The New York Law Journal reported today that a senior in house lawyer at New York Life Insurance Company resigned after it was discovered that he had never been licensed to practice law.
The attorney, who had 'practiced' at two large Manhattan firms before joining New York Life almost 10 years ago, had risen to the position of deputy general counsel before his non-attorney status was discovered.
Most lawyers accept their first post-law school position prior to being admitted to the bar, and bar admission is a big deal, as it should be, for most lawyers and their employers. My first post-graduation job was with a small firm, and everyone in the firm knew when the bar results came out. My employer double checked the newspaper to make sure that I had passed the exam. My firm also knew the day I was admitted, since I had to take time off from work to attend the swearing-in ceremony.
The former New York Life attorney, according to the New York Law Journal article, was employed at Milbank, Tweed after graduating from Columbia. I don't know how long after graduation the position began or whether, like many biglaw firms, he was part of a whole 'class' of first year associates who, presumably, would have received bar results at the same time. If this were the case, it must have been difficult for him to conceal the fact that he either didn't take the exam or failed the exam. But perhaps nobody ever asked. And nobody noticed that he never went to an admission ceremony. Maybe it's just too easy to get 'lost' sometimes in the biglaw environment, with so many lawyers that one can easily slip through the cracks. Maybe he joined the firm after bar results came out. The details are not contained in the Law Journal article. But they aren't important for purposes of this post.
The fact that he managed to conceal the fact that he was admitted to practice law from his first employer doesn't let subsequent employers, including New York Life, off the hook. Many legal employers pay for their employee's biennial registration fees. I don't know whether this was the case here or not, but if it was, nobody noticed that no fees were being paid to the bar on behalf of this lawyer. Again, this particular fact isn't important. It's the overall picture that's the problem.
Unbelievable as this story sounds, it isn't the first time this has happened, and it won't be the last time. It should serve as a (not so) gentle reminder that, as good as a resume looks or as much as we like a candidate during an interview, it makes sense to check references and to do some investigating when hiring employees, even employees who are supposed to be 'professionals.'
Unfortunately, many law firms don't bother to check references or to follow up closely with candidates who apply for positions, whether they be legal or non-legal positions within their firms. And this reference-checking should go beyond just calling the references provided by the candidate. All too often, after an employee becomes a problem, information comes to light that was readily available before the candidate was hired, if only someone took the time to check the facts and follow up.
Hiring employees is an expensive proposition. Hiring the wrong employees can have disastrous consequences. Regardless of how good this former New York Life employee was, he wasn't licensed to practice law. If a license to practice law is a condition of employment, you should be certain that the candidate actually possesses the license. The same goes for any other condition of employment - taking the candidate's word for it isn't the best policy.
[Update: I apologize for the typo in the original version of this post, in which at one point I identified New York Life as Met Life]