Attorney Misconduct, Bad Ideas, Bar Exams, Law Schools, Lawyer of the Day, Legal Ethics, Pro Se Litigants, Traffic Accidents, Trials

Would-Be-Lawyer of the Day: Don’t Put ☺ in a Court Filing

Here’s some good news for lawyers who enjoy blogging or instant-messenger services like Gchat. It’s right in the headline of this here National Law Journal story: Smiley face, snark, don’t render law grad unfit to practice.

Many of us get snarky in our personal writing, and many of us employ emoticons in email messages or Gchat exchanges. As litigators well know, sometimes a cold transcript doesn’t adequately convey tone. For this reason, I’ve even seen federal judges use winking smiley-face emoticons in email messages.

But you shouldn’t use smiley faces in documents you file with the court — even the super-icky courts that hear traffic appeals (yes, they exist). This is a lesson that Marilyn Ringstaff, a 2006 graduate of John Marshall Law School, learned the hard way….

As the old proverb goes, “He who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client.” (A slightly less well-known proverb: Only dumbass children reflexively use emoticons.)

This tale, like many other unfortunate ones, begins with a person in the legal profession deciding to go pro se. From Leigh Jones of the NLJ:

[Marilyn] Ringstaff, who is nurse practitioner, represented herself in a minor traffic accident trial while she was a first-year law student, according to the decision. She was found guilty and ordered to pay a $250 fine. An appeals court affirmed.

And what was the basis of Ringstaff’s appeal, you might ask? Ineffective assistance of counsel — namely, her own.

That’s pretty rich. But it gets better:

When she mailed the payment to the court, she included a note with a smiley face that said, “Keep the change — put into a police/judicial education fund. I am now a second-year law student and can honestly relate to what a crooked and inequitable system of justice we have.”

She also wrote: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

A few quick observations:

1. Yes, renegade traffic courts are a bitch. But characterizing your moving-violation conviction as “the triumph of evil” is a bit much.

2. And so is going to trial in an (unsuccessful) effort to avoid a $250 fine. If you wanted to get some courtroom experience, Marilyn, you should have taken trial practice or joined a clinic.

3. The snarky note with the smiley face probably wasn’t a wise idea. Then again, leaving a career as a nurse practitioner to go to John Marshall Law probably wasn’t either.

Then Ringstaff applied to take the Georgia bar. Here’s what happened next:

During the application process, a hearing officer recommended that Ringstaff be allowed to take the exam, but the Board to Determine Fitness of Bar Applicants disagreed. The board was particularly concerned about statements that it said she made during an informal interview.

According to the board, Ringstaff had said that “every police officer lies.”

Funny, they say that about lawyers too.

But don’t fret; everything turned out peachy for this Georgia bar applicant:

The Supreme Court of Georgia has ruled that a law graduate who represented herself in a traffic case, made impertinent comments to the court and claimed ineffective representation after she lost the case nevertheless can sit for the state’s bar examination….

The court’s per curiam ruling rejected the [attorney fitness] board’s finding and granted Ringstaff a certificate of fitness to practice law. “Ms. Ringstaff established that she possesses the integrity and character required to be a member of the State Bar of Georgia,” the judges wrote.

She’s certainly more ethical than this Georgia jurist.

In fairness to Marilyn Ringstaff, here are some facts that place her in a better light, noted by Debra Cassens Weiss in the ABA Journal:

Ringstaff had told the board she was acquainted with the court clerk and considered the smiley face note to be “more of an off-the-record note to her.” Her comments about lying police officers were also nuanced; she had told the board she drew her conclusions about an inequitable justice system after reading the writing of law professor Alan Dershowitz, who had written that every police officer lies. She also said that her law school professionalism courses had taught her that the note would be inappropriate if written by a lawyer.

Glad to hear our legal education system is functioning so effectively. Maybe this episode can spawn some questions for the MPRE?

Setting snark aside, we congratulate Marilyn Ringstaff on being found eligible to sit for the bar, and we wish her the best of luck on the exam. Based on her LinkedIn profile and her blog, she definitely seems like a good-hearted person, who wants to use law and public health to make the world a better place.

☺☺☺☺☺☺☺☺☺☺

Smiley face, snark, don’t render law grad unfit to practice [National Law Journal]
Law Grad’s Snarky, Smiley Face Note Not a Bar to Law License, Ga. High Court Rules [ABA Journal]

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