Legal ethics panel
votes to disbar
Richard Lee

The former Family Court
judge says he is being harassed
for criticizing the board

A former state judge who repeatedly ran afoul of ethics rules as an attorney will be kicked out of the legal profession if a disciplinary panel's recommendation to the Hawaii Supreme Court is adopted.


Richard Y.S. Lee: The board notes he violated ethics rules eight times in recent years

The board for the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, which investigates cases of lawyer misconduct, recommended yesterday that the justices impose the stiffest penalty possible, disbarment, on attorney Richard Y.S. Lee.

The board made the recommendation following a hearing in which Lee said he was a victim of a system that keeps attorney fees in Hawaii artificially low and allows disciplinary investigations to drag on for years, harming lawyers' livelihoods.

"It has a very chilling effect on my law practice," Lee said.

But the board was not swayed by Lee's arguments and adopted the November disbarment recommendation of a hearing committee that had reviewed the evidence in the case.

The Supreme Court must now decide whether to accept yesterday's board recommendation to strip Lee, a former Family Court judge on Oahu, of his license to practice law or to take other action.

The case against Lee stemmed from a provision he included in retainer agreements with about 160 clients from January 2002 until December 2003 that, according to the ODC, was designed to intimidate and penalize the clients if they contacted or filed an ethics complaint with the agency.

The provision required clients to pay Lee $2,000 if the ODC became involved in a fee dispute before an attempt was made to resolve the dispute via binding arbitration.

The board determined that Lee kept the provision in his retainer agreements for more than a year after the ODC instructed him to remove it, saying the provision was unethical and contained false and misleading information. Lee's primary motivation in having the clause in his agreements was to eliminate future ethics complaints against him and to save money, according to the board's findings.

Among the factors the board considered yesterday was that Lee had been found to have violated the ethics rules in eight other cases from 1996 to 2003.

Lee, a longtime critic of the ODC process, has said the agency's interference in fee disputes is unwarranted and amounts to price fixing. He also has said the ODC has been harassing him for years because he has repeatedly questioned its actions.

At yesterday's hearing, Lee said dealing with the ODC investigations "literally has been a nightmare and torture."

"I'm perturbed at the system," he told the board. "I feel I'm a victim of it."

It is not known when the Supreme Court will make a decision, but it could take months.

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