Saturday, March 5, 2011

How not to practice law: charge money for nothing

My students will get a kick out of this story, published yesterday in the Legal Profession Blog, which deals with the topic we discussed in class this week.

Here is a quick reminder of a pretty easy to understand principle: you can't charge a fee and then not provide the services the fee was supposed to pay for. Duh!

This basic principle is illustrated in a decision of the Maryland Court of Appeals. The attorney was disbarred for doing just that. He collected fees in two cases, pocketed them and then did not perform the services. Note that in this scenario, there is yet another violation of the rules: since the fees were paid to perform future services the attorney was supposed to place them in the client trust account. Instead he pocketed the money (and used it for his own personal purposes).

Now here is the kicker. How much money do you think was worth getting disbarred for? The total amount: $1,100.

Maybe I should assign this case to my students because it actually illustrates two other principles I tell them about emphatically in class: (1) it does not matter what the conduct is, because of the lack of guidelines when it comes to sanction, you always risk disbarment. Is it really worth risking it for $1,000? And, (2) having said that, if there is one thing you can be 99% sure of in terms of sanctions it is that if you steal money from a client, it does not matter how much, you will likely get disbarred. And you should; period; end of story.