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What with all those deferred law firm associates sitting around wondering what to do with themselves, why not put them to work in the courts? Well, one obvious reason not to might be to avoid compromising judicial independence by having law firms pay the salaries of court staff. But as long as the interns keep the source of their paychecks a secret and don't mention it on Twitter, it would be OK, a judicial ethics panel has ruled in Massachusetts.

The Judicial Ethics Committee of the Supreme Judicial Court last week approved a proposal by the chief administrator of the state's trial courts that would allow deferred associates to work for the courts as "volunteer interns" while remaining on the payroll of the firms that hired them, Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly reports (Also see coverage in The Am Law Daily, via The committee concluded that trial court judges could maintain their judicial independence and impartiality by using a "double blind" program to select and manage the law clerks.

The committee acknowledged that allowing law firms to pay the salaries of judicial law clerks would implicate judicial ethics rules that require judges to avoid impropriety and appear unbiased. The interns' services could also be seen as inappropriate gifts to the judges from the law firms, the committee said. But all this could be circumvented, the committee concluded, if the clerks are forbidden from telling anyone -- even on Facebook or Twitter -- about their connections to their law firms.

"I could not make this stuff up," writes "AmberPaw," a lawyer who contributes to the blog Blue Mass. Group. She puts forth an alternative proposal for helping the cash-strapped courts: "Judges and bailiffs could be plastered with ads for household products and chewing tobacco, like NASCAR drivers." Harvard Law ethics professor Andrew L. Kaufman tells Lawyers Weekly that the plan would raise ethics issues not just for the judges, but also for the interns. "There's a problem for the law clerks with respect to the Code of Professional Conduct governing lawyers, by reason of the fact that they are being paid by a private law firm while working in the judicial branch," he said.

The plan is not certain to move forward, a court spokesperson told Lawyers Weekly. With the go-ahead from the ethics committee, the court will now request an opinion from the State Ethics Commission. At this rate, the deferrals may well expire before the plan can ever be implemented.

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on June 15, 2009 at 12:30 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)


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