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Between the Lines: Professional Promises

If Northampton's new mayor hoped to quiet skeptics, he's off to a rough start.

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Thursday, January 26, 2012

As the saying goes, you can't fight city hall. In Northampton, that old adage took on special meaning recently when the city's new mayor attempted to hire a new city solicitor.

The lawyer Northampton mayor David Narkewicz wanted came highly recommended, the mayor told me in a recent interview; as he heard from trusted advisors, he said, "the same name came up again and again": Attorney Alan Seewald, a city resident with a practice in Amherst and a specialty in municipal law.

Trouble is, Seewald represents plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the city, in a case that dates back to 2009, pitting three well-known local businessmen against the municipality and the Northampton Business Improvement District, a private nonprofit established in 2008. Plaintiffs Eric Suher, Alan Scheinman and David R. Pesuit allege that the city violated the law when it set up the special district, known as the BID.

As it turned out, the plaintiffs, who had already paid Seewald more than $39,000 in fees, objected vehemently when their lawyer, hoping to accept a job offer from Narkewicz, asked a judge to release him from their case.

After a Jan. 6 hearing notable for the outrage expressed by the plaintiffs—Scheinman asked the court to file a complaint against Seewald with the state Board of Bar Overseers, insisting that the lawyer's abandonment of his clients would cause them harm and constitute a censurable ethical breach—Superior Court Judge Mary-Lou Rup issued a Jan. 13 ruling that delayed Seewald's attempt to withdraw, but seemed to treat his request as neither unethical nor unprecedented.

"I accept Attorney Seewald's representations that he did nothing to solicit this position and that he was surprised by the Mayor's offer," Judge Rup wrote. "He represents that he consulted with counsel at the Board of Bar Overseers about the propriety of accepting this position and understands that, as long as he abides by ethical requirements, no impediment exists to him doing so. I also accept Attorney Seewald's assertion that... he would abide by his ethical responsibilities to his former clients, would play no role in and would completely segregate himself from this litigation... ."

Testimony at the hearing "made clear that the plaintiffs no longer have any confidence or trust in their attorney," Rup continued. Given the plaintiffs' accusations of ethical impropriety, she wrote, "one can only conclude that they and Attorney Seewald have had a complete and irretrievable breakdown in their professional relationship."

Rup denied Seewald's request for emergency action without prejudice and said he could re-file his motion at the next scheduled court meeting on the BID case, Feb. 15. In a footnote to her decision, Rup declined to file a complaint against Seewald as the BID plaintiffs requested. "Based on the information before me at the hearing," Rup wrote, "there was no basis for me to do so."

In my recent interview with Narkewicz, the mayor said he understood the professional conduct issues involved when a lawyer tries to drop out of a case, but believes the city will benefit greatly from having Seewald serve as city solicitor. He also said his view of the BID case as "relatively quiet litigation" undoubtedly affected his decision to pursuit Seewald. Had the litigation been a more politically polarizing issue, he said, he might have charted a different course.

But while Narkewicz said he neither regretted his decision nor was overly worried about possible political blowback, his move is likely to elevate public interest in the BID lawsuit and the conduct of Alan Seewald.

As I told Narkewicz, many of the lawyers I've spoken to privately about Seewald's move express grave reservations not only about the propriety of dumping a case in order to accept a job offer, but about the effect such a move has on the public's view of lawyers. Narkewicz seemed to understand the reason many non-lawyers might find Seewald's decision to abandon his clients appalling, but he said the tone of Rup's decision, which echoed advice he received from other lawyers, convinced him that his would-be city solicitor's withdrawal from the BID case is routine practice.

As members of the local bar as well as the lay public wait to see how the court rules if and when Seewald re-files his motion to withdraw, Mayor Narkewicz would be wise to consider whether having his first choice of lawyers is worth further eroding public confidence in the system. Though Seewald may be able to jump what appears to be a very low bar set for professional conduct by lawyers in the Commonwealth, the new mayor should consider holding to higher standards.

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