Risking one’s law license

Posted Sunday, October 18th, 2009 by Gregory Forman
Filed under Miscellaneous, Not South Carolina Specific, Of Interest to Family Law Attorneys

Just this month, one of my local family law colleagues was placed on interim suspension by the South Carolina Supreme Court.  Not only did this attorney handle the closing of my house, he is one of a handful of attorneys to flat-out smoke me in a family court trial in the past half decade.  I both like and respect him and am saddened to read about this suspension.  He joins two other local family law colleagues currently on interim suspension.  Yet another local family court colleague, Marvin Lee Robertson, Jr., who was on interim suspension, was recently disbarred.

Attorneys rarely get an interim suspension unless they will ultimately be suspended for nine months or more or disbarred.  When attorneys suffer such discipline, it’s typically because they have committed a serious crime, allowed a substance abuse or mental health issue to overwhelm them, or have stolen from their trust account [money controlled by the attorney but typically belonging to clients or third-parties].  Rarely is an attorney placed on interim suspension for legal malfeasance or ornery disposition, as happened to local family court colleague Daniel F. Norfleet, before he was ultimately placed on indefinite suspension.  When the Supreme Court puts an attorney on interim suspension due to that attorney being indicted for a serious crime, the interim suspension order notes this.

During the period between the interim suspension and the ultimate resolution of the attorney discipline my morbid curiosity reflects upon what my colleague could have done that put his or her license at risk.  When no criminal charges are listed on the interim suspension order, typically my suspicion is trust account mismanagement: that is the attorney has misappropriated funds in his or her trust account [not to imply that any of the attorneys on interim suspension listed above had trust account violations or are going to suffer long-term suspension or disbarment].  That was the reason Marvin Lee Robertson was given an interim suspension and ultimately disbarred.

Ask most established attorneys what they did for a living before they became a lawyer and the answer is characteristically a variation on “something a lot less prestigious and interesting.” Ask those same attorneys how much money they had previously made and the answer almost always is “a whole lot less money.”  While I can comprehend how an attorney might risk his or her license over substance abuse or criminal issues–folks committing serious crimes or abusing substances have greater concerns than their law license–I have never understood attorneys who risk their license to misappropriate trust account funds.  Even if concerns over personal integrity meant nothing to me, worrying about what I might do for my livelihood the day after that interim suspension came down is a strong deterrent to any temptation that might cause me to lose that license.

2 thoughts on Risking one’s law license

  1. Conrad Falkiewicz says:

    Dear Greg,

    Being close to this one of these situations has given me substancial, and new, appreciation for the work done by the disciplinary counsel. There are many more situations worked through by that office than we hear about at CLE’s. The CLE presenter’s tendency to dramatize seemingly innocuous violations resulting in disbarment may flow from not knowing the full story behind the ultimately published decisions and cause us all to have an irrational fear of that office. Each situation is unique and it appears that the office in Columbia is well aware of the difficulties of practice and that many times what may look like intentional acts…simply are not.

    There are no forgone conclusions. “Interim Suspension” is just a tool, it is not the sound of a gun cocking.

    1. Conrad,

      I would note that my suspicion that this attorney’s problems involved trust account violations proved to be true. I would further note that one of the two local family law colleagues who was on interim suspension when I drafted this blog was subsequently disbarred for misappropriating trust account funds (the other colleague’s case has not resolved yet).

      Other than Norfleet, I know of no cases in which an interim suspension didn’t involve criminal charges or trust account mismanagement.

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