Sunday, October 7, 2012

Lawyer steals money from clients but does not get disbarred because he had been in the military; I don't get the connection

The Legal Profession blog is reporting on a recent opinion from the Ohio Supreme Court in which an attorney was indefinitely suspended  for  violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct in  his dealings with more than 20 bankruptcy clients including the fact that the attorney accepted fee advances from those clients but deposited the unearned fees in his office operating account and spent the clients’ funds on personal and office  expenses without performing the legal services for which he had been retained. In other words, that he stole client's money.

You would think this is not newsworthy since stealing from clients is essentially the easiest way to get disbarred, right?  But that is the strange thing.  Here, the attorney was not disbarred.  There is a distinction between indefinite suspension (a suspension that can be lifted) and disbarment (which, at least in theory, is permanent).

What made the difference in this case?  In imposing an indefinite suspension rather than permanent disbarment, the court noted as mitigating factors that the attorney had served in the U.S. Air Force for 20 years,  expressed sincere remorse and  accepted  full responsibility for his actions, cooperated with disciplinary authorities, and was making ongoing attempts to make restitution to his clients.  You can read the opinion here.

I don't understand this. The lawyer has admitted that he stole money from clients in multiple instances but he doesn't get disbarred (which the court says is the proper sanction for misappropriation) because he is a veteran? What does military service have anything to do with anything? With all due respect to the members of the military all of whom should be admired for their courage, why should military service operate as a mitigating factor and not other kinds of service? What if a lawyer had been a nurse for 20 years before going to law school, or a high school teacher or a firefighter? How do we make the distinction? 

I just don't think past military service is relevant at all.  The lawyer may have served the country admirably for 20 years in the past, but now he was stealing money from clients.  He should have been disbarred.

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