By Sheila Pursglove
In three decades with the Michigan Attorney Grievance Commission, Cindy Bullington has seen cases running the gamut from tragic to ridiculous—such as the lawyer who would tell female clients that he would discharge legal fees on his “couch of restitution,” or the lawyer who titled his vehicle in his deceased mother’s name to avoid paying parking tickets.
“The disciplinary field is of compelling interest because it involves human interest and so many different areas of law,” says Bullington, assistant deputy administrator for the Grievance Commission and an adjunct professor teaching Professional Responsibility at Michigan State University College of Law.
The tragic side of the legal practice involves lawyers who have committed murder, who have stolen money from clients leaving them destitute, or those who have committed suicide in sheer desperation.
“In the 1980s, a lawyer who had stolen money from his ward, a mentally ill former school teacher, killed her to hide his thefts. In a unique twist of fate, he was tied to her killing when an alert, rural homeowner took down his license number when he went to dump her body which was contained in a barrel,” Bullington says. “Lawyers have stolen money from elderly persons, from quadriplegics, and even from nuns! Sometimes, lawyers have killed themselves after their conduct has started to be investigated, which is also a tragedy—such a death resolves nothing and their families are left bereft by their loss.”
The Michigan Supreme Court has required that lawyers report any conviction to the Commission, which then exercises prosecutorial discretion in determining whether to investigate the matter. A conviction arising out of a hunting license violation will generally not be investigated because it does not call a lawyer’s character into question. A conviction involving substance abuse will be investigated to determine whether the lawyer may have a dependency affecting his or her representation of clients.
“Unfortunately, substance abuse is often tied in with lawyer misconduct,” notes Bullington, who gave a presentation to the Institute of Continuing Legal Education (ICLE) that involved a discussion on how the Grievance Commission will typically handle a drunk-driving case. “In investigating a drunk-driving matter, among other items the Commission will review the police report, a substance abuse assessment, and the court file. Most drunk-driving files do not result in public discipline.”
One of the most difficult cases was the prosecution of Valerie Colbert-Osamuede, who received an 18-month suspension for conduct involving lying to a judge and a conflict of interest involving the City of Detroit and Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. The prosecution took place over the course of a year, involving half-day hearings necessitated by the volunteer nature of the hearing panel system.
“Hearing panels are presided over by three lawyers who volunteer their time, and each county has multiple hearing panels,” Bullington explains. “Cases are tried all over the state and are located in the county where the respondent lawyers have their place of business or lives.”
Bullington joined the MSU Law adjunct faculty in 2002.
“I love how brilliant I have found MSU law school students, and I love the discussions with students and the exchange,” she says.
Sadly, Bullington has had a couple of former students cross her desk because of convictions for drunk driving.
“But, since they’ve had to deal with substance issues at the start of their career, in the long run, they may be better able to deal with such issues having realized the consequences and pitfalls that are out there,” she says.
While most of her students have an innate understanding of their responsibilities as future lawyers and as members of society, Bullington notes that it’s the practical aspect of putting these responsibilities into play that students need to learn—such as how to set up bank accounts to safeguard client funds; how to ensure cases are being timely and properly handled; and learning how far lawyer advertising can go.
Bullington enjoys serving as an associate member of the State Bar of Michigan’s Standing Committee on Character and Fitness.
“It gives me the opportunity to volunteer my time—due to my job, I can’t provide pro bono legal services so this is the best way I can give back,” she says. “It also allows me the opportunity to see a proceeding from the other side of the bench, so to speak, which helps me in presenting disciplinary cases. The toughest part of participating in committee work is arriving at the determination to recommend against allowing an applicant to become a member of the bar. Sadly, there are some instances where a person can’t be said to possess current fitness.”
Bullington earned her undergrad degree from MSU in political science—an interest from childhood where she enjoyed her parents’ lively political discussions at the dinner table. When Watergate came along, the family followed the events closely, and in the summer of 1973, spent a week’s rainy vacation in northern Michigan glued to Sen. Sam Ervin and the Watergate hearings on television.
“Along with everyone else, I was stunned to hear Alexander Butterfield acknowledge there was a taping system in the White House,” she says. “That year in school, politics was at the fore even for teen-agers who went around spouting off against ‘King Richard.’ At college, I found political science a natural fit.”
With this passion for politics, she headed to the nation’s capital to attend the National Law Center at George Washington University; but she happened to clerk at the Office of Bar Counsel for the District of Columbia, which drew her attention to the field of disciplinary law.
The first woman in her family to attend college—let alone law school—Bullington had the enthusiastic support of her parents.
“At the time, women were starting to enter law school more and more, although not to the extent women are currently in the field,” she says. “Law dovetails with the political system and was a natural consequence of my interest in political science.”
In 1982, when she returned to Michigan after law school, she started working at the Grievance Commission as a law clerk.
“A position was created for me as a lawyer and I’ve been here ever since.”
Bullington and her husband—who enjoy antiquing and travel in their leisure time—have three adult children, three cats, and two dogs—“one of them is a 114-pound Alaskan Malamute who is just a sweetheart,” she says.