In a recent attorney disciplinary case involving intentional overbilling of multiple clients, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) imposed a two-year suspension on an attorney for violations of Massachusetts Rules of Professional Conduct. Although the case largely focused on the intentionally fraudulent billing practice of the individual attorney, the SJC took the opportunity to address the connection between lawyer well-being and professional conduct for the first time in a reported decision.
Throughout the proceedings, the attorney maintained that the overbilling was not intentional, but rather a product of her particular billing system in place. She also presented factors in mitigation of her discipline: an intense workload that caused her to neglect her sleep and physical health, and forced her to regularly work 12-hour days including holidays, weekends, and during vacations. The attorney also asserted that during the relevant time, her sister was diagnosed with a serious illness.
Although the SJC refused to find any causal relationship between these stress factors and the alleged misconduct, due to lack of evidence on the record connecting the two, the SJC did take the opportunity to acknowledge the role that lawyer well-being plays in the context of both fitness to practice law and the administration of justice. In doing so, the court recognized that “major issues negatively affecting well-being in the legal profession” have been well-documented, particularly by the SJC’s Steering Committee on Lawyer Well-Being Report to the Justices, citing to the relentless pace and the pure volume of work expected, and the stigma associated with seeking help. The SJC appropriately noted that it is not just the lawyers’ health and personal life that pay the price for this troubled state, but rather, lawyer well-being is closely intertwined with competence, ethical behavior, and professionalism.
In closing, the SJC stated: “We urge leaders of the bar, supervisors in the public sector, partners in law firms, private employers, and individual attorneys to be mindful that attorney well-being and competence are interconnected, and that ‘lawyer well-being influences ethics and professionalism.’” For more insight and information on the interconnections of attorney well-being and the profession, please see the Supreme Judicial Court Steering Committee on Lawyer Well-Being: Report to the Justices and The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: The Report of the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being.