Stan Hazlett argued his last attorney discipline case before the Kansas Supreme Court at the end of May. It was like all the other times he appeared before the court in his 34 years with the Kansas Office of the Disciplinary Administrator with one exception.
When the hearing concluded, Chief Justice Marla Luckert deviated from standard docket protocol to acknowledge Hazlett’s work.
“He does take a position of protecting the public, but at the same time he tries to find a holistic outcome that works for the benefit of all the individuals involved,” Luckert said. “We want to take this opportunity as a court to thank Mr. Hazlett for all of that good work and for his many appearances before this court always in a professional manner."
During his years with the disciplinary administrator’s office, Hazlett estimates he has appeared before 24 Supreme Court justices and has worked for eight chief justices. He is the fourth disciplinary administrator to serve in the history of the office, and he will retire September 3.
Hazlett describes himself as an “ethics nerd” who was inspired to apply for a job with the disciplinary administrator’s office in 1986 after serving on the Douglas County Ethics and Grievance Committee.“My biggest fear was that I would be ostracized, but I found great support among my lawyer friends,” Hazlett said. “The majority of lawyers don’t like it when other lawyers commit violations because it sullies the profession, so they were very supportive of me.”
In 1986, the disciplinary administrator’s office was made up of two lawyers. It later expanded to three and, after Hazlett was appointed disciplinary administrator in 1997, it grew to four lawyers plus Hazlett.
One reason the office grew was that technological advances involving communication made investigating complaints more complex.
“With communications what they are now, we are looking at texts, emails, and messaging tools. It makes it more difficult to put a case together,” Hazlett said.
Another change came through an impaired lawyers program, which looked at potential causes of behavior that can get a lawyer into trouble. The program evolved into the Kansas Lawyers Assistance Program, which is a source of confidential help for lawyers with alcohol, drug abuse, or mental health issues. A lawyer can be directed to seek its services by the Office of the Disciplinary Administrator if the lawyer is involved in a discipline case.
Luckert noted that Hazlett was ahead of his time when he focused on underlying causes for attorney discipline issues.
“Sometimes, looking at underlying causes for a behavior is critical,” Luckert said. “He was focused on that before it was vogue to do so. He considered issues that the attorney might have been dealing with and how to equip and help the attorney in the process.”
Hazlett agreed that focusing on what underlying causes might impact attorney behavior was a huge change for his office.
“Really serious violations are few and far between. Dishonesty and conversion of client funds just don’t happen very often,” Hazlett said. “Instead, we see lawyers with impairments who have not committed really serious violations.”
Hazlett describes attorney discipline in Kansas as a system of self-regulation. It relies on attorneys in communities across Kansas who volunteer to conduct preliminary investigations on behalf of the disciplinary administrator’s office. Another 20 attorney volunteers sit on the Board for Discipline of Attorneys.
The Board for Discipline of Attorneys assigns three attorneys, at least two of whom are members of the board, to a committee that reviews and approves or modifies recommendations by the disciplinary administrator. Other board members are assigned to three-person hearing panels that determine if a lawyer engaged in misconduct and, if so, what the discipline should be. Ultimately, the Supreme Court decides what should happen to a lawyer who breaks the rules.
“When lawyers volunteer their time, it shows the importance they give to upholding the integrity of their profession,” Hazlett said. “I’ve been fortunate to work with the cream of the crop of the legal profession.”
During his time as disciplinary administrator, Hazlett has focused on educating attorneys about the Kansas Rules of Professional Conduct and how to work within them. The rules provide a framework for professional conduct, but they do not address every possible scenario an attorney might encounter.
Luckert said, “He’s emphasized education, and his programs on professional ethics are always in demand, whether he’s delivering them or other attorneys in his office are. You rarely see a conference where they are not part of the agenda.”
Hazlett said in every educational program his office delivers, they encourage lawyers to call if they are questioning whether an action could violate ethics rules for the profession.
“Most ethical questions involve potential conflicts of interest. It’s not an area that’s entirely black and white,” Hazlett said.
Hazlett went on to describe a call from an attorney on his way to court to represent a client who had offered differing stories. The attorney was concerned about his duty to effectively represent his client, as well as following rules for ethical professional conduct.
The disciplinary administrator’s office did not have an immediate answer, so the attorney told the judge he’d asked for guidance and could the hearing be continued for 30 minutes. The judge obliged and Hazlett’s office was able to give advice.
“Our office gets about 20 calls a week like this. The callers understand the rules, but there are definite gray areas related to conflict of interest,” Hazlett said. “Some questions require a lot of thought, and we aren’t able to answer all of them, but we always tell attorneys it’s better to call before they engage in the conduct rather than after.”
Hazlett added that Kansas attorneys are fortunate that the Kansas Supreme Court provides as much detail as it does in its rulings on attorney discipline cases.
“The court’s decisions set out the facts and the rules and explain how the rules were violated,” Hazlett said. “The court then explains why a lawyer should be disciplined and in what way. Not every state supreme court does that.”
If Hazlett could change one thing about the disciplinary process, it would be to communicate more effectively when he tells someone why a complaint is dismissed.
“People file complaints because they believe their attorney has done something wrong, and we may have to tell them their complaint is without merit, or it involves something over which we have no jurisdiction,” Hazlett said. “An attorney can do everything right and still get an outcome the client doesn’t like.”
Luckert said the reason Hazlett has been successful in his role as disciplinary administrator is that he cares about finding balance.
“He really cares about protecting the public and making sure that those who make complaints are fully heard,” Luckert said. “He also seeks the best result for the attorney based on the conduct.”
Hazlett was raised in Topeka and graduated from Kansas University and the University of Kansas School of Law. He was in private practice for about 10 years before he joined the Office of the Disciplinary Administrator in 1986. He was named disciplinary administrator in 1997.
In 2004, Hazlett was given the Smiling Bull Award by the Leavenworth County Bar Association. In 2005, the Kansas Bar Association honored him with the Outstanding Service Award for significantly advancing the administration of justice and the goals of the legal profession. In 2009, the 13th Judicial District Bar Association gave him the Guardian of Legal Ethics award.
Hazlett is a member of the Douglas County Bar Association, the Judge Hugh Means American Inn of Court, the National Organization of Bar Counsel, and the National Client Protection Organization. He currently serves as a regional vice president of the National Client Protection Organization.The Office of the Disciplinary Administrator works under the direction of the Supreme Court. The disciplinary administrator reviews and investigates misconduct complaints filed against attorneys. The office also presents cases to the Kansas Board for Discipline of Attorneys, recommends discipline to the Supreme Court in serious matters, and provides education and resources to Kansas attorneys to prevent misconduct.