Law Life: Handgun incident a scary reminder that ethics issues can arise anywhere

By Annette Church
The Daily Record Newswire

It was the first time that I needed to go to the office supply closet at my new job. I was startled the moment I opened the door.

A handgun lay next to a box of envelopes. There it was, in plain view for anyone to see. Still taken aback, I quickly retrieved the paper clips I needed and returned to my desk.

Nearly a year passed before I mentioned the gun in the supply closet to the attorney I worked for.

His response was casual. He assured me it was not loaded and belonged to a client who asked him to “hold onto it” for him. By now, the gun was just part of the office scenery.

This was my first job in the legal field and I looked forward to going to work each morning. I was the only employee of a sole practitioner and I had developed respect and trust for my attorney. Working in his office provided me the opportunity to learn about trial preparation and to follow it through to assisting in the courtroom.

The job was a wonderful learning experience and a madcap adventure all rolled into one. This attorney was always teaching me the “why” behind our work, which often involved the spectacular aspects of First Amendment law.

About two years passed. Then one morning, my employer called me into his office.

The gun from the supply closet was in his hands.

He instructed me to take the weapon from his right hand.

When I inquired as to why I needed to do so, his response was pointed: “To get the feel of the gun.”

Initially, I did not think his absurd request was serious. He had a history of being an elaborate practical jokester. If this was his idea of pulling me into one, I was going to bow out right from the start.

Our dialogue continued back and forth until I reached a point of exasperation. My attorney would not let it go.

What was I going to do? Countless uncertainties flooded my mind.

I had to make a quick decision. Either way, if he intended this as some sort of bizarre joke, it was too creepy for me.

The other point — which I hadn’t processed yet — was that the door to myriad ethical issues had just been blown wide open.

As uncomfortable as the circumstances were, I had only one option and did what I had not done prior to that moment: I refused to do something my employer requested me to do.

Mockingly, he chuckled at my response.

Trembling in silence, I exited his office and returned to my desk.

I was angry. He had not been joking, and he meant for me to take the weapon from him. Only when I refused did he attempt to lighten the situation. His effort to convince me he was merely having fun at my expense was in vain.

Regretfully, this attorney’s law career later unraveled for his involvement in activities prior to the date he hired me.

Within a few days after I resigned from my job, the State Bar took the situation into their hands. The erratic behavior I witnessed in the last months of my employment bewildered and confused me.

Coming to terms with the reality that my employer was not the person I had believed him to be was difficult.

For many months following the chaos, people would often comment about how sorry they were I had worked for this particular attorney. Knowing they meant well, I understood the kindness intended by the remarks.

Yet as much as I was dismayed by the attorney’s dishonorable activities, I had no regrets I worked for him. I received hands-on education as we prepared for federal court cases and the experiences of the cases themselves are irreplaceable.

During the subsequent State Bar investigation, I was told I was going to be interviewed. Having no idea what to expect, I was fearful.

Was I going to be implicated by association? Did I need to have an attorney?

I called a lawyer who was a family friend. He was with me at the interview.

Ironically, he asked me a question that shocked me more than any of those asked by the State Bar attorneys: “Is there anything you need to tell me, Annette?”

“No,” I replied.

He said he just had to make certain.

“As difficult as this may be, you must answer all of their questions. If you find yourself struggling, look at me. You have to tell them the truth, even if you think there is a possibility it may implicate your prior employer. You simply must,” he instructed.

My attorney-friend was wise. He knew I was still conflicted. I still was not convinced the attorney I had worked for was as wicked as the rumors around town were indicating.

However, I also knew that somewhere, something had gone very wrong.

A few weeks later, at 7:10 a.m. on a weekday, my telephone rang.

When I answered, one of the Bar investigators told me that the news regarding my prior employer had been leaked to the local press. He said he had done his best to keep my name out of it. However, he wanted to let me know ahead of time to be prepared, just in case.

I appreciated his professionalism, both as an attorney and investigator. He had a diligent work ethic and the qualities of someone I would be proud to call my boss. As I set out to look for my next job, I used him as my standard.

Annette G. Church is an N.C. State Bar-certified paralegal with Ted A. Greve and Associates of Charlotte.

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