Justices: Attorneys must consult with clients

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The Indiana Supreme Court has suspended for three months a longtime attorney who prepared wills for clients without ever personally consulting with them.

Issuing an order In the Matter of Paul J. Watts, No. 60S00-0809-DI-510, the justices ruled 4-1 that Spencer-based attorney Paul J. Watts, who's been practicing since 1974, should be suspended for 120 days starting Jan. 29, 2010. The order was posted online today and is dated Dec. 22.

The case stems from a previous disciplinary action involving Bloomington attorney David J. Colman, whom the justices suspended in May 2008 for three years after finding he'd engaged in attorney misconduct on multiple estate planning tasks through the years. Three justices opted for the suspension, while Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard and Justice Brent Dickson wanted disbarment because this was his fourth disciplinary proceeding since being admitted in 1970. That decision came with the order, Matter of Colman, 885 N.E.2d 1238 (Ind. 2008).

In Watts' case, Colman had consulted with G.A. - a 95-year-old man who lived alone and was hospitalized with a broken hip - in 2004 about his need for a will, and Colman contacted Watts to prepare the will. G.A. was concerned about the state ending up with his assets upon his death, and he agreed to name Colman as his sole primary beneficiary with Colman's son as a contingent beneficiary.

Colman met and discussed the issues with G.A. privately and Watts never met with G.A. or discussed the will with him, though one of Watts' paralegals did contact the man's physician and caseworker and communicated with Colman. The paralegal also went over the final will with G.A.

A week after the will's execution, Colman filed a petition that he be named as guardian over G.A.'s estate because of what he said was the man's mental incapacitation. He obtained that guardianship role, though the elderly man eventually obtained new counsel and challenged the guardianship and ultimately drafted a new will that left $650,000 to Indiana University's Hilltop Garden and Nature Center, where G.A. had worked as a yardman.

In this disciplinary case, Watts maintained throughout the proceedings that he'd done nothing wrong in failing to communicate with G.A. about the will, instead trusting Colman to communicate on his behalf and delegating to a paralegal any duty to explore G.A.'s competence or wishes about the will. Watts said until this disciplinary issue arose, it was his standard practice to draft wills for elderly, bedfast clients without consulting them and relying instead on information provided by family members in order to minimize legal fees for the clients.

The Disciplinary Commission filed the action against Watts in September 2008, and former Vigo Superior Judge Barbara Brugnaux was named as the hearing officer in this case. Earlier this year, she determined that Watts committed misconduct and recommended that he be suspended. The justices agreed, finding that he violated three Indiana Professional Conduct Rules: 1.4(b) on failure to explain matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit a client to make informed decisions; 1.7 that involves attorneys representing clients when the representation would be materially limited by attorney's responsibilities to a third person or by a personal interest of the lawyer; and 8.4(a) that prohibits knowingly assisting another to violate the lawyer disciplinary rules, particularly the one prohibiting the preparation of an instrument for a non-relative giving the lawyer or person related to the lawyer a substantial gift.

"Respondent's unwavering argument that he can ethically represent a client without communicating with the client displays a troubling lack of insight into his duty of undivided loyalty to the client," the court wrote. "If fees are a concern, the lawyer's options are to reduce the fees or decline the employment, not conduct it in breach of duty. Irreparable harm may well result if the client dies with a will that does not reflect his or her wishes. The need for independent advice is particularly acute if the client is vulnerable due to age or disability. A desire to minimize a client's legal fees cannot take precedence over the obligation to provide the independent legal counsel for which the fees are paid."

Justices pointed out that despite Watts' "lack of insight" into his misconduct, he no longer uses the no-contact practice with clients that put this case into motion. For that reason, a majority decided that the 120-day suspension is sufficient to give Watts "the opportunity to reflect on his misconduct, reassess his duties to his clients, and take any further corrective action" before being automatically reinstated to practice law.

Justice Frank Sullivan dissented on the discipline, believing it to be insufficient.

Responding to news about the court's disciplinary decision, Watts told Indiana Lawyer today that he regretted that this had happened but wanted to avoid saying much about the ruling itself. He said this is the first disciplinary action against him in 36 years of practicing.

"If there's a lesson to be learned here for the benefit of the bar, it's that you must talk directly to the person for whom you're drafting the will... you can't take it from anyone else," he said. "I thought I'd covered it. Obviously, I was wrong. I'm sorry that I was wrong and I certainly didn't mean to discredit the profession. What else do you say?"

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  1. I think the cops are doing a great job locking up criminals. The Murder rates in the inner cities are skyrocketing and you think that too any people are being incarcerated. Maybe we need to lock up more of them. We have the ACLU, BLM, NAACP, Civil right Division of the DOJ, the innocent Project etc. We have court system with an appeal process that can go on for years, with attorneys supplied by the government. I'm confused as to how that translates into the idea that the defendants are not being represented properly. Maybe the attorneys need to do more Pro-Bono work

  2. We do not have 10% of our population (which would mean about 32 million) incarcerated. It's closer to 2%.

  3. If a class action suit or other manner of retribution is possible, count me in. I have email and voicemail from the man. He colluded with opposing counsel, I am certain. My case was damaged so severely it nearly lost me everything and I am still paying dearly.

  4. There's probably a lot of blame that can be cast around for Indiana Tech's abysmal bar passage rate this last February. The folks who decided that Indiana, a state with roughly 16,000 to 18,000 attorneys, needs a fifth law school need to question the motives that drove their support of this project. Others, who have been "strong supporters" of the law school, should likewise ask themselves why they believe this institution should be supported. Is it because it fills some real need in the state? Or is it, instead, nothing more than a resume builder for those who teach there part-time? And others who make excuses for the students' poor performance, especially those who offer nothing more than conspiracy theories to back up their claims--who are they helping? What evidence do they have to support their posturing? Ultimately, though, like most everything in life, whether one succeeds or fails is entirely within one's own hands. At least one student from Indiana Tech proved this when he/she took and passed the February bar. A second Indiana Tech student proved this when they took the bar in another state and passed. As for the remaining 9 who took the bar and didn't pass (apparently, one of the students successfully appealed his/her original score), it's now up to them (and nobody else) to ensure that they pass on their second attempt. These folks should feel no shame; many currently successful practicing attorneys failed the bar exam on their first try. These same attorneys picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and got back to the rigorous study needed to ensure they would pass on their second go 'round. This is what the Indiana Tech students who didn't pass the first time need to do. Of course, none of this answers such questions as whether Indiana Tech should be accredited by the ABA, whether the school should keep its doors open, or, most importantly, whether it should have even opened its doors in the first place. Those who promoted the idea of a fifth law school in Indiana need to do a lot of soul-searching regarding their decisions. These same people should never be allowed, again, to have a say about the future of legal education in this state or anywhere else. Indiana already has four law schools. That's probably one more than it really needs. But it's more than enough.

  5. This man Steve Hubbard goes on any online post or forum he can find and tries to push his company. He said court reporters would be obsolete a few years ago, yet here we are. How does he have time to search out every single post about court reporters and even spy in private court reporting forums if his company is so successful???? Dude, get a life. And back to what this post was about, I agree that some national firms cause a huge problem.