Friday, November 20, 2020
The California State Bar Court Review Department recommends disbarment of a former Dentons associate
In 2017, Michael Bernard Potere demanded over $200,000 from a law firm where he worked by threatening the release of confidential firm information, including financial documents, client billing rates, and associate reviews and salary offers. He was prosecuted by the United States Attorney’s Office (USAO) for the Central District of California. Potere ultimately pleaded guilty to a federal misdemeanor violation of unauthorized access to a computer to obtain information. The hearing judge found the facts and circumstances surrounding his conviction involved moral turpitude and a “complete disregard for honesty.” The judge recommended disbarment.
Potere appeals, arguing the proceedings in the Hearing Department were constitutionally defective because he had to establish by expert testimony any mental disabilities responsible for his misconduct. He also asserts he should have been provided with a mental examination, and his mitigating evidence should receive more weight and his aggravating evidence less weight than found by the hearing judge. Potere contends disbarment is not necessary and, instead, a period of actual suspension is appropriate. The Office of Chief Trial Counsel of the State Bar (OCTC) did appeal but requests in its response that we affirm the disbarment recommendation.
The review department rejected the respondent's contentions.
In March 2015, Potere began working as an associate attorney at Dentons, a large international law firm, in its Los Angeles office. Later in 2015, Potere was assigned to work on one of the firm’s cases with Joel Siegel, a senior partner and managing director of Dentons. In order to prepare discovery responses for the case, Dentons provided Potere with access to Siegel’s work email account. Potere’s assignment on that case concluded in June 2016, which should have ended Potere’s access to Siegel’s account. However, neither Dentons nor Siegel took action to remove or restrict Potere’s access to it.
In March 2017, Potere told Michael Duvall, a partner at Dentons, that he was leaving the firm to pursue a graduate degree in political science. Potere asked to continue working at Dentons until his graduate program began in the fall of 2017. As Potere’s “practice advisor,” Duvall was responsible for discussing Potere’s performance reviews with him. Based on Potere’s struggles at Dentons in 2016, and Duvall repeatedly speaking to him about his substandard work performance, including a poor performance review in January 2017, Dentons refused Potere’s request to work until the fall. Instead, the firm informed him that his last day of work would be June 1, 2017.
The unauthorized access followed and led to federal charges
In response to Potere’s claim that he was simply using an aggressive negotiation strategy, the judge found Potere was actually trying to “extort the law firm into paying him a substantial sum of money for which he had absolutely no entitlement to.” He found Potere’s explanation for his conduct “arrogant and pure fantasy, nothing more than his continued refusal to accept and recognize full responsibility for his serious criminal conduct.” The judge found Potere’s expression of regret less than sincere but did recognize Potere accepted responsibility by pleading guilty to the first superseding information.
We agree with the hearing judge’s finding that Potere’s misconduct “involved a carefully considered, illicit plan to extort money from his employer, demonstrating [his] dishonesty.” He demonstrated disloyalty to Dentons when he improperly accessed confidential firm documents, then threatened lawsuits and the public release of the documents unless he was paid over $200,000 plus other items. He also lied about his use of an email program that would automatically release the documents to escalate the threat. After negotiating payment from Dentons, he certified that he had returned all of the documents when he still maintained access to them. His dishonesty and violation of fiduciary duties goes directly to his fitness to practice. Honesty is absolutely fundamental in the practice of law. Without it, “the profession is worse than valueless in the place it holds in the administration of justice.”