Professionalism Counseling Program
The primary mission of the Commission on Professionalism in the Law is to foster within the legal community a climate of appropriate professional behavior, respect for others, and commitment to the important values that have long shaped the legal profession. Certainly, the majority of lawyers conduct themselves in such a manner. However, there are other lawyers that show little respect for colleagues, clients, or the courts.
In 1997 the Commission developed a novel approach, the Professionalism Counseling Program, aimed at helping to curb unprofessional behavior and restoring public confidence in the bar. The Commission asked county bar associations across New Jersey to take the lead through the establishment of Professionalism Committees that would have the ability to identify and counsel lawyers whose conduct falls short of accepted levels of professional behavior or competence.
The Professional Counseling Program has been approved by the New Jersey Supreme Court and judges have been urged to cooperate to help ensure that the program's objectives are met. The program, however, is not court controlled nor is it an arm of the lawyer disciplinary system. It is a bar initiative aimed directly at improving the profession.
The Professionalism Counseling Program addresses conduct by lawyers that does not rise to the level of a violation of the ethics rules (the Rules of Professional Conduct). Thus, it does not handle any matter that is within the jurisdiction of a District Ethics Committee. For instance, the program deals with such things as harassing conduct, abusive litigation tactics, incivility, inappropriate courtroom conduct, and repeated lack of respect for colleagues, judges, and court staff. The program is educational in nature. No discipline or sanctions are imposed, and all matters are confidential. The only records kept are those relating to the type of complaint addressed.
The program is operated through Professionalism Committees appointed by county bar associations. The precise composition, structure and operation of a committee is left to the bar association to establish, and different approaches have been taken. Some committees operate under formal operational rules; others deal with complaints on a more ad hoc basis. Another committee has established a mediation program to deal with disputes between lawyers. The commission encourages such experimentation and leaves it to bar associations to determine what type of program best fits the needs of the bench and bar of that county.
The Commission has, however, set some basic guidelines for Professionalism Committees:
- Each committee, and a committee chair, should be appointed by the county bar president.
- Lawyer members of committees should be highly regarded and experienced members of the bar with reputations for competence, integrity and civility. Judges, both sitting and retired, are encouraged to participate and should exhibit the same qualities.
- The program should offer assistance in the following circumstances:
- A lawyer requests assistance in dealing with another lawyer, or in addressing specific conduct of another lawyer
- A lawyer requests assistance in dealing with a professionalism issue
- A judge requests assistance in dealing with a lawyer, or in addressing specific conduct of a lawyer
- The Appellate Division encounters unprofessional behavior and refers an opinion to the Commission, for referral to the appropriate county bar committee.
- The program shall not handle complaints from clients, or members of the public.
Generally, complaints are directed to the chair of the Professionalism Committee. Lawyers and judges seeking advice about where to bring a complaint should contact either the president, or executive director, of the bar association where the lawyer in question practices, or where the incident took place. The evaluation of complaints is done pursuant to committee rules and guidelines. Most committees will ask a member to look into a complaint by talking with the lawyers involved. If further action is deemed necessary, committee members will be assigned to counsel the lawyer in question, or the lawyer will be asked to appear before the committee. If a lawyer is reluctant to cooperate, the assignment judge (pursuant to Court Directive #1-97) may be asked to intercede and assist in ensuring the lawyer's cooperation.
Currently, almost all of New Jersey's twenty-one county bar associations have adopted some form of professionalism counseling. Committees may also refer lawyers to other programs, if the circumstances so warrant. For instance, such referrals have been made in cases where substance abuse problems have been uncovered.