A well-known attorney, who heads a 14 lawyer employment law boutique, decided to upgrade the firm’s website. The third party website designer scoured the Internet for some images to make the website more appealing. Mr. Up-grader settled on the certified trial lawyers seal, and embedded it in every page of the firm’s website. The problem was none of the firm’s attorneys was a certified trial lawyer.
The epic ethics journey began in 2007
The poisonous emblem came to the attention of the advisory committee on attorney advertising. The committee referred the matter to the Office of Attorney Ethics, which called it to the lawyers attention; and he ordered the emblem removed. However, according to the keepers of the king’s conscience, this bad behavior warranted further investigation.
Here’s what happened
District Ethics Committee VC charged the lawyer with violating RPC 8.4(c), conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation, and Rule 1:39-6(b), improper use of the emblem for a certified civil trial attorney. The DEC also recommended a reprimand, finding that even if the lawyers use of the seal was unintentional, his failure to review and monitor the content of the website violated the RPC and rule.
But the DRB dismissed the complaint Tuesday after finding a lack of clear and convincing evidence that the lawyer knowingly committed those violations.
The DRB said the OAE never refuted the lawyer’s claim that the mistake was inadvertent. The DRB also said the evidence supports his contention that he never held himself out as a certified attorney.
In addition, a violation of RPC 8.4(c) requires intent, an element absent in Hyderally’s case, the DRB said in explaining its 8-0 vote to dismiss.
“Because there is no clear and convincing evidence that respondent intended to include the emblem on his website or knowingly ratified its display, it cannot be found that he violated RPC 8.4(c),” the DRB said.
The DRB also noted that the OAE did not charge that Hyderally benefited from using the emblem” (Via the N.J. Law Journal).
As part of its investigation, the OAE reviewed Hyderally’s business and trust account records from April 2006 to August 2009, but found no improprieties. And Hyderally testified that he never accepted, or paid, referral fees.
In this age of websites, it is incumbent upon law firms outsourcing the design and updating of their websites, to be vigilant about the information contained on the site.
Good decision by the DRB to dismiss the complaint.