Lynda Shely: Taking a Bite out of Legal Ethics

Lynda Shely
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As an ethics lawyer Lynda Shely tries to give her 1,100 law firm clients peace of mind. At the firm, state and national levels she has helped to shape and refine professional responsibility regulations to retain the deep integrity of the legal industry while advising others about the finer points in legal ethics. Her service to the legal community resulted in revisions to lawyer regulation in Arizona which serve to better ethics endeavors industry-wide.

Not Settling Down Shely’s initial foray into the field of law came about as a result of a college professor’s flippant comments. “A college professor told me that, in spite of graduating at the top of the college class that I should really just get married and have kids. It’s not a good reason to become a lawyer. In fact, I’ve told all of my law students not go to law school to prove a professor wrong. In my case it seemed to work out,” explains Shely who has taught legal ethics at all three Arizona law schools.

Shely went on to graduate in the top 5 percent of her law school class and started as an associate at one of the top 20 largest international law firms in Washington, D.C. practicing trademark law, franchise law and antitrust litigation.

Positive Role Models At the law firm in Washington, D.C. many of Shely’s supervising partners served as mentors to the young attorney. “They took the time to teach me proper legal writing (hence my continuing aversion to red ink) and oral advocacy,” states Shely. “Even though the private practice of law is a for-profit industry, they took the time to take me to depositions and to trials, and modeled professional client relationship skills. More than anything, my mother always told me to treat everyone with respect and appreciate the things that other people do for you, and that has also served me well.”

Shely says that legal assistants at the firm who had more than 30 years of experience were incredibly valuable to her in learning the ropes of the legal world. “All of the mentors at the firm were very good folks who tried to train new lawyers to first be good people and second to be good lawyers,” she explains.

Making the Transition to Ethics Law Shely and her husband, a commercial litigator at Bryan Cave, had their first child while they were living in Washington, D.C. “We decided for quality of life purposes to move to Arizona where Bryan Cave had opened an office,” Shely says.

“When I became outnumbered at home after the birth of twins, I went to a friend of mine at the State Bar of Arizona and said, ‘I will do anything you want, if I can just have lunch without having to cut somebody else’s food!’”

Her friend offered her part-time work and Shely dove in, eventually going on to create the ethics hotline at the state bar. “By the time I left in 2003 we were getting about 8,000 ethics calls a year,” Shely states. “It wasn’t the same lawyer calling over and over again. It was different lawyers. It was a wonderful opportunity to work with really great people, who cared about the profession, and provide a free service from the bar to help lawyers and judges.”

A wide variety of phone calls came in to the hotline. Shely explains, “The most common question was ‘Do I have to give my client their file when they fire me?’ And it’s always said in that tone of voice. Now, I would hope after giving ethics advice in Arizona for 22 years, there should not be a single lawyer in the state that now asks that question. I made it my mission to get that one out there and we even amended the ethics rules in 2003 to clarify that duty.”

Revising Ethics During her 10 years as the director of ethics at the State Bar of Arizona, Shely participated in the bar’s ethical rules review group, unauthorized practice of law committee, and multijurisdictional task force, which drafted extensive amendments to the Arizona Rules of Professional Conduct as well as amendments pertaining to temporary practice of law, and unauthorized practice of law regulations in Arizona by non-lawyers.

Shely describes one of the last things she did before leaving the bar. “Every state has its own set of ethics rules that they adopt,” she explains. “The American Bar Association doesn’t actually regulate anybody; it has model rules, examples of what uniform rules should look like. The ABA had amended all of the ethics rules in 2000. With the assistance of the bar board of governors and the dedicated members of the review group, we undertook to amend almost every single ethics rule that we have in Arizona – all 57 of them.” The committee was seeking to revise those ethics rules to address technology changes and update them since the rules’ original adoption in Arizona in 1985.

In Private Practice In the 12 years that she’s had her private firm ethics practice, Shely advises lawyers and firms in a variety of professional responsibility issues. Some of the diverse areas that she covers include trust account management, training of law firm lawyers and staff on ethical duties, fee agreement reviews, conflict of interest analysis, lawyer discipline diversion programs, law firm risk management procedures and even reviewing lawyer advertising and marketing to ensure ethics compliance.

“Contrary to popular belief, I don’t represent lawyers in discipline cases,” Shely says. “I’m an ethics lawyer; they’re supposed to call me before they do something and get advice so they don’t end up in discipline. If something happens, I often provide risk management advice to law firms, and serve as an expert witness in legal malpractice, fee dispute, motions to disqualify, and lawyer discipline cases.”

The most common reasons a firm consults with Shely – by far – are when lawyers change firms, when firms merge or disband, to review conflicts of interest situations, and to review firm procedures and forms for client intake and billing.

Speaking of Ethics… Shely is in high demand for speaking about her expertise on legal ethics. “I enjoy presenting continuing legal education (CLE) programs on ethics because anybody will tell you I have a really short attention span,” Shely states. “I try to make speeches entertaining so I don’t get bored.”

Twenty years ago, at the annual convention for the State Bar of Arizona, Shely started the “Annual Ethics Game Show.” Over the years since that first game show, she has used different formats each year to provide a humorous and informative format for lawyers to obtain their annual three hours of ethics CLE, including inviting “celebrity” contestants to participate such as judges from the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, as well as Arizona Supreme Court justices, Court of Appeals and Superior Court judges – sometimes in full costume. “We found that if someone was laughing, they might actually be paying attention and hopefully remember the advice,” adds Shely of the innovative approach she took.

“Now, I speak around the country,” states Shely. “I speak to a variety of lawyer and paralegal groups and as a part of representing more than 1,100 firms, I provide in-house ethics training programs. This allows me to train staff and lawyers at the same time on common sense ethics issues they may run across every day.” These common issues include supervising staff, conflict analysis, ethical billing requirements, how to avoid “problem” clients, how to manage information overload, and professionalism topics. On-site CLE programs afford firms the opportunity to train all lawyers and staff on firm procedures and protocols, in a convenient setting where the CLE actually will remain confidential, when Shely is the firm’s ethics counsel, so lawyers feel comfortable asking practical real client questions.

Shely also is called upon to serve as an expert witness. “Expert witness services would most often be in legal malpractices cases,” she says. “I also will testify if somebody is filing a motion to disqualify another firm for a conflict either in support or against a motion. I’ve testified on what the practice of law is – there’s actually a definition – and in fee disputes.”

Giving Where it Counts Over the years Shely has had a chance to give back within her professional and personal community. “Throughout my kids’ education I volunteered in the Paradise Valley School District in a variety of capacities. I’m a marching band and choir mom and that took a lot of time. My pro bono is basically giving back hundreds of hours every year to the state bar, county bar and local bar associations in providing ethics seminars so lawyers don’t get into trouble,” Shely finishes.

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