Stay Up on the Rules; Trust Account is for Client Funds; How Much is Take Home Anyway?

Ten New Rules
Indiana Supreme Court has amended ten of the Rules lawyers need to know effective Jan. 1, 2013.  You can review them here and realize that service of pleadings on fellow lawyers is now permissible through email, if agreed. PDF format becomes a standard, and several changes to the RPC, including Rule 5.5 on cross-state practice will go into effect.

If you don’t take the occasion to read the various rules that affect your profession, and you life as a lawyer, you have several days in the next two weeks to take that opportunity. Out of the office, often with a book in hand, you might choose to make that book (or tablet) the Rules of Court, and the link above to make sure you are reading the most current rules.

And for a kick, read the Administrative Rules (you may skip the details of Rule 7(d), 8(b), and App to Rule 1 – unless you are a judge) and the Admission and Discipline Rules, in addition to the RPC.  Finish by going back and reading Rule 22 of the A&D Rules. That is the Oath of Attorneys. You took that oath when you were admitted (you might have a copy on your wall someplace), and you would have repeated it if you attended an Indiana Bar Foundation Fellows dinner. At the dinner a Supreme Court Justice leads the crowd in a recitation of the Oath.  A good moment for all in attendance.

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YEAR END TRUST ACCOUNT ALERT

Year end temptations get to some lawyers, the temptation to leave earned funds in the trust account a few weeks longer to move income into next year.  You may want to read the opinion: In the Matter of Jacob Dunnick.

Dunnick was trying to avoid having an IRS lien enforced, and so he started operating his office general funds and paying his office bills out of his trust account. He wrote a check to the Commission for Continuing Legal Education out the funds in his trust account, and the Commission reported him under Rule 8.3. A couple of months later Dunnick bounced a check on the trust account, and under the IOLTA Rule (1.15), that is an automatic report to the DC from the depositor bank.

For playing with his trust funds like this, Dunnick gets a real 60 day suspension (six months, stayed, 60 days served, one year probation). He will need to work with a CPA to quarterly audit and report the trust account to the DC, and he must take the Trust Fund Management class.

Prior lawyer-clients of mine have reported that the Trust Fund Management class is quite worthwhile. If you are uncertain about the means and methods of handling the trust funds or other property that you obtain from your clients, you should keep an eye out for the class. Or you might buy and read the classical treatise on the issue “The ABA Guide to Lawyer Trust Accounts” available through Amazon or the ABA (where you will be surprised to find the price is about 1/2 the Amazon price, and there is $10 off if you belong to the LPM Section).

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Finances causing Troubles?

I ran across an interesting article on Inc.com’s website.  Maybe it fits your needs, maybe it does not, but I know many lawyers who suffer from the problem of inadequate fees, and I have spoken about the issue at the ISBA SSF Conference in years past.

“You Don’t Charge Enough. Here’s How to Fix That.” tackles a problem that affects many lawyers, we let the jokes and the reputation as sharks keep our fees too far below the value that our services provide to our clients. A worthwhile read before you set your office budget for 2013.

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And on that note, I want to wish you the best of the holidays.  As noted Indiana lawyer Derrick Wilson said “Make sure you wish the readers a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Festivus or holiday of their choice.”  And so I do (once again, following the sage advice of Mr. Wilson…)

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Lying to the Bar Exam Board – Bad idea; Legal Fees pay for Legal Work, not Housekeeping; Age Related Issues in the Law

Liar, Liar, License on Fire

Leah Harmuth, a Calif. lawyer former lawyer, lost her license when the Board of Examiners found that she had lied about her alleged disability and need for extra time to take the Bar Exam. She said that she suffered a disability and needed extra time, and a quiet place to take the exam. She took it, passed and later moved to NY, where she tried it again. The NY examiners checked her story, found she lied to them and they reported the information to CA.

Oops. Honesty in your bar application is critical. After nearly three years as a lawyer, including time at one of San Francisco’s premiere law firms, known as MoFo, she now is not a lawyer.

I have served on the Indiana Supreme Court Character and Fitness Board, and have spoken at three of Indiana’s four (soon five) law schools about the Bar Admission process. One more horror story to share with the students. These pop up occasionally. Kind of like Coach O’Leary. You have to be scrupulously honest in a job application. A lie on the application can cost you your license to practice law at any time. No statute of limitations on that offense.

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What can you do for lawyer’s fees? Get Suspended

Katherine Guste was a nice woman, she helped an old man with his legal needs, by preparing a Power of Attorney for the client. Then the client, who suffered a debilitating disease needed some additional legal help. He had an accident, and was charged with hit and run. She handled the criminal matter. Then Guste started helping him with personal matters, driving him places, helping him move from one nursing home to another. Nice things, but he had agreed to pay her normal hourly rate as a lawyer for performing those non-legal services. Eventually she claimed she had provided 220 hours of service, after he decided he had been hoodwinked, and complained to the Louisiana Disciplinary Commission. But she was paid for over 250 hours.

That did not matter. The LA Supreme Court decided that lawyers’ hourly fees are unreasonable for general labor work and she could not mix the two types of work for the same fee. Rule 1.8 prohibits mixing work like this. She had other discipline matters too, and ultimately she got her license suspended for two years. Ouch.

Be careful charging lawyers fees for standing at the copy machine.

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“What do we do with a General, when he stops being a General…”*

[*words and lyrics by Irving Berlin] In the movie musical White Christmas, Bing Crosby’s character sings about what to do with General Waverly after the war and he is no longer in charge. Lawyers see this dilemma as well with our older members of the Bar.

The Ohio Supreme Court this week issued an “age-associated cognitive disorder” opinion for a 71-year-old lawyer who was charged with an ethical violation during the handling of a couple of estate matters, and was confused in his explanation to the disciplinary commission. Raymond O’Neal complained about his memory problems during his testimony, so the commission had him submit to a psychiatric exam by a medical professional. The doctor found age-associated cognitive disorder, and recommended some age-appropriate strategies for minimizing the effects of the disorder.

The Ohio Supreme Court suspended O’Neal for two years, withheld 18 months, but started off with a six month suspension. During the six months before return, he must undergo a thorough geriatric psychological assessment and prove that he will be fit to return to the competent, ethical and professional practice of law. Not sure how he will do that based on the problems he exhibited to the court and outlined in the 9 page opinion.

Congratulations to the Bar and Bench in Ohio. This is a difficult area of enforcement, but the duty to protect the clients is important. I invite older lawyers to discuss this issue with family and partners.

Fraud gets 50 years; Mayhem gets jail; Shameless Plug.

Fraud gets lawyer prison time.

Indiana lawyer, now businessman Tim Durham gets 50 years for defrauding about 5,000 depositors in Fair Finance, with their total losses exceeding $200M.  Durham, admitted to practice law in Indiana in 1987, and suspended in June 2012, had what various magazines and stories showed as “the good life.”  It was based on the frauds he committed after he left the practice of law, apparently.

Starting his  legal practice at Ice Miller, he moved on to even bigger and better things. He once was married into one of the most prominent families in Indianapolis, and apparently wanted more. He acquired Fair Finance, and apparently took investment lessons from Bernie Madoff. The lure of cars, yachts and houses led him astray, and the 50-year-old, who must now serve at least 43 years in prison under current federal guidelines, may not get out in this lifetime.

If you get too excited at the chance to “hit the lottery” with someone else’s money, recall the lesson of Tim Durham.

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Don’t Trash the Office Before you are Evicted

Dallas lawyer Thomas Corea was jailed after making a real bad situation even worse.  First he was disbarred for stealing client funds, then he was evicted from his office.  But he was the smart one who showed the landlord.  After getting his eviction notice he trashed the office, doing more than $100,000 in damages.  That got the interest of the police, and he was jailed, and his bond increased to $500,000 for the first four felony charges.

Corea at one time had been host of an “ask your lawyer” TV show, but that turned out bad when he sued the station for $1.4M for not forwarding all calls.

It was the graffiti that got him in the eviction. He (or the vandal) wrote several messages on the wall, including one message that was a derogatory remark about an Arizona judge who had found him in contempt. He included her phone number and an invitation to call her…

Update – Another Dallas PI lawyer has now asked the court to appoint him custodian of the files left by Corea, since he cannot provide legal services to his clients disbarred and jailed.  It sounds similar to Indiana’s Attorney Surrogate Rule that allows this kind of help. No word from the ABA Journal if the help is welcomed by Corea.

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Shameless Plugs on Ethics (and other) Courses I am Presenting

Ted Waggoner, editor/author of this blog presented an hour of Ethics for the General Practice Solo and Small Firm Section of the ISBA on Nov. 29. The course was “Hiring and Training New Law Firm Personnel: How to Avoid Losing $85,000 or your License.”

On February 28, I will also be presenting an hour of Business Law Ethics at an ICLEF program. It has the tentative title of “Developing and Representing the Business Entity.”

On Jan. 23,  I will be presenting a seminar in kicking off the 2013 Ivy Tech Ag Seminar Series, titled “Family Farm Ownership: What is the Right
Solution for You and Your Family?”

For further information about either of these programs, please contact me.