Instilling And Maintaining Public Confidence In The Legal Profession

Saturday, July 1, 2006 - 01:00
St. John & Wayne, LLC
Douglas H. Amster

Editor: Please tell the readers about your background.

Amster: I graduated from Columbia Law School in 1986 and clerked for The Honorable Dickinson R. Debevoise of the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey, Newark vicinage. I was admitted to the New Jersey State Bar in 1988 and thereafter to practice before the Supreme Court of New Jersey and the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey. I am also admitted to practice before the Southern District of New York and the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Judicial Circuit. I am a member of the New Jersey State Bar Association, the Essex County Bar Association, the Hudson County Bar Association, the American Bar Association and various aviation bar associations.

Editor: In what areas do you concentrate your practice?

Amster: I am a member of the firm's commercial litigation group and focus my practice on aviation tort defense, primarily in the fields of commercial aviation and general aviation. I handle matters involving breach of contract, business torts, personal injury, as well as a variety of other aviation-related types of matters. I am also involved in cases that deal with aviation security protocols, including passenger removal/ denied boarding claims and the 9/11 litigation.

Editor: What types of industries, business and commercial enterprises do you represent?

Amster: I primarily represent commercial airlines and airport operators in defending tort and other aviation-related claims, and I also represent the owners of private aircraft, pilots and entities that repair, inspect and maintain private airplanes in the general aviation context.

Editor: Please give us some examples of your bar association activities and other services to the legal profession.

Amster: I am active in various aviation-related bar associations, including the aviation sub-section of the American Bar Association. I attend the major seminars in this field of law, and next year I plan to present at a number of these events. I am also the Chair of the District V-A Ethics Committee, which covers Newark, NJ, one of the major legal centers in the state.

Editor: How does your involvement in a variety of bar associations benefit your clients?

Amster: In the aviation context, my involvement allows me to keep abreast of the most recent developments in aviation law, as well as to network with both defense and plaintiff's attorneys and other individuals in the aviation industry.

Editor: Please tell our readers about the leadership you contribute to New Jersey's District V-A Ethics Committee.

Amster: In order to became an attorney-member of the District V-A Ethics Committee, one has to be an attorney and either live or practice within Essex County. The officers are appointed from the ranks of the Committee and are approved by the Supreme Court of New Jersey. The term of Committee members is generally three years, and the officers are appointed for one-year terms.

Our Committee meets every month, at which time we review any problems that members are having investigating grievances, scheduling hearings or conducting hearings.

The Chair's responsibilities primarily involve reviewing investigation reports from the Committee members and either concurring with the result or sending the report back for additional investigatory work and/or legal research. The Chair also ensures that grievances are investigated in a timely manner and that the Committee does not fall behind on processing grievances and conducting hearings.

Editor: Who else serves on the Committee?

Amster: In addition to attorney-members, each committee has public-members, who are members of the public at large. The public-members provide a crucial function by sitting on ethics hearing panels.

Once a grievance is investigated and charges are brought, the district committees convene a hearing that, in essence, gives the parties a trial and affords them due process rights. Each hearing panel is comprised of three committee members, two of which are attorney-members and one of which is a public-member. Thus, the public-members have important input on the outcome of each hearing.

This procedure provides the public with an opportunity to be involved in the attorney disciplinary process at the decision-making phase, which is crucial to instilling and maintaining public confidence in the legal profession.

Editor: What type of issues does the Committee address?

Amster: The Committee addresses a wide array of grievances that range from the simple failure of an attorney to communicate with his or her client to the misappropriation of client funds and/or criminal acts by an attorney. The more serious grievances are usually handled by the State Ethics Committee in Trenton and not at the district level.

Editor: Does the resolution of ethical issues in New Jersey vary from district to district?

Amster: The resolution of ethical issues should be consistent between districts since one set of rules, the Rules of Professional Responsibility (the "RPC"), govern the conduct of attorneys, and the case law is precedential and binding state-wide.

In addition to the foregoing, the Disciplinary Review Board reviews all of the investigation reports and findings of the district committees, thereby adding an additional layer of consistency among districts.

Editor: Why should litigators pay attention to how ethical issues are resolved in the jurisdictions in which they practice?

Amster: The emphasis on professional responsibility and ethics begins in law school, and all attorneys are charged with the responsibility of knowing the ethics rules where they practice and conducting themselves accordingly. Not only does such compliance reflect favorably upon one's reputation and ability to represent his or her clients, but also - and more importantly - it is paramount that we, as members of our various bar associations, do whatever we can to bolster the public's confidence in our profession.

Editor: How does the work being done by New Jersey's Ethics Committee impact the companies doing business in the state?

Anster: The discipline and, in extreme cases, disbarment of unscrupulous lawyers provides a benefit to all persons and entities who are involved in the legal profession, as well as to the society as a whole. The overwhelming majority of attorneys who practice are ethical, and they provide excellent examples of how one should conduct oneself in the profession.

The reality is that only a small sub-set of lawyers tarnish the profession's image, especially if they are public figures, such as politicians, real estate developers, or even judges. It is of the utmost importance that the bad behavior of these individuals be identified and disciplined, as their misconduct damages society as a whole and erodes the public trust, usually in a most high-profile manner. It is a constant and daily struggle for us to earn back the public's confidence in our profession.

The benefit to companies doing business in this state is obvious. An unethical attorney can compromise his or her client's representation by resorting to conduct which is abrogated by the ethics rules. Conversely, adherence to the ethics rules provides clients with a "level" playing field in the legal system. Finally, adherence to ethics rules and enforcement of same protects clients from being victimized by unscrupulous lawyers representing them.

Editor: How often are attorneys in New Jersey investigated and sanctioned?

Amster: In its June 2006 annual report of lawyer misconduct, the Office of Attorney Ethics notes that about 1,700 lawyers were the subject of new investigations and formal complaints, and 178 lawyers were sanctioned in 2005 for ethics violations. Compared with last year, this is an approximate five percent decrease in investigations and complaints and a one percent increase in sanctions for lawyer misconduct. A full copy of the annual report is available at

Editor: What is some of the fallout that occurs when the Office of Attorney Ethics finds a lawyer has violated the state's disciplinary rules?

Amster: Punishments for lawyer misconduct range from reprimand, admonishment and censure to suspension and disbarment. Lawyer misconduct can also lead to media coverage of the bad behavior. In a June 16 article entitled "Annual Report Lists Ethical Misconduct By State's Lawyers," Star-Ledger reporter Kate Coscarelli notes that the licenses of 763 New Jersey lawyers were suspended in 2005, including a government lawyer who pleaded guilty to endangering the welfare of a child. She also highlights the chronic misbehavior of a sampling of the 30 attorneys named in the annual report that resulted in their disbarment.

Editor: Is there anything else that you would like to add?

Amster: It is an honor for me to serve on the Ethics Committee and to Chair the District V-A Committee. I would like to thank my colleagues and partners at the firm for supporting me through this year, since my involvement as the Chair is a time consuming, yet rewarding, undertaking.

Please email the interviewee at with questions about this interview.