Ian Christensen: Alt-Legal In The Weeds

Try it. Screw the old lawyers who harp on things like law and ethics to keep young lawyers down. It’s a new world, and the only thing that matters is your passion. So Ian James Christensen decided to follow his dreams.

[I]n 2013, less than three months after being admitted to The Florida Bar, Respondent founded IJC Law Group, P.A., and began offering legal services and advice to clients. At the time, Respondent had no training in the area of medical marijuana. Six months later, Respondent formed Health Law Services (HLS), and five months after that, incorporated Cannabinoid Therapy Institute (CTI). Respondent listed IJC Law Group, P.A., as CTI’s registered agent and nonlawyer Christopher Ralph—a self-professed expert in the medical marijuana industry—  represented himself as CTI’s director. Ralph was also the “Legal Administrator and Consultant” for HLS.

Weed lawyer. Create a medical marijuana ecosystem, from medical necessity to “Official Legal Certification,” so his client could show any police officer that he wasn’t just a pothead, but a certified medical marijuana user. Cutting edge stuff, and all the gurus said young lawyers should seize the world and make it their own. Christensen was owning it.

Except for one detail. It was a complete sham. There is no such thing in Florida, and this baby lawyer was essentially selling pot licenses written in crayon to unsuspecting clients who believed he had the authority to do so. It didn’t work out well for his clients.

That certificate was supposed to give Christensen’s clients an affirmative defense and inform police of their right to use, possess and grow cannabis based on medical necessity.

“Respondent did not tell his clients that this affirmative defense would not apply, if at all, until after the clients were arrested, charged and prosecuted,” the justices wrote in the unsigned opinion.

To add insult to stupidity, Christensen gave clients a “grow sign,” to put out in front of their homes so the police would be on notice that they weren’t growing illegal weed, but medical marijuana.

Two clients posted a “grow sign” from Christensen’s business in front of a home to notify officials that medical marijuana cultivation was underway. The sign offered no protection and instead appeared to have triggered criminal proceedings after police appeared on the client’s doorstep following a 911 call. The clients called Christensen, who said “they had nothing to worry about and that he or someone from his office would contact law enforcement to discuss the situation,” the ruling states.

A dramatic raid followed and a “fully armed SWAT team” swarmed the property, arrested the clients and leveled several felony charges. Law enforcement agents seized the home, valuables and vehicles, prompting Christensen to file a complaint with Internal Affairs for damage caused during the raid.

Well sure, the SWAT team may have been overkill, but then, they also may have killed Christensen’s clients because “grow signs” provided no protection from raids. Why? Because none of this was real. Christensen created some fantasy legal practice, in complete violation of state and federal law, and left his deceived clients to suffer the consequences.

One lost a nursing license she’d held for 25 years, while the other lost his 15-year engineering job.

My lawyer said so is not a defense. Not for Christensen’s clients. Not for him either.

“I was not surprised that he was disbarred,” said Bast Amron special counsel Brian Tannebaum, a Miami ethics lawyer who represents attorneys in disciplinary and bar admission cases. “He engaged in a course of conduct that was a complete fraud basically before the ink was dry on his law license.”

The referee’s report concluded that a two-year suspension was a sufficient punishment for Christensen. The Florida Supreme Court said, ohhhh, no. No, no, no.

Upon consideration of the response to the order to show cause and the Bar’s reply, we conclude that disbarment is the appropriate sanction. The most prominent features of Respondent’s misconduct are incompetence and extremely serious harm to clients.

We conclude Respondent’s misconduct falls into this category. Respondent erroneously advised his clients and provided them with legally meaningless “Official Legal Certifications”  purportedly authorizing them to grow and use marijuana, based on determinations made by a physician not licensed to practice medicine in the State of Florida. Several clients who relied upon Respondent’s erroneous advice were arrested and criminally prosecuted, and their lives were devastated.

Despite all you’ve heard about how everything is new and cool for young lawyers to ignore the law, ignore ethics, pave their own path to fabulous success, lawyers are not free to do whatever they please at the expense of their clients. For all the tales of the new normal, the future of law, access to justice and alt-legal, your best intentions coupled with the empowerment of legal gurus imploring you to ignore clients, ignore law, ignore ethics is nonsense.

While no one will cry a tear for Christensen, given the devastating harm he caused his clients and his monumental incompetence, his lawyer explained that he never meant to do damage.

“A young lawyer thought at the time that he was serving his clients’ rights and best interests and was advising them appropriately,” [D. Gray] Thomas said. “He thought he was raising a valid position on their behalf, supported by existing Florida legal precedent on the defense of medical necessity. Mr. Christensen never meant harm to any client.”

What Christensen meant to do, or not, is irrelevant. Lawyers don’t have the option of being incompetent at their clients’ expense, even if they weren’t venal. Anyone who tells you that flouting the law and your ethical obligations doesn’t count any more is lying. It’s not about the lawyer, about what makes a young lawyer happy and successful. It’s about the clients.

That Ian James Christensen burned his law degree, and the money he paid for it, was his choice, and if he wanted to ruin his life, he did a spectacular job of it. That his clients went up in smoke because of him, however, is intolerable. Good riddance.

37 thoughts on “Ian Christensen: Alt-Legal In The Weeds

    1. SHG Post author

      This dumbass kid brings together so many things that are wrong with law, and why I’ve spent so much time over the years trying to pound home that clients don’t exist for the benefit of lawyers, but lawyers exist for the benefit of clients. All the cool voices disagree with me, because I’m “the man” trying to keep them down.

  1. B. McLeod

    Even the coolest of the cool voices should be able to recognize the difference between practicing in a filed of developing law and practicing made up law. You can only practice made up law in social media and the press, and even then it is best to include an express (“no legal advice”) disclaimer.

    1. SHG Post author

      Sadly, no. You missed the #ReinventLaw days, when legaltech gurus and academics taught that law and ethics were for losers and the brave new world of law was whatever felt good to them.

      1. Patrick Maupin

        There’s no shame in failing a test that only 1% pass. There may be some shame in failing a test that only 50% pass; on the other hand, your position in the failing cohort may not be entirely clear, and you may be able to console yourself by rationalizing that you only missed by a little bit and you are close to being average.

        But in September 2017, the failure rate for people taking the Florida bar examination for the first time was only 28.7%. Fortunately, as Dunning and Kruger have shown us, cognitive dissonance will most likely help to protect the fragile and precious self-esteem of those negatively impacted by their test results .

        1. SHG Post author

          Here’s the thing with the bar exam: after three years of law school (plus the requisite bar review course), no one should fail the bar exam. No one. They just spent three years of their life studying to be a lawyer, have a fairly easy test to pass, and yet a substantial percentage fail. A few percent freeze, have brain farts? Fair enough. But beyond that? It shouldn’t happen.

  2. Erik H.

    “This won’t fly” is only true if the Supremes get involved. What in God’s name was going through the mind of the referees who recommended something OTHER than disbarment?

      1. Skink

        That ain’t true. We have the same high standards as some other states. It’s just that we have a long history of flim-flam and a very well-developed sense of humor.

  3. SPM

    I am still waiting for the first TV ad run by the “legal malpractice lawyers.” “Did your lawyer lose your case? Did he screw you over? If you were convicted or lost a civil trial, you may be the victim of attorney malpractice and could receive millions. Call 1-666-333-5997….”

  4. Weebs

    I wonder what his username is on /r/legaladvice.

    Seriously though, could he be civilly liable for this BS?

    1. losingtrader

      Yes, tax theories.

      I knew Irwin Schiff fit in here somewhere.

      At least he wasn’t a lawyer , and I always gave him props when testifying at the criminal trials of people who took his courses and sold his ideas to others, by saying something to the effect of “You’d have to be an idiot to [ believe what I write]”

      1. SHG Post author

        Just because someone mentions sovereign citizens does not mean you have to comment. Nice fringe you got there.

  5. Pithy the Fool

    This First Amendment pioneer didn’t go far enough with his felony yard sign initiative. No need for SWAT if you can solve anything up to RICO with a knock and talk, arrest diversity quotas could be easily met, specialist cdl’s would need a garbage truck to collect retainers, a post-modern utopia.

      1. Billy Bob

        No, it’s not me, but am laughing my a$$ 0ff–nonethteless /irregardless. We nominate PtF, Commenter of the Day. (Wish I’d thought of it!, for real?!) Fubar, you’re next.

  6. David Nieporent

    Reading the opinion, I really can’t tell whether the guy is a pure con artist or a complete incompetent. (Perhaps someone whose parents and teachers never told him his answers were wrong because they didn’t want to hurt their precious snowflake’s feelings?)

    I guess at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter; as you note, it’s about the clients, not the lawyer, and the damage to them is the same either way. But I’m morbidly curious, because this guy was practically an anti-lawyer. He didn’t just give bad advice; he gave the advice you would give if you were _trying_ to hurt your clients.

    1. SHG Post author

      I asked the same question of Skink, who sent the decision to me. His answer was incompetent, that this kid thought he came up with a brilliant scheme to beat the system and was going to make a killing on it.

      1. Skink

        Sorry for the delay.

        He’s a stupid con artist. They sometimes unite. I make this conclusion because he’s young. Were he older, it would be a pure con–no lawyer could think he or she has the authority to do what this nitwit did.

        The court seemed to gravitate toward incompetence. That was the simplest way to get complete concurrence. That happens.

          1. LocoYokel

            Stupid is the word. With a bar license there has got to be so many easy, legal ways to scam, prosecutor and PI come to mind, that having to resort to this shows a real lack of imagination and talent.

            I’m don’t even play a lawyer on TV and I can think of several fields on can go into to pull of serious cons if one had the desire.

            1. LocoYokel

              Ok, so maybe the prosecutor comment was low. But does anyone know a PI lawyer that you don’t count your fingers after shaking hands? And 50%?

              And consider wills and trusts, for a reasonably competent, ethically iffy lawyer it would not be extremely hard to sneak language in that cuts you into the action if the client isn’t paying close attention.

              Look up the back story on the Little Jack Horner nursery rhyme.

            2. SHG Post author

              There are dirty lawyers, but it’s hardly a pervasive problem. Far more pervasive is incompetence than serious fraud.

            3. LocoYokel

              I didn’t say it was common, only that it is possible enough that even I could conceive of ways to do it if a lawyer was dirty. I hope that there’s not more than one a decade and even that’s to many. But then again we have the whole Prenda law thing to look at.

              Granted PIs have an icky rep overall but I think most of them are genuinely trying to help their clients, even if, for some, that’s because that’s the only way they get paid or at least get the big bucks from the settlement.

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