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Your client tells you he's going to kill his ex-girlfriend and bomb state police barracks. Or perhaps you have an elderly client with limited capacity, who just got a new, very controlling, home health aide. Maybe you took on a case that you realize you don't have the resources to handle. What do you do?
If you need advice, you can ask. Many state and local bar associations have ethic hotlines that can guide lawyers through difficult situations. They can even save lives.
So That Kill the Ex, Bomb the Police Guy ...
We were reminded of the importance of state ethics hotlines last week, after it was revealed that a Pennsylvania man's murderous plot was foiled not by the cops but by his lawyer. Howard Cofflin Jr., of York Pennsylvania, told his lawyer that he was going to "take back" his ex-girlfriend's house and that he had the AR-15 rifle and body armor needed to do it.
That lawyer, Seamus Dubbs, gave his state bar ethics hotline a call and ended up warning the police about Cofflin's plans. When he was arrested, Cofflin admitted to planning to decapitate his ex and bomb state police barracks.
And he might have gotten away with it, if it wasn't for that meddling lawyer and his ethics hotline.
I Know When That Hotline Bling ...
The Pennsylvania Bar Association, like many states bars, offers a confidential ethics hotline for attorneys, offering free advisory opinions "based upon review of a member's prospective conduct."
The American Bar Association lists 17 state and local bar association hotlines, spanning from Alaska to Florida and back again. It's not a complete list, either -- Pennsylvania's ethics hotline is not included, for example -- so if you're bar isn't on it, try checking your state bar association's website as well.
You Still Have to Do Your Work
Not all ethics hotlines are the same, however. Some ethics hotlines are staffed by volunteers, not appointed members of the bar's ethic's board. Some can answer general questions, some can't. Some can respond via email, some won't.
So while you should take advantage of available ethics resources, remember that the hotline is only the jumping-off point for your own ethics research.