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Grievance Committee’s virtual ethics course draws thousands of attendees

June 1, 2020 Rob Abruzzese
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While in-person Bar Association events have been totally shut down, virtual events have become a huge hit. More than 2,200 attorneys recently attended a virtual continuing legal education conference with four Brooklyn lawyers who are members of the Grievance Committee.

Hosted by the NYS Academy of Trial Lawyers and co-sponsored by the Brooklyn Bar Association, four local attorneys hosted a two-hour panel called “Ethics 101: What All Lawyers Need to Know” on Wednesday, May 20.

“The CLE had over 2,200 attendees,” said Michelle Stern, executive director of the Academy. “We were so lucky to have Andrea Bonina, Angelicque Moreno, Anthony Vaughn and Michael Farkas as our presenters for this seminar. They’re all excellent speakers and attorneys know that it’s always great to get guidance on ethics issues directly from members of the Grievance Committee.

“We’re thrilled that so many attorneys across New York State are enjoying our online programming,” Stern continued. “All our webinars are free for both members and non-members right now. We’re presenting lots of different topics, with three programs next week and plans for many more in June.”

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The four attorneys — Andrea Bonina, Anthony Vaughn, Angelicque Moreno and Michael Farkas — are all trustees or past presidents with the Brooklyn Bar Association and members of the Grievance Committee for the 2nd, 11th and 13th Judicial Districts. Bonina is the chair of the Committee and Moreno is the president of the Academy.

“Our Academy’s fabulous president, Angelicque Moreno, has done an outstanding job this year and has led the Academy to increased membership and has done an incredible job throughout the entire year,” Bonina said.

Bonina, who served as a moderator throughout the CLE, explained that a big reason for the high turnout was the fact that attorneys from all different areas of practice need to understand ethics. She said, though, that ethics can be anxiety-provoking because even the best attorneys can occasionally be in violation. She laid out some commonsense ideas to avoid major grievances.

“We are going to focus on the main areas that cause problems for practitioners,” Bonina said. “We’re going to address what the rules say, and the cases say, but always ways you and your practice can safeguard against problems so you don’t have to experience anxiety.”

The biggest way that attorneys find themselves in trouble with the Grievance Committee, Bonina explained, is when they run afoul with their escrow accounts or IOLA (Interest On Lawyer Accounts). An escrow account is intended to be a separate bank account that attorneys use that is dedicated to money received from and intended for clients.

“It’s very important that everyone read through the rules that set forth the requirements for escrow accounts,” Bonina said. “The top two things to remember are: The responsibilities you have as a fiduciary are non-delegable. No matter how good your accountant or secretary are, you cannot count on them to manage that account. It’s your responsibility.

“The other thing to keep in mind is that it’s somebody else’s money,” she continued. “You may have an earned legal fee that is part of that money, but the money belongs to someone else and you have to treat it with that in mind.”

Vaughn explained that attorneys can do themselves a big favor by being open and dealing with the Grievance Committee. He explained that because of the Committee’s experience and the amount of cases it has seen, the Committee has seen many of the common mistakes and would rather see attorneys be able to fix them if possible than to see the lawyers suspended or disbarred.

“It’s not uncommon for attorneys who appear before the Grievance Committee get very defensive,” Vaughn said. “That’s understandable because someone has made an accusation against you, but we’re all human beings here. When your tone is inappropriate and you are not really considering that there are clients or individuals that are punished because of your alleged misconduct, it’s possible the Grievance Committee is going to recommend harsher punishment.”

Moreno gave an example of a situation where an attorney ran into a major issue with his escrow account, but was able to avoid harsh punishment simply because he responded so well and took the proper steps to show that it was an honest mistake.

“Once the lawyer was notified about the investigation by the committee, the attorney immediately took the matter very seriously,” Moreno said. “He hired an ethics attorney, he hired an accountant, he took a CLE course on how to properly maintain an escrow account, he changed his business practices immediately, he stopped using the IOLA account as a business account, he replaced the funds. He admitted his wrongdoing and gave testimony where he was very contrite. He accepted full responsibility.”

“Immediately hiring counsel is an important point because when you have a serious grievance against you, one involving money or where you could end up suspended, it’s important to hire counsel,” Bonina added. “When I hear that, it tells me that the person is taking the issue very seriously.”

Another major issue that attorneys can run into is not properly communicating with their clients. Bonina laid out some of the small things that her office does that she said pays big dividends when it comes to having happy clients, like setting realistic expectations, and keeping them notified about the case. She also asks clients at the end of cases how they felt they could have done better.

“Every client thinks that their case is the most important case, and for them it is,” Bonina said. “You have to remember that when you’re dealing with them. For some of them it is actually a life-or-death situation that has altered the entire fabric of their lives.”

“Similar to tone with the committee, tone with the clients is important because you have to manage expectations, you have to manage personalities,” said Farkas. He added that criminal defense attorneys should be taking advantage of videoconferencing to keep tabs with clients on Rikers Island or in Upstate prisons. “It used to be next to impossible for many attorneys to get to Rikers Island or Upstate on a frequent basis. Video conferencing has helped.”

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