Everyone who works in the legal profession understands the importance of tact, respect, and discretion. Attorneys are expected to behave professionally at all times.
But that expectation doesn’t always line up with reality.
It’s all too common for lawyers to use their work email to make off-color comments about clients or coworkers. This can have disastrous consequences, especially when the message doesn’t reach the intended recipient. Others lose control over their behavior and directly harass people via email.
Let’s take a look at a few interesting cases where attorneys were disbarred - or suspended indefinitely - as a result of something they put in an email. What can law firms conclude from these examples?
1. Ontario lawyer habitually sends death threats via email.
In 2017, a Canadian tax lawyer lost his license because of emails that the Law Society Tribunal deemed “criminal in nature.”
The lawyer, Joel Sumner, repeatedly threatened a district attorney. When the Law Society Tribunal and the Law Society of Upper Canada investigated his conduct, he sent threats to these organizations as well.
It was revealed that this behavior was standard for Sumner. Back in 2012, he was disbarred in California for similar reasons. In fact, the State of California issued an outstanding warrant for his arrest - he was charged with 27 incidents of harassing behavior (including more death threats).
The most startling aspect of this case is that Sumner’s behavior went on unchecked for so long. He didn’t attempt to hide what he was doing or apologize for it.
2. New York lawyer sends disturbing emails to the Bar Association.
Lawyer Mychel K. Russell-Ward sent a series of unprofessional emails to the New York City Bar Association. These emails may have been the result of a mental health crisis. While the exact content of the messages is unavailable, the emails were described by the Attorney Grievance Committee as “disturbing”.
Russell-Ward was suspended in November 2019 because of her conduct. She then repeatedly failed to cooperate with the Attorney Grievance Committee’s investigation, and she never adequately addressed the content of the emails. This led to her disbarment in the autumn of 2020.
3. Maryland lawyer and judge participate in a bigoted email chain.
In July 2020, a government lawyer named Charles Hancock got suspended from law practice and retired from his position. In the same investigation, veterans law judge James Markey lost his job.
Hancock and Markey participated in an email chain using their .gov email addresses. The email chain consisted of three other lawyers as well. The group used the moniker “the Forum of Hate”, which set the tone for their behavior.
This email conversation went on for seven years. It consisted of “disturbingly inappropriate and offensive statements,” according to the Maryland Court of Appeals. The lawyers involved regularly exchanged racist, sexist, and homophobic jokes and comments. They gossiped about coworkers, giving them disparaging nicknames and using sexually suggestive language.
According to the court, this was a clear violation of the ethical obligation to avoid biased and prejudiced behavior while working in a professional capacity. As a few lowlights of the email conversation became public, it damaged people’s trust of the legal profession and the federal government.
4. Tennessee lawyer disbarred for sending spam.
Finally, here’s a case of some historical significance. In 1997, the Supreme Court of Tennessee disbarred immigration lawyer Laurence Canter. This happened because he was engaging in illegal marketing practices.
Canter operated a husband-and-wife law firm along with his spouse, Martha Siegel. The firm made use of a social trend that was especially topical at the time - the “green card frenzy”. They targeted vulnerable immigrant families and promised to help them receive a green card. Their services were overpriced and they aggressively advertised all over Usenet.
The court judged in favor of disbarment because they wanted to set a precedent and make it clear that predatory marketing practices aren’t acceptable in the world of law.
The Takeaway for Law Firms
Attorneys who are otherwise successful at their jobs may behave abysmally over email. Even when the misconduct doesn’t end in disbarment, lawyers may be fined and suspended.
Some have a longtime pattern of sending threatening or inappropriate messages, while others succumb to such behavior as a result of a mental health crisis.
There are also attorneys who use their work email for work-inappropriate conversations. Some don’t respect the privacy and dignity of their coworkers, clients, and potential clients.
Any of these behaviors can poison a firm’s reputation. While cutting ties with the offending attorney may help, it is important to act early.
How Preava Prevent Can Help
Comprehensive email security is crucial for every law firm, and that includes the monitoring of outgoing messages.
Preava Prevent is an extension that helps prevent email-based data breaches and employee misbehavior. The primary aim is to stop employees from messaging the wrong recipient by mistake, but the extension also scans email drafts in real-time.
You can use Preava Prevent’s customizable rules to monitor offensive language and other risky behavior. When questionable phrases get flagged, administrators receive an immediate alert. The extension sends up a warning message to the employee and the email doesn’t get sent.
If your employee is using their work email to threaten or harass people, that is something you should know and take care of before the problem spirals out of control. Act today to better supervise the messages sent in your firm’s name.