Saturday, April 01, 2000

Dishonest lawyers on the rise in Ohio

Incidents of misconduct increasing

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        More lawyers than ever are in trouble for lying, cheating or stealing in Ohio.

        The number of attorneys disciplined by the Ohio Supreme Court more than doubled in the past decade — from 52 in 1989 to 115 in 1999.

        Many of the offenders, including dozens from Hamilton County, worked alone or in small firms where bad behavior can go unnoticed for months or years.

        “I think it's a big problem,” said John Burlew, a Cincinnati attorney who often represents lawyers accused of wrongdoing. “You're getting a lot of lawyers in over their heads.”

        Those close to the cases say there is a message in the numbers: The more attorneys work alone, the more likely they are to get into trouble by cutting corners or taking cases they aren't qualified to handle.

        Michael Edwards talked about such isolation last month when he asked a judge to spare him from prison.

        The veteran Cincinnati attorney was in court for taking about $40,000 from his clients' estates. Mr. Edwards said he took the money because he was in financial trouble.

        Prosecutors say he was able to do it because no one was around to notice. He worked alone. He kept the books. He watched over the money in the estates.

        He got caught when a tax notice about the money went to one of his clients, Yvonne Butts.

        “I was devastated,” said Ms. Butts, who lost about $11,000. “Ordinary people don't know the law. You have to depend on the attorney to do what's supposed to be done.

        “I have no trust in lawyers now.”

        Mr. Edwards, 51, has until May 16 to pay back the money or he will be sent to jail for six months. He resigned his law license before disciplinary action could be taken.

        Complaints about attorney conduct in the last decade have increased 50 percent — from about 5,200 to 7,879 — even though the total number of attorneys has grown less than 5 percent.

        The offenses range from cheating on expense forms to stealing tens of thousands of dollars from clients. The punishments can be as light as a written reprimand or as severe as the loss of a law license.

        Although the offenders represent a small percentage of Ohio's 37,000 lawyers, the problem is becoming more serious among those who work alone.

        One recent complaint accused a Cincinnati lawyer of stealing more than $90,000 from his clients' estates. Another claimed that a lawyer signed a false affidavit that sent an innocent man to jail.

        “The smaller firms and the single practitioners are definitely most at risk,” said John Marshall, secretary to the supreme court's board of commissioners. “There's fewer people there to step in and help out when problems come up.”

        In Hamilton County, 83 percent of the attorneys accused of wrongdoing since 1990 practiced on their own or in small firms.

        Mr. Marshall said those lawyers have more opportunity to break the rules and less of the oversight that might keep them in line.

        If they have family troubles, he said, there's no one else to lean on. If they are confused by legal issues, there's no one else to consult.

        And if they are tempted to steal from clients, there's no one there to stop them.

        “The danger of being isolated is very real,” Mr. Burlew said. “You have to monitor yourself. You have to talk to your colleagues.”

        Although lawyer misconduct rarely leads to criminal charges, prosecutors are seeing more of it.

        At least four attorneys were charged here in 1999 and all worked alone or in small firms.

        “It's troubling and it's a problem,” said Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen. “Lawyers are officers of the court. You expect them to conduct themselves in a better manner.”

        Greg Nolan has seen it happen. The veteran attorney, who works in a small practice in Cheviot, said the surest way for lawyers to get into trouble is to put business ahead of their ethical obligations.

        He said a lawyer working in a small practice must be willing to turn away clients — and their money — if the case is too difficult to do alone.

        “The toughest thing for a lawyer to do is to look someone square in the eye and say, "I have no idea what you're talking about,'” said Mr. Nolan, who has practiced for 20 years. “It's hard to do.”

        Too often, Mr. Burlew said, lawyers let their careers or their business interests cloud their judgment.

        “They take anything that comes along,” he said. “Probate. Homicides. Anything at all.”

        They start making mistakes, misleading clients or lying to judges to cover themselves.

        “If you're on your own, you feel the need to do all of it, to take every case,” said Edwin Patterson, general counsel for the Cincinnati Bar Association. “But the law is more complicated than it used to be. It's difficult for a lawyer to keep up.”

        Large firms deal with the complexity by hiring experts in every field, from probate disputes to family law.

        Like a medical practice, the firms can dispatch a specialist to deal with different situations.

        But small law practices are more like the family doctor who struggles to be a jack-of-all-trades in an era of specialization.

        The difference is that doctors can't venture so easily into unfamiliar fields: A podiatrist can't perform brain surgery, but a divorce lawyer can take on a homicide trial if the client will hire him.

        Mr. Burlew, an attorney for 25 years, said he still turns away cases that are beyond his expertise. A specialist in criminal law, he built his solo practice slowly, with plenty of help from his peers.

        He said many veteran attorneys have been successful in small firms because they learned how to do the job before striking out on their own.

        “Twenty years ago, you could have a mentor. You could come along more slowly,” Mr. Burlew said. “It was a slower, gradual building of a practice.”

        John Norwine, president of the Cincinnati Bar Association, said attorneys are not as concentrated in downtown firms as they were a few decades ago.

        He said about 80 percent of the county's lawyers used to work downtown, compared to about 65 percent today.

        “There are more practicing in these real small situations,” Mr. Norwine said. “Now about a third are in storefronts in the suburbs.”

        While that's not necessarily bad, especially for clients in the suburbs, Mr. Norwine said, it tends to isolate attorneys. They spend less time with peers who can offer advice, discuss legal issues and catch mistakes.

        Mr. Marshall said some attorneys have no choice. Budget cuts have eliminated many of the jobs once available at government agencies and top law firms.

        “There are more lawyers than there are really great jobs,” Mr. Patterson said. “People end up on their own in private practice who never intended to be on their own.”

        Even if it's not one's first choice, going solo is now an option to anyone with enough money for a phone, a computer and an ad in the Yellow Pages.

        Mr. Burlew said technology allows attorneys to set up “virtual offices” with little more than a phone and an answering machine. Legal advertising, which was rare until the 1980s, gives every lawyer ready access to potential clients, he said. And cases they'd be better off turning down.

        Mr. Burlew said the best way to avoid trouble is to worry less about pursuing new clients, and more about managing the ones you already have.

        It's a message he hammers home whenever he lectures young lawyers on disciplinary issues. Spend time with your clients, he tells them. Don't lie to them, don't cheat them and don't make promises you can't keep.

        If he notices any of the young lawyers dozing during his speeches, Mr. Burlew reminds them he's earned a good living from his work on attorney discipline cases.

        “I tell them to go ahead and nod off,” he said. “I have a daughter I was able to send to Europe because of sleeping lawyers.”


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