Readers of this blog and my students know how I would answer this question.
The Legal Profession Blog is reporting today on a case where an attorney who had misappropriated entrusted funds was only suspended for one year by the New York Appellate Division. The opinion is available here. In imposing the short suspension, the court considered the following mitigating factors: the lawyer's previously unblemished record, the lack of economic harm to any client, the respondent's sincere remorse, the positive character evidence submitted, the prompt remedial measures undertaken and the fact that the underlying events took place over a limited period during which the respondent was experiencing medical problems and adverse reactions to prescribed medications.
I would have voted to disbar. No question. I can't think of any argument that will convince me that you can justify stealing money from a client. My 5 year old son knows you don't steal. A lawyer who has an ethical and fiduciray duty should know better.
The mitigating factor that bugs me the most is "the lack of economic harm to any client." So, let me get this straight, suppose the lawyer needs money to pay some medical bills... it is now "not so bad" to take clients' money to pay the bills as long as the lawyer replaces the money before anyone misses it?