This is the second in a series of columns based on a recorded discussion with George B. Collins, a lion of the Chicago bar who died in October at age 85.
For six decades, George B. Collins was the go-to advocate for lawyers and judges facing charges before the Judicial Inquiry Board and the Attorney Registration & Disciplinary Commission.
In the first section of our discussion that ran in the Daily Law Bulletin on Feb. 8, George shared his advice about practice before the JIB. In this section, he talks about ARDC practice.
Even for George Collins, each ARDC cases was sui generis, unlike anything else.
There is no mediation before the ARDC like there is in tort or law firm breakups, but Collins said that sometimes you’re close enough to the agency’s proposed sanction that you do negotiate.
“It’s a trial lawyer from the investigation level. They have about 35 of them — and very good lawyers. Very dedicated, good people. … The lawyer may say, ‘OK, this case is one year.’ And you say, ‘Maybe six months.’ You try to get your opponent to present your views to the administrator. ”
“The idea of a mediation is so helpful in every kind of law except this,” Collins continued. “It doesn’t work.”
And he said negotiation is very different too: “I’ll propose what I’ll take, and I try to be very candid. I have to analyze what I think they can give me based on experience, and I try to get close to that.”
Negotiation strategies include use of published decisions both to show guilt or innocence and to argue degree of sanction. Also useful is showing a factual disparity between the complainant’s case and your client’s or showing that the harm done was minimal.
It helps, Collins said, to show that “he or she is a person who has lived a good life but made one mistake, basically a good person and done a lot of good.”
Character witnesses can be hugely important because “they want to see the position of the lawyer in the community of lawyers.”
George noted there’s “a lot of malice against lawyers, a lot of people who are complaining are malicious, and sometimes they’re malicious and right, but sometimes they’re malicious,” and they go too far and get caught, like the client who altered a check after depositing it.
Cases involving a client fund shortage are generally the most difficult to argue: “My eloquence has never succeeded in closing the file even though the money was taken for a good purpose,” Collins said.
All in all, the ARDC system, George believed, is basically fair because of the extremely good people who get appointed. In almost every case, he said, he enjoyed his opponents, he liked them and they fought hard.
Clients could be another matter. He remembered one awful experience with a client: “I had to defend him, and it was like walking around with mud on a new shirt. It was terrible. I got beat, but I’m embarrassed to this day that I represented him.”
George reflected on a difference between lawyers and judges when word gets out that there is a matter pending at the ARDC or the JIB.
“A lawyer can get a bad beef at ARDC,” he said. “He doesn’t lose any friends. His friends at the bar are still his friends. They will help him, they will testify for him, they’ll go and round up some judge to be a character witness for him. Lawyers will help each other. They’re not embarrassed to help a person who’s under charges.”
Not so for the bench, though.
“A judge who gets involved with the Courts Commission and the JIB, he is a loner. Other judges don’t want him walking by their door. Judges are not firms, of course, but judges are lonesome. When a judge gets in trouble, he’s a lonesome person. He can hire a lawyer. We’ll help him. We’ll be nice to him.
“I would say that’s the biggest difference. You have people who are wonderful people who are judges, and yet they get into difficulty and other judges just shun them. I think that’s not always true, but often true.”
I asked George why he never became a mediator or arbitrator, or went on the bench, and was surprised at his answer.
“I have no judicial talent,” he said. “I think being a judge is a high calling, and a greater calling than any that I’ve ever had. I don’t feel that I can do that. I did an arbitration once. A judge appointed me an arbitrator with full power once, and it was awful. I gave a woman $9,000 and that was it. I said, ‘Never again will I decide what you get, what you don’t get.’ I’m not a decider of other people’s lives. I’m an advocate, and there’s a difference. I don’t know that being a good lawyer makes you a good judge, or being a good judge makes you a good trial lawyer. I would say that it’s two different occupations and I don’t believe in mixing them up, and I don’t want to be a mediator, arbitrator and I don’t want to say, ‘OK, let’s settle,’ because then you’ve got to ask one of them, ‘OK, you’ve got to give up this, or give up that.’ I’m intellectually capable of doing that, I think, but I don’t know. I’m just not going to try it. I never have, and I’m not going to.”