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January 08, 2010
Bending the Truth Can Break a Legal Career
By Douglas S. Malan – The Connecticut Law Tribune
It’s a difficult economy and you’re a job applicant looking for any edge. Better give a long second thought to padding that resume or fudging the truth on an application, especially if you’re a lawyer.
Consider the case of Mark Villeneuve, a Connecticut-licensed lawyer who lives in Augusta, Maine. His professional standing is under attack because Connecticut grievance officials believe he lied multiple times when he e-mailed his resume and application for a staff attorney position to the state Workers’ Compensation Commission.
Villeneuve did far more than embellish a job title or try to cover up a period of unemployment. He claimed to have graduated cum laude from Western New England College School of Law in 2004 and to have served as the law review’s assistant note editor. Yes, he was a WNEC grad. But he was neither cum laude nor a law review editor.
Villeneuve also stated that he was employed at the Law Offices of Jean Smith in Meriden, Conn., a firm that Villeneuve said handled all types of workers’ comp matters. Turns out that no such firm exists.
State officials say the inconsistencies on the job application were revealed after Villeneuve had interviewed in person for the Workers’ Compensation Commission position. But Villeneuve is claiming that he never applied for the job and never appeared for that interview in February 2008; he says someone must have stolen his identity and pretended to be him.
The Statewide Grievance Committee isn’t buying it. They want the Superior Court to dole out the appropriate punishment. Villeneuve, who has responded to the grievance complaint in writing only, has moved to dismiss the case.
There’s little wiggle room in the state’s ethics rules for lawyers who lie, and there’s no distinction between padding a resume and falsifying a job application, said Mark Dubois, the state’s chief disciplinary counsel. “Rule 8.4 [of the Practice Book rules] says lawyers cannot lie,” he said flatly.
Kessler International, a corporate investigation firm, indicated in a recent study that more than 25 percent of resumes include false information.
Frank E. Rudewicz, a Connecticut attorney who conducts investigations of people and companies for BDO Consulting in Boston, said professional service firms have been contacting his company more than ever before.
“Over the past year of two, we’re seeing more scrutiny at the executive and partner levels,” Rudewicz said. “It’s been happening for law firms, too. I have a number of clients who have been checking on practice areas and doing background checks on partners.”
Often this activity occurs before a merger because a firm wants to get as much information as possible about people with whom they’re about to join forces. High-profile swindlers such as Bernie Madoff and Marc Dreier have heightened the awareness that the people in charge often require the most scrutiny.
“I don’t think more people are doing this,” Rudewicz said of lying on resumes. “But we’re finding them out quicker because companies and firms are emphasizing” background checks.
Michael Soltis, a Stamford-based employment lawyer for Jackson Lewis, said many of his business clients are concerned about falsified resumes and job applications, but he hasn’t run across one involving a lawyer. “This has been going on for a while, and I don’t think it’s just based on the economy,” Soltis said. When it comes to fudging information, “it runs the gamut from minor transgressions to major creativity,” he noted.
In 2007, Massachusetts Institution of Technology’s dean of admissions resigned after she admitted that she never graduated from college, though she listed degrees from three colleges on her resume. Also, an employee of a major New York law firm was found to have never actually graduated from law school, even though he was billing high-profile business clients at an associate’s rate.
“Companies and law firms are being more and more stringent about the process” of background checks, said Anna Savic, managing director of Response Legal Search in Hartford. “In the past five years, law firms have been doing more of this.”
Anne Jennings, managing director of Kelly Law Registry in Hartford, remembers an instance several years ago when a lawyer who was working as a temporary employee for a company was found to have lied about their professional background.
“Lying on a resume is grounds to fire them from a Kelly Law Services assignment,” Jennings said. Her recruiters spend time checking into attorneys’ backgrounds to make sure they’re in good standing with the bar association and to make certain they earned a law degree from the institution named on their resume. Depending on the company’s or law firm’s request, a more in-depth background check is available.
“My recruiters spend a lot of time screening people,” Jennings said. “We work really hard to make sure no one has done anything that will make us look bad.”