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Judge Felton on compassion

WINTERGREEN–The chief judge of the Virginia Court of Appeals had a few words of advice for the men and women who mete out lawyer discipline.

Dishonest lawyers are a pox and should be gotten rid of.

But mistakes are easy to make and may be prompted by any number of reasons – family problems, age, money problems, substance abuse issues. For lawyers who fall into those categories, he said he hoped the bar would find a way to help that person get over and through the problem and get back to being a productive member of the profession.

Judge Walter Felton’s call for compassion came at the Virginia State Bar Disciplinary Conference July 13. The annual gathering brings together the VSB’s disciplinary staff with the volunteers, both lawyers and laypeople, who serve on the VSB Disciplinary and the bar’s regional disciplinary committees.

And some lawyers get in trouble because they take cases they have no business taking because of financial pressure. Felton expressed concern for newer lawyers.

“More and more young lawyers don’t have the ability to do what they’re trying to do,” he said. There is “no mentoring” for them, and with an overbearing debtload from their law school student loans and the need just to keep the lights on, they get into trouble.

Felton said he knows that those in the disciplinary system see these problems. But he and his colleagues on the appeals court see them as well.

The lack of mentoring shows up there in the poor behavior of lawyers who don’t know how to act – and this lack of civility and professionalism leads lawyers to hyperventilate and make ad hominem attacks against opposing counsel or the opposite party.

In an anecdote that showed steel beneath the judge’s typical courteous manner, Felton told how one lawyer in a support case attacked the opposing party, saying things such as “her only impairment is her indolence” and other denigrating comments.

The judge said the court put all that language in its opinion, along with its “tart ruling” against the lawyer who made those comments.

Then Felton sent the lawyer’s brief to the bar, citing the canon that requires a judge to report lawyer misconduct when he or she sees it.

Felton saluted the men and women who handle discipline of lawyers, noting that their work is important to a self-regulated profession.

And he asked them to be “discerning.”

Dishonest lawyers? “Remove them” from the profession.

Lawyers with problems? For those able to be rehabilitated, Felton called on the bar to “provide some system or direction on how to get deficiencies corrected.”

Be “firm but compassionate,” he asked.


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