Tuesday, May 8, 2007
My recent review of new hearing board reports from Illinois led to a number of interesting matters that shed some light on problems in both practice and private affairs that can jeopardize a legal career. One involved an associate at a Chicago law firm who "falsely billed clients for work she had not performed." The lawyer's practice involved litigation in defense of hospitals and doctors in med mal claims. She was required to keep time records detailing time, work and client matter involved. While she initially excelled, her productivity declined, leading to conversations with her supervising attorney. The billing misconduct was discovered by an internal firm audit after the attorney had moved to a new firm. The attorney denied the allegations, which were based on a lack of records of the work allegedly performed.
The hearing board found that the attorney had engaged in the misconduct, which involved 88 hours of work billed at $12,450. The panel notes: "We presume the Respondent's primary motivation in engaging in false billing was an attempt to meet the number of hours she was required to bill during a time when she was having difficulty achieving the required number of hours." Further, "she did not act out of greed or direct financial self interest."
Two questions: how can a panel assume a non-fraudulent motivation when the lawyer denies misconduct? Is 30 days a tad light for a pattern of billing fraud in excess of $12,000?
The second case I find more difficult and sympathetic. The attorney has never had a client-initiated disciplinary complaint. She did have a longstanding problem with alcohol and drug abuse. During the course of a custody proceeding for her minor child, she was ordered by a judge to produce a urine sample. Concerned about recent cannabis use, she went back to her law office and sought a clean sample from two people, each of whom refused. She was reported by a partner. There also were two DUI convictions that were not reported to bar authorities as required. The attorney presented evidence of significant alcohol abuse and her present sobriety. Her treating doctor and the bar's expert witness diagnosed "bipolar disorder, alcohol dependence, and cannabis and cocaine abuse." While treatment was ongoing, the bar's expert expressed concerns and suggested that the lawyer participate in a "relapse prevention program."
The hearing board rejected the bar prosecutors recomendation for a stayed suspension with probationary conditions. Finding that she does not "fully understand" the misconduct, the board recommends a six month suspension with 60 days actually served, followed by probation for two years with 16 enumerated conditions.
Because there have never been any client complaints, I'd be inclined to trust and adopt the bar's probation recommendation. In any event, it is hard to understand why this case merits twice the suspension proposed for the billing fraud. (Mike Frisch)