On The Role Of Bar Counsel, Guardians Of The Legal Profession: An Interview With William Slease
Lawyers are the guardians of the rule of law in our society. But who will guard the guardians?
The vast majority of American lawyers adhere to the highest ethical and professional standards. But there are, unfortunately, a fair number of attorneys who fall short of what the legal profession expects from its members.
What happens to these acting-out attorneys? They sometimes wind up in our pages, where we share the cautionary tales of lawyers brought low (and even have a March Madness bracket for them).
But a little bad publicity is nothing compared to getting suspended from law practice or even disbarred. Who handles those investigations and cases, ensuring that lawyers are properly disciplined and that public confidence in the legal profession is maintained? Some folks you might not know — and maybe hope you’ll never get to know — called “bar counsel.”
I recently chatted with William Slease, president of the National Organization of Bar Counsel (NOBC), about the important role that disciplinary counsel play in the legal profession, as well as career opportunities in the field (a subject that our readers are always interested in).
DL: First things first. For our readers who aren’t too familiar with the position — and I must confess, I didn’t have great familiarity myself before I attended the NOBC conference — can you give us a brief explanation of bar counsel and the role they perform?
WS: Bar counsel is a term for attorneys who are broadly involved in the regulation of attorney conduct. In addition to bar counsel, they are alternatively called regulatory counsel, disciplinary counsel, or ethics counsel, depending upon the jurisdiction. While the duties depend largely upon the jurisdiction in which they are based, at its heart the job is about regulating attorney conduct with the goal of promoting the public interest and protecting the public in the public’s use of legal services.
DL: And can you tell us about your own path through the legal profession, and how you came to assume your current position as chief disciplinary counsel for the disciplinary board of the New Mexico Supreme Court?
WS: I was in private practice for just over 19 years, primarily in civil litigation. For the 11 years immediately prior to my appointment I worked in a two-lawyer firm representing government agencies and their employees in New Mexico. Towards the end of my private practice I began considering public service jobs, and the job at the Disciplinary Board happened to come open in the fall of 2010. I applied for and was fortunate enough to be selected for the job.
DL: How did you learn about the position at the Disciplinary Board? And how has the job compared to what you expected from it going in?
WS: The position was advertised by the Disciplinary Board in mid-2010. I applied, went through a series of interviews, and was recommended by the Board subject to the approval of the New Mexico Supreme Court. After I was interviewed by the Court, I was selected.
The job itself has been challenging and extremely rewarding. I started with the misconception that the job was just about disciplining lawyers. But the job is much more than discipline. The job includes a significant educational component that includes teaching the profession and the public about best practices and professionalism. It also includes working on initiatives to proactively regulate attorney conduct by designing regulation that helps attorneys succeed and avoid disciplinary infractions. Broadly speaking, the goal is to serve as a resource for lawyers to draw upon to allow them to provide the highest quality of service to their clients, and as a resource for the public for those occasions when an attorney’s conduct falls below acceptable standards.
DL: For our readers who are interested in positions as bar counsel, what would you identify as the best and worst aspects of the job?
WS: The best part of the job has been working with many other dedicated professional regulators who strive to make the legal profession the best that it can be, while always keeping in mind our responsibilities to the public. Those individuals include the staff in my office, and the individuals I have been fortunate to collaborate with at the National Organization of Bar Counsel.
In terms of the “worst” part of the job, I don’t think of it in those terms. Instead, I think in terms of challenges, and one of the more challenging aspects of the job is disabusing the public of the misperception that we are biased in favor of attorneys because we ourselves are attorneys and, therefore, must not be conducting full or fair investigations into allegations of misconduct.
DL: And what qualities or experience are most helpful to have on one’s résumé if seeking a position as bar or disciplinary counsel?
WS: As with any attorney, it is important to have good analytical, writing, and verbal skills. Additionally, in a disciplinary action, it is critical that you not think of the job in terms of “winning.” Instead, it’s about bringing forward all of the facts so that the ultimate decision maker, the Supreme Court, can make a sensible and reasonable disposition of the matter.
DL: You mentioned your colleagues at the National Organization of Bar Counsel, which is how you and I met, at your recent conference. For our readers who might be inspired by this interview to become bar counsel, can you say a little bit about what NOBC does and why bar counsel should consider joining?
WS: NOBC is a professional association of lawyers who work in attorney-regulation. We have over 1,000 members from nearly every U.S. jurisdiction, as well as Canada and Australia. Our premier events are biannual conferences with a focus on educating our membership about cutting-edge regulatory issues and best practices.
For me, joining NOBC and being a part of the organization was an easy decision. From day one as a member I realized that NOBC is an invaluable resource for attorney regulators. Many initiatives that I’ve started in my home state began as conversations with my NOBC colleagues. I am confident that any bar counsel who joins will have a similar experience. For more information about NOBC, visit our website at www.nobc.org.
DL: Thank you so much for taking the time to enlighten our audience about the important role played by bar counsel. We wish you and NOBC continued success!
David Lat is the founder and managing editor of Above the Law and the author of Supreme Ambitions: A Novel. He previously worked as a federal prosecutor in Newark, New Jersey; a litigation associate at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz; and a law clerk to Judge Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. You can connect with David on Twitter (@DavidLat), LinkedIn, and Facebook, and you can reach him by email at email@example.com.
Published at Tue, 28 Mar 2017 23:48:53 +0000
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