Thursday, January 8, 2009
An Arizona hearing officer has recommended a 30 day suspension followed by two years probation in a disciplinary matter brought against an attorney retained to defend a divorce. The client paid a $5,000 retainer to "cover all [his] divorce" and discharged the lawyer less than a month later. The lawyer treated the payment as a flat fee but had no written retainer agreement, resulting in "significant confusion" regarding the fee situation. The lawyer promised a partial refund and never provided an accounting. Eventually, the client recived $1,000 in cash from the lawyer, who testified that the amount returned "...was just a number. I knew he had at least a thousand coming."
The hearing officer found that the lawyer had failed to return an unearned fee and provide an accounting of the fee to the client. The attorney has been the subject of five previous orders of discipline but has never been suspended from practice (all five orders--entered from 2002 to 2008-- imposed probation).
As to sanction :
This is a very challenging and somwhat unique case. The Respondent has a very compelling life story. Respondent came from very humble origins and has worked very, very hard under extremely adverse conditions to not only get her education, but also became an attorney. Respondent also presents herself as a very pleasant and well intentioned person. Respondent's character witness praised Respondent very highly for her honesty and her competency.
...her testimony indicates she had very little respect for [the client], or his right to an accounting and to a refund. Respondent was worse than just cavalier about her responsibility to [the client], she seemed to be unaware and unconcerned. Further, her practice of giving a complex legal document to her clients and dismissing them to figure it out is shocking.
The hearing officer notes that he "was a solo practicioner for several years, and understands the stress and strain of trying to keep a solo practice open and thriving." He recommends a mental health evaluation of the attorney and that she not be permitted to practice as a solo during the period of probation. She has been in a solo practice since her admission in 1997. (Mike Frisch)