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The Executive Director of the Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania Shares His Thoughts on the Status and Future Direction of the Organization

Joe Farrell is no stranger to the workings of administrative organizations. Previous assignments as Deputy Executive Director of Administration and Enforcement for the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, and as Manager of the Executive Office for Customer Advocacy at First Energy have provided a wealth of management and professional experiences for his task at the Disciplinary Board. Engaged by the Disciplinary Board to address the growing administrative needs of the organization, which oversees the conduct of more than 55,000 attorneys statewide, Farrell focuses on attorney communications, registration functions, personnel administration, and budgeting and financial management.

Recently, Joe Farrell sat down with us to answer a few questions and share his thoughts on the status and future direction of the Disciplinary Board.

In the last several years an effort has been made to improve communication with attorneys in the Commonwealth. What, in your estimation, has been the success of this endeavor, and, are there additional steps to be taken?

"We have been working to improve communication: we established a website in 2003 (www.padisciplinaryboard.org); we participate in the 'Bridge The Gap' program (making the jump from law school to law practice) with the CLE Board (the Disciplinary Board provides a presentation about ethics). We recently did a video of this presentation.

"In terms of communication enhancement, the following things have been introduced:

  • A monthly attorney e-newsletter and quarterly hearing committee e-newsletter
  • A new brochure entitled "The Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania" distributed to bar associations and available on the website
  • Bulletins which go out to our membership as soon as the news is released which direct respondents to our website for information.

"Additional steps which have been taken to enhance communication have been to make our website more user-friendly and increasing the distribution of the attorney e-newsletter. Subscribing to the e-newsletter is easily done through the Disciplinary Board website. Another step that needs to be taken is to make the D-Board more accessible to the Hispanic and immigrant communities by increasing awareness of the Board and its role. A recent article by Board member Min Suh addressing that issue was just published and is an excellent first move in this direction."

The Rules of Professional Conduct for attorneys have had the most sweeping review and overhaul since 1988 by the American Bar Association and Pennsylvania. Have you seen an impact on the Disciplinary Board and the Pennsylvania legal community?

"Actually, no. The goal of the project was maximum review, with the result being minimal revision. The effort, called Ethics 2000 really refined existing rules rather than making wholesale changes. The new rules took effect January 1, 2005. It's too soon to see any real impact yet."

The Disciplinary Board is sometimes viewed as the "heavy hand" that doles out punishment. How accurate, in your estimation, is this perception, and what is the positive view?

"I think that it's true, for the most part, that, if you're a lawyer you don't want to hear from us. However, punishment is not our goal, although sometimes it's a byproduct of our goals. Our goals are to protect the public, maintain the integrity of the legal profession, and to safeguard the reputation of the courts. The positive side to this is that everything we do has those goals in mind."

What do you see as the most pressing issue facing the Disciplinary Board now that you have had an opportunity to become acquainted with the members, staff and attorneys represented?

"Speed of action. Quick action on a complaint helps to protect the public against unethical practices and builds public confidence in the system. When a case drags on, the delay tends to undermine the results, and our goals."

You have had, to say the least, a wide-ranging career in public service. Trained as a psychologist, you served as Director of Treatment for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, and have taught at the college level. Have you found that the sheer diversity of your experience is an advantage in performing the varied duties of executive director of this organization?

"There are principles of human behavior that are constant in any environment: learning; motivation; emotion; character development; and defense mechanisms. And, as it turns out, most lawyers are human! What the Disciplinary Board and the Public Utility Commission, where I worked for 21 years, have in common is the regulation of human behavior. Both agencies enforce the rules to protect the public and improve society. I think that my psychology background and work in public service will both be very useful in working with the Board."

You serve as liaison in a combination of capacities -- the Board members; Pennsylvania attorneys; the Disciplinary Board administrative staff; and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Is there a common thread that ties it all together?

"The common thread is that the importance of our goals in protecting the public are shared by all. I have been very impressed, when attending adjudication sessions, by the seriousness, the intensity of debate, the quality of the arguments, and by the amount of thought and consideration given each case. These are very smart, experienced people who take their mission seriously. That commitment is felt by me and the Disciplinary Board staff, as well as by the Disciplinary Counsel, Paul Killion, and his staff."

In any process, statistics always seem to become a field of interest for observers. With over 50,000 attorneys practicing law in Pennsylvania, are there any statistics generated within the Disciplinary Board that you find particularly interesting for consumers; the courts; attorneys; or the legal process overall?

"Unfortunately, 'bad' statistics always seem to be the ones that are of most interest to observers of any public entity. For example, the time that it takes a case from initiation to discipline -- processing time -- is one of those statistic sets that observers find interesting. In Pennsylvania, the most recent statistical data shows that the average time from receipt of a complaint to a private sanction of the accused is 540 days. The national average is 394 days. For a public sanction in Pennsylvania, the average length of time from initiation to discipline is 900 days. The national average for the same process is 555 days.

On the positive side, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has recently approved the 'Discipline on Consent' rule that speeds up the system by allowing a lawyer to plead to a complaint and avoid the adjudication process. For example, an attorney convicted of a serious crime can consent to the attorney discipline and accept suspension of practice privileges, thereby saving the Disciplinary Board considerable time and financial resources in adjudication."

If you were limited to a single choice, what element of your job is presently the most challenging?

"Wow, that's a tough one. If I had to limit it to a single element, I'd have to say that learning the workings of the court and its many arms has been the biggest challenge so far. I've had to learn the structure, function and interrelationships of the Supreme Court, the Disciplinary Board, the Board of Law Examiners, the CLE (Continuing Legal Education) Board, the Client Security Fund, the IOLTA (Interest On Lawyers Trust Account) Board, the disciplinary process, attorney registration, the AOPC (Administrative Office of the Pennsylvania Courts), and the Pennsylvania Bar Association. Needless to say, it's a lot of information to absorb!"