Most Missourians have never heard of Alan Pratzel or the system he led for 15 years.
To lawyers in Missouri, however, Pratzel was often considered the profession’s top cop.
But that’s not how he looked at his role of chief disciplinary counsel, a job focused on making sure the state’s lawyers abided by legal ethics and professional conduct.
“Whenever someone said that, I’d say, ‘No, no, no, we’re not prosecutors,’” Pratzel told The Independent last month. “I’ve always looked at it as we are really fact finders.”
In November, Pratzel retired from his post in Missouri’s attorney disciplinary system, which he’s worked in since 1985 and led since 2007. The court selected Laura E. Elsbury to step into the role.
As chief disciplinary counsel, Pratzel always looked at his “emphasis” in two parts – an enforcer and an educator. The education piece was his true passion, he said, and what kept him working in the disciplinary system for nearly 40 years.
The largest practice group of attorneys in Missouri are solo and small firm lawyers, Pratzel said. And while they may be incredible attorneys in the courtroom, they often aren’t great accountants or business managers.
In his 15 years leading the system, the largest number of complaints that ended up before judges involved lawyers who mishandled their clients’ money. But through educational outreach programs, his office had been able to decrease this number significantly.
He also advocated for more early intervention efforts when appropriate – through probation, diversion and monitoring – to help prevent issues lawyers may be having from growing into bigger problems.
As a liaison to Pratzel’s office, former Missouri Supreme Court Judge Laura Denvir Stith said Pratzel saw his role as to protect the public by making sure lawyers do their job — not as a prosecutor.
“When there’s a rule, he’s a stickler for following it,” Stith said. “But he’s also a stickler for trying to make sure the rule is clear, so attorneys don’t get caught by accident violating a rule that didn’t intend to violate. And I just really liked that he understands his role as one to improve the system.”
The power of education
When attorneys receive advance payments or settlement money for their clients, they are required to put it into a trust account.
In 2010, the court established a rule requiring banks to notify Pratzel’s office if a check bounced out of that trust account.
“There’s never a good reason to bounce a check from a trust account, something’s going wrong,” Pratzel said. “So when we get what we call an overdraft notice from the bank, we’re going to audit that trust account and figure out exactly what happened.”
The first year, his office received 350 or more notifications. But in the years before he retired, it was somewhere between 50 and 75 annually. That’s the power of education, he said.
“We can fulfill our mission in ways that don’t necessarily involve discipline,” Pratzel said, “but, in the appropriate case, by educating the [The Missouri Bar] and making sure they’re sensitive to these rules.”
Pratzel led countless continuing legal education sessions for Missouri attorneys, as well as taught legal ethics courses for many years at Washington University School of Law in St. Louis and the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Law.
A St. Louis native, Pratzel earned his bachelor’s degree in history in 1975 and his law degree in 1978, both from Washington University. He then spent 22 years in the private practice of law with Lashly & Baer in St. Louis.
His journey with the disciplinary system began in 1985, when he started serving as the special representative for the disciplinary committees in the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County. In this role, he provided administrative oversight for the attorney disciplinary process in those areas and litigated individual disciplinary cases — while also working in his own practice.
As the chief disciplinary counsel, Pratzel led an office of lawyers, investigators and other staff members who investigate allegations of misconduct by lawyers, prosecute cases when a lawyer’s misconduct poses a threat to the public or to the integrity of the legal profession, and keep current records of disciplinary information for lawyers licensed to practice law in Missouri.
He also maintained an active caseload, trying cases to disciplinary hearing panels throughout the state and then routinely briefing and arguing cases that reached the Missouri Supreme Court.
Being in his position, he’s received a fair amount of criticism, including that his office handled cases in a “black box” and discipline was imbalanced.
“He’s certainly a competent attorney who has been very vigorous,” said Stephen Sokoloff, general counsel of the Missouri Office of Prosecution Services. “My only criticism would be that [discipline] has not been particularly evenhanded in my own personal perception.”
Stith said she didn’t always agree with the direction the cases took.
“He would never make an argument that he didn’t fully believe in,” Stith said. “I didn’t always agree with him or his results, but I always knew he was being honest and straightforward with the court about what he believed were the facts from the depositions and the record he’d looked at.”
Pratzel understands that not everyone was going to like the results, but he said his team did the best job they could at investigating complaints. And he hoped his office never seemed tucked away or hidden from the public.
“The more people know that this system even exists, the more we’ll be able to protect the public,” Pratzel said. “There are people who sometimes just aren’t aware that we’re out there.”
Missouri Chief Justice Paul Wilson described Pratzel as a “hero” during the opening luncheon of the joint annual meeting of the Judicial Conference of Missouri, which is the organization of all the state’s judges, and The Missouri Bar in Springfield this fall.
“Alan has devoted his life to protecting the public and the integrity of the profession by teaching generations of lawyers to know and follow the rules of professional conduct,” Wilson said. “I hope he knows how much better our profession is for his having played such an important role in it.”