Every spring, more than 13,000 Palmetto State lawyers can congratulate themselves on meeting all the state requirements for continuing legal education.
They’ve met the March 1 deadline for completing 14 annual hours of state-mandated legal edification, including the two non-optional hours of professional ethics. They’ve timely filed their compliance reports with the state Supreme Court’s Commission on CLE and Specialization. And they’ve paid their filing fees, every penny.
The pressure’s off, the next deadline a year away.
And every spring the March 1 deadline that was once 12 months in the future creeps up on lawyers, who fail to complete their requirements and then miss a March 31 deadline to make amends. As of April 1, they’re on automatic suspension from the practice of law for violating Rule 419 of the S.C. Appellate Court Rules, but, after missing yet another deadline, two or three dozen find their names on the South Carolina Supreme Court’s website.
For them, it’s a predicament. For court officials who say the state CLE system offers lawyers plenty of CLEs year-round and deadline reminders, it’s something of a wonder.
So how does it happen?
Sometimes the offenders are under suspension for other infringements of the rules governing lawyers. Sometimes they’re lawyers in good standing who have moved to another state and just haven’t notified the Bar or the courts. Sometimes there’s a clerical error, or a CLE report got lost in the mail.
And sometimes there just isn’t any clear reason, said Mary Germack, director of the CLE commission.
“You kinda scratch your head and say, ‘Well, why did they get suspended when March 31 rolled around and we sent that notice in the middle of March?'” said Germack.
“What would you do if you had a paper notice and email that says you’re suspension is pending? You would drop what you’re doing and you would get your CLEs. I would. I wouldn’t allow myself to have an administrative suspension,” Germack said.
But for Mount Pleasant real estate lawyer Laura Knobeloch, it wasn’t quite as simple as that.
Knobeloch was one of 29 lawyers administratively suspended on April 1 after she missed the March 1 and March 31 deadlines. As a result, she either had to seek forgiveness from the CLE commission by June 1 or seek reinstatement from the South Carolina Supreme Court.
“I’m going to be back in their good graces this week,” Knobeloch told Lawyers Weekly.
“It’s just completely my fault that I missed it. There’s plenty of time to get your CLEs. You just stay on top of it and you don’t have a problem. I think everybody else being listed would agree with me that it’s just our own fault,” Knobeloch said.
Like all the other practitioners in the state, Knobeloch had to make sure her 14 hours included eight hours of “live” CLEs, in which lawyers undergo training together as opposed to on webinars. That was the problem, she said.
“Honestly, I wasn’t paying attention. I didn’t realize I needed as many hours as I needed and I completely wasn’t thinking about that live hours requirement. That’s what really hung me up,” she said.
Knobeloch said she has never missed a CLE deadline before. She said she got too busy with her practice and family concerns, including caring for two children and her handicapped father.
But, whatever their reasons for missing CLE requirements, lawyers have to keep up with the special responsibilities that come with their law licenses, said John Freeman, ethics professor emeritus at the University of South Carolina School of Law.
That includes not only complying with CLE rules but also refraining from the practice of law while suspended and notifying clients, he said.
Ethics rules require practitioners to communicate with each client as to any relevant limitation on their conduct when the clients expect assistance lawyers are forbidden to provide, he said. And agency rules set a similar standard.
“There might be a relevant limitation on your conduct if you don’t have a law license,” Freeman said.
For clients, the issue is simple: “You used to have a lawyer. Now you don’t,” Freeman said.
Freeman didn’t mince any words in regard to a lawyer who misses deadlines and continues practicing law while suspended.
“That lawyer is despicable. That’s uncaring and unfocused,” Freeman said.
“If you’re too busy to look after your own legal status, until you’ve shown that you’re capable of handling your own legal status, my thinking is you probably shouldn’t be handling anyone else’s,” he said.
Under Rule 419, missing the March 31 deadline means automatic suspension from practice and a $200 fine. The commission notifies the suspended lawyers, who have until May 1 to pay fines and ask the commission for reinstatement. Those who miss the May 1 deadline have until June 1 to get back in the commission’s good graces, but their names go into the advance sheets on the Supreme Court’s website.
After June 1, the path to reinstatement goes through the Supreme Court. And Rule 419 allows the court to turn petitioners over to its Committee on Character and Fitness or the Commission on Lawyer Conduct for an investigation and recommendation as to reinstatement, Freeman said.
In the worst-case scenario, a suspended lawyer who deliberately continues to practice law faces discipline if reported to the state Office of Disciplinary Counsel, but Lee Coggiola, director of the office, said she couldn’t recall any cases like that.
More often, she said, a suspended lawyer continues practicing in ignorance of the suspension. In one instance, a lawyer who changed firms had begun practice in her new job when she learned she was in violation because her previous employer had failed to send in her CLE report.
“Apparently, she had assumed that they had filed it, and it had never been sent over from her other job,” Coggiola said. “They had filed it for all their other lawyers, and she just didn’t know.”
But, absent events clearly beyond their control, lawyers suspended for missing CLEs have no excuses, Coggiola said. Nonetheless, they often claim they didn’t even realize they had been suspended.
“There’s no reason that they shouldn’t realize it because they get plenty of letters from the CLE specialization group. It’s published in the advance sheets ultimately. I mean, they are given ample, ample notice,” Coggiola said.
Also, when lawyers miss the March 31 deadline, the commission notifies every court in South Carolina of their suspensions, Germack said.
“We notify the judges, and they will have individuals come into their courtrooms and they will call them to the bench and say ‘I got a list. You are suspended.’ That list goes to everybody, even to the federal courts,” she said.
“That has in the past worked as far as the judges not allowing the attorneys to appear in their courtrooms,” Germack said.
However, Germack prefers that lawyers not miss any deadlines, period. To that end, the commission sends practitioners progress reports on their CLE attendance and updates on deadlines, she said.
“We send an interim report in September, in the middle of September. That puts them on the right track. Even if it’s not on their radar, they know they have this responsibility to get filed on or before March 1. We show them what their hours are. We give them an informational memo that can jog their memory on the rules or give them a person or entity to call,” Germack said.
“Then, if that’s not enough, we send our compliance reports in the middle of January,” Germack said. “It’s right before the Bar convention. They have an opportunity, if they get the report and they don’t have their hours, to go right to the Bar convention and get everything.”
The convention is just one of many options available when it comes to seminars, said Donnette Welch, assistant director of the CLE commission.
That’s because the S.C. Bar offers CLEs throughout the year in electronic and live formats. Lawyers can gather at 14 sites statewide to view CLE webcasts and broadcasts from the Bar’s headquarters in Columbia and can also view CLEs from their offices and homes, Welch said.
And there is no shortage of other CLE opportunities, including in-house offerings at law firms and seminars held by county bars and state agencies, Coggiola said.
But Knobeloch said she was unable to find enough live CLEs as deadlines loomed up. Now her name is on the state Supreme Court’s website, along with the names of the other 28 suspended for failure to meet the May 1 deadline.
The worst of it is the reaction of friends who saw her name on the suspension list sent out to the courts, Knobeloch said. They don’t seem to understand why she was suspended.
“This is the one thing that really, really bothered me about it, and I didn’t think about this, but I assumed they would put ‘These people were suspended for not getting their CLEs,’ and I don’t think they did,” Knobeloch said.
“So people are like, ‘Oh, my God, what happened.’ It’s the impact on my peers and the judges and the clerks of court and everybody,” she said.
“Any idiot who waits until this late, as late as I waited, I deserved what I got,” Knobeloch said. “I’m not complaining about that. But I will say that I was kind of trotting along assuming there would be plenty of stuff offered within the last two weeks before the deadline that you could run out and get. And I should not have assumed that.”
Welch said the letters specifically referenced CLE requirements.
“It just says that this person has been suspended from the practice of law for failure to meet the requirements for failure to file their compliance reports and pay their filing fees,” Welch said.