Vol. 80, No. 8, August 2007
A headline from The Onion? Some cynics might think so, but it's true. And it has always been true. The rules that govern our professional practices were once called the Rules of Professional Responsibility. The new Rules of Professional Conduct for Attorneys became effective July 1. All of you need to review and understand them. Do me a favor. Read the preamble to the rules. It's entitled "A Lawyer's Responsibilities." It will only take a few minutes of your time, and it will remind you of the day you raised your hand and took the attorney's oath; the day you became a lawyer charged with the responsibility of representing clients; the day you became an officer of the legal system and a public citizen having a special responsibility for the quality of justice.
During this next year, you will be hearing a lot from me about your responsibilities to the courts, to the public, to the poor, and to the administration of justice. I know, I know, I can hear you saying, "Oh, c'mon Basting, get off your high horse and spare us the preaching." I promise not to preach. I promise not to get sidetracked by tinkering with the diploma privilege and Bar membership issues. What I hope to do is prod, cajole, and encourage all of you out there - no matter what your practice setting or what area of the law you focus on - to fulfill your responsibilities by supporting the State Bar in three initiatives.
Today, to kick off my opportunity to sit across the desk from you and talk frankly about what lawyers need to be doing to continue to fulfill our obligations to the public, I want to tell you a little story. It is a story about Fred and Mary, an elderly couple. Fred is retired, and he and Mary live in a modest home that they own jointly. They receive Social Security and a small retirement income and have managed to accumulate a modest savings account. One day the doorbell rings and they come face to face with a door-to-door "living trust" salesman. This salesman had checked them out and knows that they are ripe for the picking. He convinces Fred and Mary that they really need a "living trust" so that they can avoid probate and all of those exorbitant "probate fees." They agree to the purchase for only $3,000, which the salesman collects when he appears a few days later with a boiler-plate trust containing the name of a lawyer who Fred and Mary never met. The end of this sad story is, of course, that Fred and Mary paid an outrageous fee for something they didn't need.
That scenario is repeated regularly in Wisconsin. Was a crime committed? Probably not. Can these scams be stopped? Hopefully, they can. It's now up to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. On June 19, the State Bar of Wisconsin, acting on your behalf through the Board of Governors, took a giant step forward to halt this kind of questionable activity by filing a petition with the supreme court asking the court to adopt the Legal Services Consumer Protection Act. The petition asks the court to take two actions: 1) adopt a new rule to clearly define what constitutes the "practice of law" for consumer protection purposes; and 2) create an administrative system to enforce the new rule through civil proceedings.
The filing of this petition is a perfect example of lawyers accepting and furthering their responsibility to protect the public and assist the supreme court in the administration of justice. Although a hearing date has not been set, I expect to appear and argue in favor of the petition sometime during this next year. Here's where you come in. Many of you have sent in examples of public harm caused by nonlawyers improperly providing faulty advice to the public. The story of Fred and Mary was one of them. If you have further real-life examples, mail them to me at the State Bar. In the meantime, have a safe summer, be kind to each other, and remember your responsibilities. I'll keep reminding you.