Is Attorney General Jeff Sessions at Risk of Professional Discipline?

Blog author and WMU-Cooley Law School Professor Victoria Vuletich teaches Professional Responsibility and Evidence at the Grand Rapids campus of Western Michigan University Cooley Law School. Before joining the WMU Faculty, she served as former staff ethics counsel of the State Bar of Michigan. Professor Vuletich was a guest lecturer at Hertford College, Oxford University, England, and will be returning to teach at Oxford in the summer of 2017.

As the political story of Attorney General Sessions’ recusal was unfolding last week, ethics attorneys around the country were busy discussing another potential twist to the situation: the possibility that Attorney General Sessions may be subject to professional discipline under the Alabama Rules of Professional Conduct. The possibility was first raised in a recent Rolling Stone article that quoted Fordham Law Professor Russell Pearce.1

Alabama Rule of Professional Conduct 8.4 states, in part:
It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to:
(c) Engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.

The standard in 8.4(c) is a lower standard than the standard required to prove perjury. Several cases have suggested that: “dishonesty” includes “conduct evincing a lack of honesty, probity or integrity in principle; a lack of fairness and straightforwardness,” but need not involve conduct legally characterized as fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation. In re Scanio, 919 A.2d 1137 (D.C. 2007).

Additionally, the comments to Alabama Rule of Professional Conduct 8.4 state, in part:

Lawyers holding public office assume legal responsibilities going beyond those of other citizens. A lawyer’s abuse of public office can suggest an inability to fulfill the professional role of attorney.

In short, attorneys who hold public office are held to a higher standard than other lawyers.

Here are the facts of Attorney General Sessions’ situation, as reported in a March 7, 2017 USA Today story:2:

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn . . . asked Sessions what he would do if he became aware that “anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign.”. . .

“I’m not aware of any of those activities,” Sessions responded at the time. “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn’t have have — did not have communications with the Russians.” . . .

“I did not mention communications I had had with the Russian ambassador over the years because the question did not ask about them,” Sessions said in a letter to the committee, explaining the disputed testimony.

“I answered the question, which asked about a ‘continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump’s surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government,’ honestly,” Sessions maintained.

Attorney General Sessions admits that he met with the Russian Ambassador Kislyak both in July at the Republican National Convention and in September in his Senate office, both meetings occurring while the presidential campaign was in full steam.

What is problematic for Attorney General Sessions is that:

1) by his own admission, he a “Trump surrogate,” – someone connected with the Trump campaign; and

2) the question did not inquire about a “continuing exchange of information during the campaign” but rather whether anyone affiliated with the campaign “communicated” with the Russian government during the course of the campaign.

At the moment he answered the question, he knew he had met with the Russian ambassador during the campaign. Whether it was about the subject matter of the campaign is irrelevant legally, as the question was asking, in essence, whether any communications had occurred, regardless of the content of the communications.

If a request for investigation is filed with the Alabama State Bar’s Office of General Counsel, the Office of the General Counsel is required by law to investigate and make a determination as to whether Attorney General Session’s response to the question and his subsequent reactions to the allegations of misrepresentation constitute a violation of Rule 8.4(c). Possible outcomes range from dismissal of the complaint outright if the Alabama State Bar believes 8.4(c) was not violated to suspension of Attorney General Sessions’ law license if it believes 8.4(c) was indeed violated. Other possible measures include a private or public reprimand.

If a discipline matter is pursued, Attorney General Sessions will have the benefit, like all other citizens, of being presumed innocent until proven guilty. But that will not halt the lingering political/policy question of what it means to have the nation’s top lawyer being subject to a professional discipline proceeding while in office.

1Rolling Stone, March 2, 2017, Why Jeff Sessions Must Resign as Attorney General

2USA Today, March 6, 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions: Senate testimony was ‘correct’

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Success as a New Solo – Five Essentials!

Professor Gary Bauer

WMU-Cooley Law School Professor Gary Bauer, a recent ABA Solo and Small Firm Trainer award winner, teaches Estate Planning to third-year law students and a directed study class he created called Solo By Design.

His blog, sololawyerbydesign.com, provides law students, recent solo practitioners, and seasoned professionals who wish to go solo, with information and resources to be successful in the legal business. This blog was first published on Feb. 16, 2017 at sololawyerbydesign.com.

What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

You just passed the Bar and now you have a license to practice law. If you want long term success, here are what I believe are the top five essential ingredients for a successful practice.

First, Find Where Your Passion and Excitement Intersect with the Economic Realities You Will Face.

It is not enough alone to want to change the world by defending the oppressed. You need to connect that passion with a way to manage student debt and put food on the table. If you can live off what you produce in your practice – fine. But, if your passion includes supporting a family and ultimately planning for your retirement, passion and excitement alone are not enough. It is a good start, but the graveyard of exhausted and disheartened former lawyers is full of those who failed to weigh and balance their passion with the other demands and realities of their lives. The best way to guarantee professional success is to do what you enjoy doing the most that allows you to make a good living.

Second, Limit Your Scope of Practice to Maximize Your Efficiency and Competence.

Too many new lawyers take whatever comes through their door. Niche practice is not just trendy. It is commonplace these days because the competitive nature of legal practice no longer mitigates in favor of generalized legal practice. It is nearly impossible to stay abreast of all the developments in the law in such broad areas of practice as family law, bankruptcy, estate planning, debt collection and landlord-tenant law. Yet you will find attorneys who advertise for all of these areas of practice and more. Thirty years ago you could open a practice and compete offering services in all of those areas. But those times are gone. Now, you compete on the internet with services that appear to have all the benefits of compilation and advice without the high cost of seeking professional services from a lawyer. In addition, you are competing more and more with other specialists. If you were seeking a divorce and given the choice between someone who advertises practice expertise in six or eight areas of law including family law and someone who advertises services only for males seeking divorce; as a male seeking a divorce who would you contact?

When marketing your firm as a general practitioner, who is your potential audience? It is true, this expands your potential area of influence. But, omit those who would choose a specialist when given the chance. Also, when you find you have a medical condition and your health is at stake, wouldn’t you seek the opinion of a specialist? If the opinion you got was from a general practitioner, how much would you be willing to pay compared to a specialist? The same is true of a general practice lawyer. The expectation is that, since you don’t specialize your fees should be less. Counting yourself among all the other general practice lawyers also means that, unless you can distinguish yourself from your competition, you will not be able to charge any more than the competitors down the street. And as a general practice lawyer, you will not be able to distinguish yourself in every area of practice that you offer your clients.

When advertising, as someone who specializes, you can tailor your message to address the pain points of your clients in unique and targeted ways. You can find publications or websites that draw the specific type of person you wish to reach with a message tailored to meet those individuals needs. When you reach them with your tailored message, they will be drawn to you for your unique skills and not by price alone. As a result, you are no longer competing with every other attorney in your area on price alone.

Third, Find the Identity and Brand That Fits You.

Too many attorneys have no brand at all or a brand that does not suit their personality or style of practice. Ask any court clerk about any attorney and they will tell you how their characteristics play out in reality. If you want to know your brand, first be yourself and not in the style of what you perceive to be the norm for a lawyer. Too many new grads assume the persona of how they believe someone with a law degree should interact with others. And too often, it means that they are aggressive, impolite and demanding. They do this because their law school professors projected that persona in law school and demonstrated a demanding and aggressive style while using the Socratic method of teaching.

Step back and evaluate yourself before law school. Find the real you. When you do, display that thoughtful, caring persona out as you engage clients, opponents, judges and, yes, court clerks. You know how confused and worried you were when you first started law school? Now that you are out in the field practicing law, it is OK to tell others that you don’t know all the answers. In fact, you know very few of the answers when you first start out. You will continue to learn each day that you practice. Every day will present new challenges with legal concepts or applications of the law that you had never considered before.

Finding your brand is like trying on different suits until you find one that feels right to you – but most important, feels right to your clients. How do you know if you have found it? If you are true to yourself and candid about your insecurities (at the appropriate times), the real you will come out. Ask the court clerk what they find most appealing about your personality? How would they describe you to a potential client? That is your brand – become aware of it and sell it.

Fourth, Produce High Quality Legal Work and Bill Accordingly.

If you feel you can just get by practicing law on the margins – you are right! We see it every day in the courts or when opposing counsel calls us clearly unaware of how the law works in their case. They find the judges telling them what to do in court or pointing out the legal or procedural mistakes they made in pursuit of their client’s objectives. Often their clients stand by their sides unaware of the very real damage that their lawyer did by missing deadlines or misunderstanding the law. The level of professionalism in the courts is quite diverse and often discouraging to someone like myself who trains law students how to practice law. Yet, many of those attorneys who are producing unsatisfactory legal work still find themselves fully booked with clients in spite of their inadequacies. That is not to say that they are highly successful. Many times, these are the lawyers who are struggling financially and end up being sanctioned by the state bar or sued for malpractice.

If you apply yourself, obtain good mentorship, communicate often and competently with your clients, and pay attention to business management principles, you will set yourself apart from those who practice on the margins. Your client base will continue to increase every year and you will not have to attract clients by pricing yourself below the competition. Survival will not be your goal and minimal competence will not be your standard if you work hard to do well. There are no short cuts.

Fifth, Keep Your Expenses Low, but Don’t Be Afraid to Spend Money to make Money.

Opening a law office can be very stressful, but don’t make the mistake of substituting STUFF for why the client comes to see you. Once in your office and your counseling session begins, all that stuff around you disappears. The focus is on you, not your stuff. That means that if you can get by with a laptop computer that you used in law school to do your work initially, then don’t buy a new one. If you can find someone to give you a broom closet for your office at low cost when you start out, then make the best of it.  Case management software isn’t going to help you make money when you first start out, but down the road as your client base expands and tracking a lot of open files in various states of development may require that you spend the money to access that resource to be able to use your time more efficiently billing for legal work and less on administrative work – which leads to hiring someone to help you. Resist at all costs hiring a full time employee until you absolutely need one. When you find you are spending hours doing what a high school student can do instead of billable work for your clients – it may be time to consider hiring someone and spending the money to make more money.

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New Zealand Land, Culture & People True Adventure

WMU-Cooley law students have jumped into their study abroad experience with both feet, warmly embracing this special land. Nothing short of an adventure, New Zealand’s changeable landscapes and experiences have been life changing. The challenging international courses have been enlightening and the world down under breathtaking with the richness of its oceans, mountains, ferns, and its multi-cultural, open and friendly citizenry.

Students were based in Hamilton, New Zealand, on the campus of the University of Waikato for their classroom experience, but their educational experience traveled far and wide.

Students compared Chinese & New Zealand law and New Zealand International Trade. They learned about the United Nations and Indigenous Rights. By the end of the term, they were making presentations in the state-of-the-art courtroom in the new law building. But that was just the start of their adventure in learning.

Travels included trips to the world-famous Raglan beach, Mount Manganui, touring the Marlborough wine region, absailing into Waitomo Caves, bungy jumping in Queenstown. It took their breath away!

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Students learned about Maori culture and legal systems. They were invited onto the Kirrikirriroa Marae, where they were formally welcomed and allowed to participate in part of an alternative sentencing workshop with criminal offenders. They visited the Maori Land Court, where they shared Hongi and tea with Court staff and Judge Stephanie Milroy.

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Students visited law firm McCaw Lewis, where they shared a meal with attorneys. They even learned to play cricket. During their last week, Dean Wayne Rumbles hosted a BBQ for the WMU-Cooley students at his home, where he cooked for the students and shared laughter and fellowship.

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Aeoteara/New Zealand will stay in the hearts of WMU-Cooley students and faculty as they move on to Melbourne for more adventure!

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PricewaterhouseCoopers Puts WMU-Cooley Grads to Good Work

From offices towering more than 30 floors above the heart of downtown Detroit, four WMU-Cooley Law School graduates practice their skills at the second largest professional services firm in the world, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). READ MORE in the Winter 2016 Benchmark Alumni Magazine (pages 8-11). 

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PwC is a network of firms in 157 countries with more than 200,000 employees. In Michigan, PwC has over 800 employees working in three core lines of service: tax, assurance, and advisory. When PwC’s Detroit office needs to fill the ranks in its tax division, Tim Pratcshler, principal in PwC’s state and local tax group, focuses his attention on recruiting top talent from colleges and universities, including law schools.

Tim Pratcshler, principal in PwC’s state and local tax group, talks about the qualities he looks for when hiring an attorney.

Justin Call (Coleman Class, 2009), Andrew Lane (Sharpe Class, 2008), Jennifer Paillon (Trimble Class, 2015), and Albert (A.J.) Robison (Johnson Class, 2013) are among the nearly 200 professionals who make up PwC’s tax practice for the company’s greater Michigan market.

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Justin Call (Coleman Class, 2009), talks about WMU-Cooley’s rigorous, but confidence building, legal education.

Andrew Lane (Sharpe Class, 2008), talks about the experience and quality of the professors.

Jennifer Paillon (Trimble Class, 2015), talks about the non-traditional path she took before she was able to fulfill her dream of being an attorney.

Albert (A.J.) Robison (Johnson Class, 2013), talks about how WMU-Cooley’s well-connected professors led him to a job at PwC.

 

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WMU-Cooley Patent Law Team Place High in U.S. Patent & Trademark Office Competition

“Team Joyce Hill and Christopher DeLucenay truly demonstrated an initiative and work ethic that one usually only finds in seasoned Patent attorneys,” declared WMU-Cooley Professor and Coach Gerald Tschura after his two Intellectual Property students brought home the overall third place trophy in the Midwest Regional International Patent Drafting Competition. “I was impressed by their creativity and competitive spirit. Joyce and Chris exemplify exactly that caliber and high degree of competency you need to to succeed as patent attorneys today.”

WMU-Cooley Law School Professor Gerald Tschura, Me, Joyce Hill, Chris DeLucenay, Dr. Christal Sheppard

WMU-Cooley Law School Professor Gerald Tschura, Me, Joyce Hill, Chris DeLucenay, Dr. Christal Sheppard

For the second consecutive year, WMU-Cooley students performed exceptionally well during the Midwest Region International Patent Drafting Competition.  The competition is hosted by the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

“Joyce and Christopher worked extremely hard, beginning in December, to conduct a thorough patent search and to prepare and submit a patent application based on a hypothetical invention provided by the competition,” explained Tschura. “Our submission, along with all the other competing schools, were then scored by a select panel of judges. Teams were then selected to orally present and explain their applications before two separate distinguished panels of judges and examiners from the USPTO as well as leading practitioners in patent law.”

“The team did an outstanding job and represented their school with distinction,” punctuated Tschura. “This second year of the competition saw a significant increase in the number of competing schools which made the competitive arena that much stiffer. After all written submissions were completed in mid-January, the field whittled down to nine schools that orally presented in February and defended their cases to panels of judges in at the USPTO office in Detroit. Competing teams were identified only by number for all submissions and during the presentations to assure anonymity in judging.”

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Professor Tschura went on to explain that “after the final round, the judges announced that only one point separated the top three teams. We finished in third, but only slightly behind St. Louis University and York University (Toronto).  I like to note that WMU-Cooley was the only law school of the four in Michigan to finish in the top three at the competition, and the only law school to have placed in the top three twice!”

Professor Tschura had only kudos for his team, and they for him. “Many thanks go to Joyce and Chris for their effort and hard work and for making WMU-Cooley proud.  Future inventors and clients will be very lucky to have either of these two outstanding future lawyers as their patent attorney!”

Joyce Hill was also pleased with how the team did in the competition, but also enjoyed her time at the competition. “I thought it was a great learning experience,” stated Hill. “I have so many to thank, but especially Professor Tschura for all of his help and guidance in making the competition such a success.  There is nothing like practicing what you have learned in school.”

The competition, hosted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), is now an annual event, with ambitions of including competitions at each of the USPTO regional satellite offices across the country.

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Frequent Flyer: Student flew from Seattle to Detroit for weekend classes at WMU-Cooley

A recent graduate of WMU-Cooley Law School who commuted to weekend classes from Seattle from Seattle, Mel Matias is a CPA and auditor with Boeing and is pictured in the cockpit of a Boeing 787 for delivery. Photo courtesy of Mel Matias.

A recent graduate of WMU-Cooley Law School who commuted to weekend classes from Seattle, Mel Matias is a CPA and auditor with Boeing and is pictured in the cockpit of a Boeing 787 for delivery. Photo courtesy of Mel Matias.

This article about WMU-Cooley Military Feature, Weekend Program student and recent graduate Melchor Matias was written by Legal News writer Sheila Pursglove and was originally published by the Legal News on Feb. 10, 2017. It is reprinted here with permission of The Detroit Legal News. WMU-Cooley is a military friendly and designated Yellow Ribbon School. We are proud of all our military students, faculty and graduates. Melchor is a retired Chief Personnelman from the U.S. Navy and traveled far and wide in his service to country and others. Beyond the United States, he served in the Philippines, Japan, Puerto Rico, Bangkok, Singapore, Hong Kong, and various places in Europe.

Melchor Matias flew from Seattle to Detroit every weekend to study for his J.D. at WMU-Cooley Law School-and graduated in January.

A CPA at Boeing in Seattle, Matias did licensing audits on royalty and technology contracts, and designed audit programs. His interaction with the lawyers of Fortune 100 companies sparked his interest in earning a law degree.

Because of his heavy travel assignments, a regular law school schedule was out of the question. But during a stopover in Detroit on a flight back from an audit in the United Kingdom, Matias spotted an item about Cooley Law School and its ABA-approved J.D. program on weekends.

“Because of the time difference and non-stop Delta flights between Seattle and DTW, it was a perfect plan,” he says. “Although my employer didn’t cover any tuition and travel, I had miles saved up from prior travels to kick start my commute. ”

Matias booked flights 3 to 6 months out each semester, to save costs. He had sufficient hotel points to kick start weekend stays, and car rental points.

“It all boiled down to planning ahead and all my work-related travel loyalty programs helped,” he says.

He was more than pleased with his experience at the Auburn Hills campus.

“Cooley has the most diverse group of students and the faculty members are very experienced and accommodating,” he says.

Beyond the rigorous legal studies and travel, Matias’s law school years were a personal struggle. In his first year, his mother was diagnosed with liver cancer, dying a month before his finals and he had to request special accommodation to take the exams. His father died the following year. Both parents had helped Matias, a single father, to raise his sons, Andy and Michael.

A year later, Michael was diagnosed with brain cancer a month before starting law school. Matias and Andy, who was in law school, each had to take a term break to be with Michael during his final 6 months.

“Had he survived, all three of us would be taking the bar exams this year,” Matias says. “Now, Andy and I are taking them this year-with all the thoughts and dedication for Michael.

“All these deaths followed one year after the other. It’s such a painful struggle, but life has to go on.”

Matias’s goal is to do an LLM in tax or corporate business and compliance, and he hopes to continue working in the legal business environment. He currently is working on applications for the LLM programs while studying for the bar exam.

“I’ve also been teaching at City University of Seattle, on and off for over 5 years, and would love to be in the academia and teach,” he says.

A native of Manila in the Philippines, Matias holds a bachelor’s degree in accounting from the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, and an MBA from Columbia College of Missouri at the campus in Marysville, Wash.

“I’ve always been fascinated with money-who isn’t! When I was 6, we had lots of fruit trees in our home in provincial Philippines. I would pedal around town with baskets full of avocados and mangoes and make enough money for my snacks the entire school year,” he says.

Matias previously served in the U.S. Navy, retiring as a Chief Personnelman. He traveled far and wide, with posts at Subic Bay in the Philippines; Okinawa, Yokosuka, and Sasebo in Japan; and Roosevelt Roads in Puerto Rico, as well as deployments and port visits to Bangkok, Singapore, Hong Kong, and various places in Europe.

In the United States he was stationed in San Diego; San Francisco; Port Hueneme in California; Meridian, Miss., Florida; and Denver, where he was a recruiter-“The most fun job I had in the Navy next to the SeaBees,” he says. He was deployed on the USS Sterett-and named his son Andrewsterett after the ship-and with the NMCB 5 (SeaBees).

During his Navy service, Matias provided tax assistance to military members and their families and the elderly through the volunteer income tax assistance (VITA) program-and once he passes the Washington state bar exam in July, vows to continue giving back to his community by providing affordable and/or pro-bono legal advice and assistance to the disenfranchised-“Including but not limited to the elderly, the military, the poor, the LGBQT community, single parents like me, students, and anyone struggling to be able to afford legal advise and representation to assert their rights,” he says.

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Weekend law student Stephanie Samuels: Never too late to start a new life

Stephanie Samuels was almost 60 years old when she finally discovered she could make her life dream of going to law school a reality. Up until then, “life sort of just happened,” and it was never really an option – until she heard about WMU-Cooley’s weekend program.

“I talked to my husband about it,” said Samuels, “and I said, ‘You know what, I think I might be able to do this.'”

Since Stephanie worked for American Airlines, she philosophized that, with a little bit of creativity and some luck, it was within reason for her to fly from her home in the Texas, Dallas-Fort Worth area to WMU-Cooley’s Lansing campus once a week for classes. Well, that is exactly what she was able to do, every weekend for the last five years.

Even better, she was able to fly back and forth for free.

“Now the cool thing for me is I actually can fly standby,” grinned Stephanie, “and in the entire five years I went to law school, I only missed one weekend. WMU-Cooley has been flexible – really, really flexible for me. I have been able to do a lot of things I never thought I would be able to do. I got to be part of a mock trial team as a weekend student, plus I got to study abroad two semesters, in both Oxford, England and in Hamilton, New Zealand. I would never have been able to do those kind of things had it not been for Cooley and the weekend program.

“All of my law school experiences have really opened life up for me and given me the confidence to start my own private practice in international law. I’m even thinking about doing a non-profit, which was an offshoot idea I got from a contact I made during my time in New Zealand. One of the professors at the University of Waikato was a member of the United Nations in New York and she invited me and another law student to the UN’s annual indigenous rights convention.  What an incredible opportunity! I will never forget it.

“I am so excited to start this new life and explore all the possibilities . They are endless to me now. That’s because of Cooley.”

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