ORLANDO – The Florida State Bar Association recently released the names and offenses of four attorneys who ran afoul of professional expectations.
Christopher John Shipley, Barbara Billiot Stage, Joseph E. Deleo and Joseph Ryan Will were found to have engaged in alleged behavior that ranged from ignorance of the law to a misdemeanor DUI charge. Reprimand will take the form of publication in the Southern Reporter, a regional legal publication.
Official reprimands are not unheard of in the legal profession. According to the Florida Bar website, more than 1,700 lawyers were disciplined by the Florida Supreme Court in the past five years; in addition to 411 disbarments, 717 suspensions and 234 reprimands.
Though the bar association is often assumed to be the final arbiter when it comes policing the legal profession, that’s not exactly the case.
“The Florida Supreme Court is the final decision maker in all attorney discipline,” University of Miami College of Law professor Jan Jacobowitz told the Florida Record. “The Florida Bar’s board of governors, grievance committees, (and) bar counsel are essentially agencies that report to the Florida Bar.”
Though the Florida Supreme Court enjoys constitutional authority and responsibility to regulate the practice of law in the state, that body has charged the Florida Bar with the process of lawyer regulation as its core function.
Through the bar, the court creates rules regulating the profession, imposes discipline and retains the final say in all matters inherent to the process.
The publication of an individual attorney’s name and offense is not considered punitive by the bar association.
“Disciplinary actions are described as rehabilitative,” Jacobowitz said. “Publication of offenses that amount to more than an admonishment are considered public information.”
Publication intends to foster a sense of confidence in the public that the profession can be trusted to regulate itself.
And what of the ultimate punishment, disbarment? In short, this means a lawyer has his or her license to practice law yanked for a period of five to seven years, or permanently, depending upon the specifics of the allegations.
According to Jacobowitz, disbarment is usually related to issues of integrity.
“Disbarment often results from theft of funds and/or a severe violation of the rules that involves dishonesty and a lack of integrity,"Jacobowitz said.
The case of Scott Rothstein stands as testament to the kind of behavior that can qualify a lawyer for disbarment. Rothstein ran a Florida law firm and funded philanthropy, law firm salaries, political contributions, and an extravagant lifestyle allegedly through a carefully constructed and highly illegal Ponzi approach.
Rothstein is currently serving a sentence at an undisclosed federal location.
None of the recent four reprimands reached this level of concern to the Florida Supreme Court. To a practicing attorney, though, any sort of public admonishment is not something they want to include on the resume when it comes to attracting and keeping clients.