Should lawyers who enable abusive employees be terminated?

The fallout continues from the situation involving former Rutgers men’s head basketball coach Mike Rice, who was fired last week after videotape of his repeated abusive treatment of his players went public. The media reported that Rutgers general counsel John Wolf lost his job in the immediate aftermath of that firing. Wolf apparently had played a key role in advising Rutgers late last year that it could retain Rice by imposing a short suspension and a fine.

Demoted, not terminated

It turns out that Rutgers pulled a bit of a fast one. Wolf was not terminated from employment; rather, he was demoted to a lower position. The ongoing outcry to that decision and the seeming public deception on the part of Rutgers have led to his resignation. As reported by the Associated Press (via Yahoo! Sports):

A Rutgers University lawyer resigned Thursday amid growing anger that he was still employed by the school after approving a decision in December to suspend rather than fire basketball coach Mike Rice after becoming aware of a video showing the coach hitting, kicking and taunting players.

The university last week announced that John Wolf, who had been serving in an interim basis as the university’s top in-house lawyer, had resigned from his leadership position. School officials at first would not clarify what that meant, but then this week acknowledged that he was remaining at Rutgers as a lower-level lawyer.

A closer look

Was Wolf’s ouster merited? I have written before about how the worst employers seem to have the most thuggish lawyers representing them. It’s not clear to me that either characterization fits here, although Rutgers’s attempt to hide the true nature of Wolf’s employment status indicates that they still don’t get it.

I also wrote in my earlier post that had Rutgers been my client, they would’ve known clearly and unequivocally of my belief that termination was the most appropriate response to Rice’s abusive treatment of his players. It does not appear that lawyers advising Rutgers took such a firm stance.

Assuming that Wolf served at the pleasure of Rutgers (i.e., in a more or less at-will capacity), it would’ve been completely within the university’s discretion to demote or terminate him for providing less-than-wonderful legal advice.

The role of legal counsel

Putting on my lawyer hat, I recognize that attorneys are not university presidents or CEOs in terms of having ultimate decision making authority. We can only advise our clients; we cannot force them to do what we believe is the right thing.

That said, when lawyers serve as handmaidens for wrongful behaviors by a client and its managers, they may pay a price in the all-too-unlikely event the organization is required to account for its actions. As the Rutgers saga continues to unfold, perhaps we’ll learn more lessons about the roles their attorneys played in these very unfortunate events.

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