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. Great observation Smith. By my lights, speaking personally, they already have. They counted my religious perspective in a pro-life context as a symptom of mental illness and then violated all semblance of due process to banish me for life from the Indiana bar. The headline reveals the truth of the Hoosier elite's animus. Details here: Denied 2016 petition for cert (this time around): (“2016Pet”) Amicus brief 2016: (“2016Amici”) As many may recall, I was banned for five years for failing to "repent" of my religious views on life and the law when a bar examiner demanded it of me, resulting in a time out to reconsider my "clinging." The time out did not work, so now I am banned for life. Here is the five year time out order: Denied 2010 petition for cert (from the 2009 denial and five year banishment): (“2010Pet”) Read this quickly if you are going to read it, the elites will likely demand it be pulled down or pile comments on to bury it. (As they have buried me.)

  2. if the proabortion zealots and intolerant secularist anti-religious bigots keep on shutting down every hint of religious observance in american society, or attacking every ounce of respect that the state may have left for it, they may just break off their teeth.

  3. "drug dealers and traffickers need to be locked up". "we cannot afford just to continue to build prisons". "drug abuse is strangling many families and communities". "establishing more treatment and prevention programs will also be priorities". Seems to be what politicians have been saying for at least three decades now. If these are the most original thoughts these two have on the issues of drug trafficking and drug abuse, then we're no closer to solving the problem than we were back in the 90s when crack cocaine was the epidemic. We really need to begin demanding more original thought from those we elect to office. We also need to begin to accept that each of us is part of the solution to a problem that government cannot solve.

  4. What is with the bias exclusion of the only candidate that made sense, Rex Bell? The Democrat and Republican Party have created this problem, why on earth would anyone believe they are able to fix it without pushing government into matters it doesn't belong?

  5. This is what happens when daddy hands over a business to his moron son and thinks that everything will be ok. this bankruptcy is nothing more than Gary pulling the strings to never pay the creditors that he and his son have ripped off. they are scum and they know it.