct proper credentialing procedures and establish an effective recruitment vetting process. Only by taking such precautions and instituting them as safety protocols throughout the organization can constituents within the legal industry safeguard themselves against the potential consequences of hiring a suspended lawyer.
Moreover, lawyers should never hesitate to report suspected instances of the unauthorized practice of law to the appropriate authorities. Even seemingly minor infractions can have serious consequences for law firm owners, administrative staff, and affiliated lawyers, ranging from reputational damage to the loss of long-term employment, severe legal sanctions, and financial accountability to name a few.
People see a lawyer as a sort of "gatekeeper" to the legal system - someone who is an expert in the law and can be trusted to provide accurate legal advice. When a lawyer breaks the rules of professional conduct, it erodes public trust in the profession.
Therefore, lawyers must be mindful of the fact that they are held to a higher standard than the general public in their conduct. Taking precautions when hiring new employees can help avoid unintentionally assisting and abetting the unauthorized practice of law. This is critical for all attorneys, including solo practitioners, small, medium, and large law firms, as well as government agencies.
Friedberg’s and Pinkas' situation is not uncommon; many lawyers may not fully appreciate the ramifications of hiring a lawyer who has a suspended license. However, their story should serve as a timely reminder to all lawyers to thoroughly verify credentials of applicants and routinely confirm on a frequent and ongoing basis that the lawyers remain in good standing with their regulatory bodies, without exception.
With Credential Sentry, routine online license searches can now be fully automated. Make it a part of your overall background check strategy. On a daily basis, those in charge of hiring and supervising other attorneys within an organization can easily keep track of whether or not their candidates' and partners’ licenses are valid or suspended using an online license verification service that is fast, affordable, and convenient.