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Lawyer Feels Obligation To Live By Rules

Smith B. "Bart" Gephart found his passion in the courtroom, so he takes it very seriously when lawyers stray from the rules.

"I loved it," said Gephart, who was a founding partner of Killian and Gephart in Harrisburg. "All I ever wanted to do was be a trial lawyer."

The Harrisburg-area native resigned his partnership about three years ago, but still keeps his old office at the firm on Pine Street. Gephart, who turns 80 on July 2, recently was appointed to a second term on the Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, which reviews cases of lawyers accused of bad conduct.

Law was a second career for Gephart. After college, he spent a number of years in the corporate world and then worked with the government in Washington, D.C., where he took night courses at the Washington College of Law of American University.

He graduated in 1966 and soon moved back to Pennsylvania. His brother-in-law, John Killian, talked him into starting a partnership by "hanging out our shingles," Gephart said.

He knows how hard it is to become a lawyer and he knows what it takes to be a good one, so he brings great care to his position with the disciplinary board, where he is vice chairman. It's hard to take away a person's livelihood, he said.

But the rules are important. The board's mission is to "protect the general public, maintain a high standard of integrity in the legal profession, and safeguard the reputation of the courts of Pennsylvania," a board fact sheet states.

The board meets every other month and might hear about 15 to 20 cases per meeting, Gephart said. With about 58,000 lawyers practicing in Pennsylvania, the number of cases isn't as high as it might seem, he added.

By the time an issue gets to the board, a thorough process already has been undertaken. The board reviews the facts and determines the discipline, which could include a private reprimand, suspension of a license or disbarment, Gephart said. Like the other 15 board members, he is a volunteer. (Jonathan H. Newman, former head of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, is chairman.)

To Gephart, the public reprimands in open court can be worse than a suspension. The judges aren't kind with their words. "I think I would rather be suspended than get that," he said.

Not that suspensions aren't humiliating. Lawyers must write their clients and tell them. They can get their license back after a year. However, anyone suspended for more than a year must petition to get a license back.

Not all complaints get a hearing, he said. The system won't process your complaint just because you lost your case or you think that your lawyer's fees are too high.

Most cases aren't big news like the disbarment of Mark David Frankel, the disgraced York County lawyer who lost his license for inappropriate contact with a client. More typical cases often involve a sole practitioner who becomes inattentive because he takes on too many cases. Or a lawyer mixes her money with a client's money that she was entrusted to watch over.

The money issue is huge, Gephart said. "A client's account and a lawyer's account are never mixed," he said.

If you think you have a concern, go to padisciplinary board.org for information. The Web site also lists lawyers who have been disciplined, and it's possible to get a copy of rulings against them.

TOM BARSTOW: 255-8464 or tbarstow@patriot-news.com

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