Sad Lawyering in Happy Valley

Lawyers generally have no trouble identifying their clients or understanding the nature of their representations. But that is not always the case. In some instances, an attorney-client relationship may be implied or inferred from the parties’ conduct. In other cases, a lawyer may acknowledge an attorney-client relationship with someone—for instance, an employee of an organizational client—but believe that the scope of the representation is limited in a fashion that exempts the lawyer from certain duties that the lawyer might otherwise owe the individual client. Yet, depending on the facts, there is no assurance that the lawyer’s belief is justified. Plus, even within the confines of a limited scope representation, the lawyer still owes the client critical duties.

Lawyers who fail to appreciate that they are a party to an implied attorney-client relationship, or who do not understand the scope of a client’s representation or their duties within that scope, tempt professional trouble. No case illustrates these situations better than the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s 2020 decision in Office of Disciplinary Counsel v. Baldwin. Baldwin is an outgrowth of the largest scandal in the history of college sports: former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky’s molestation of numerous boys from his youth charity. Sandusky was convicted of multiple crimes and received a long prison sentence, but the consequences of the scandal stretched well beyond his conviction. Among those consequences was the professional discipline of Penn State’s distinguished former general counsel, Cynthia Baldwin, an accomplished lawyer and Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice prior to becoming Penn State’s general counsel. Baldwin was not the sort of lawyer anyone would expect to stumble over settled professional responsibility principles but stumble she unfortunately did. Baldwin’s tragically confused performance as Penn State’s general counsel and as personal counsel for three senior Penn State administrators amidst the Sandusky scandal has emerged from Happy Valley as a cautionary tale for lawyers.