The Photoshop Lawyer
One of the things they don’t teach you much about in law school is that from time to time, you’re going to encounter someone who is crazy. And that’s what happened to a state bar prosecutor who got a complaint that a lawyer named Svitlana Sangary was advertising herself with deceptively-modified “publicity photographs.” And she turned out to be crazy.
Now, I know the word “crazy” is disfavored by psychologists and other mental health professionals, but my vocabulary lacks a better word. I’ll refrain from an offering an armchair diagnosis of precisely what mental illness may be at play here.
Well, you really need to read the opinion before you can understand what I’m talking about — and when you do, remember that the ethical charges against Ms. Sangary were a) not turning over a file to a client, and b) using deceptive advertising (specifically, the photoshopped pictures purportedly of herself with various entertainment and political figures). The charges were then expanded to c) not cooperating with the investigation after blowing off several hearings and filing rambling, not-really-related-to-much-of-anything stream-of-consciousness writings instead of what most lawyers would characterize as “argument” and “evidence.” Here’s a sample:
There is a popular expression, ‘sweet sixteen.’ The foregoing 16 pages can be characterized as a bitter-sweet sixteen, in SANGARY’s view. It goes without says as to why they are bitter. Can one envision the acts in the civil arena, more unseemly than the ones described above? But what SANGARY views as sweet is that this country, the United States of America, is truly the land of opportunity, where anything and everything is possible. SVITLANA SANGARY came to this country in her twenties, with nothing, and married another immigrant, who also had nothing. SANGARY passed LSAT [sic] without taking the preparation course, graduated cum laude from the Pepperdine University School of Law, and passed the bar without even taking the Barbri course. SANGARY’s American dream has come true, as she has been able to achieve a point wherein now, in her thirties, SANGARY is a prominent donor and philanthropist, supporting important social causes, who had recently received the email from President Obama, with the subject line, ‘I need your help today’, asking SVITLANA SANGARY for an additional donation. Please see Exhibit 30.
God Bless America!
What this has to do with turning over a file or relying on falsified pictures to advertise her services, I’m not real clear on. Neither was the Bar judge, who imposed six months of actual suspension and a bunch of other restrictions on her ability to practice. Really, the whole opinion, with its many excerpts of fanciful writings wholly disconnected from reality, has to be read to be believed. Bonus: it includes the defendant’s comparison of herself to Natalie Portman.
So I need a more acceptable word than “crazy.” Maybe a phrase, like “touched in the head?”
Now, one thing that I gripe about with folks who gripe about lawyers is that they frequently indicate that a lawyer who has done something bad ought to be disbarred. Disbarring a lawyer is a very grave thing to do, and ought to be a sort of professional punishment imposed only on the lawyers who do the very worst sorts of things or who are obviously a significant danger to the public. And the professional discipline here is pretty heavy, appropriate for someone who both fails to demonstrate appreciation for the gravity of the proceedings against her and who appears to be so daft as to suggest she may be a danger to her clients in the future — but the judge is content to allow her to either comply or to hang herself with her future conduct.
If you’re unfamiliar with litigation involving unsophisticated folks, you may not really appreciate just how much of this sort of babble is out there, filed in the courts. It’s remarkable to see epistolary psychotic breaks like these coming from an attorney — although I must hasten to add that this is not the first time I’ve seen that sort of thing coming from someone who was awarded the same license to practice law as I. This week.
I take three points from this:
1. We may not have set high enough barriers to entry into the legal profession. This woman’s bar card was, until very recently, the functional equal of mine, or Ted Olson‘s. As I said in a comment thread earlier this week: a California State Bar card and $4.29 gets you a tall latte at Starbuck’s.
2. People rarely get in trouble for their actual misdeeds; it’s how they respond to the accusations where they really dig holes for themselves. Ms. Sangary would have probably got a private reprimand had she simply admitted that she had screwed up, done what she could to make it better, and promised not to do it again. And then no one would be writing bad things about her out on teh Internetubes.
3. For the prospective law students and would-be future lawyers out there: this is part of the world you’re competing to step into, and not a negligibly small one at that. Do you really want a piece of this? It can be yours, sooner and oftener than you think!
Burt Likko is the pseudonym of an attorney in Southern California. His interests include Constitutional law with a special interest in law relating to the concept of separation of church and state, cooking, good wine, and bad science fiction movies. Follow his sporadic Tweets at @burtlikko, and his Flipboard at Burt Likko.