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.