Ethics Opinions Every South Carolina Attorney Should Know: Part XIV, Don’t Steal From Your Trust Account

Posted Saturday, June 12th, 2010 by Gregory Forman
Filed under Of Interest to Family Law Attorneys, Rules of Professional (Lawyer) Conduct, South Carolina Specific

How much money is in your trust account?  Would you sell your law license for it?

Theft of client or third-party funds from one’s trust account (as opposed to simple mismanagement of one’s trust account) is, by far, the most common method that attorneys end up disbarred.  A Westlaw search of South Carolina case law for “disbar! /s trust” locates 121 cases, the most recent being In the Matter of Jacobsen, 386 S.C. 598, 690 S.E.2d 560 (2010).[1]

In those rare cases in which the Supreme Court merely indefinitely suspends an attorney for misappropriating trust account funds, the Office of Disciplinary Counsel often seeks disbarment.  See e.g., In the Matter of Johnson, 380 S.C. 76, 668 S.E.2d 416 (2008).  What an odd relief it must be to only receive an indefinite suspension.

Even if the prospect of utterly trashing my reputation and the likely criminal consequences of stealing from my clients didn’t deter me, there has never enough money in my trust account to make me willing to give up my law license for a year, let alone for life.  Each time I read yet another opinion in which an attorney has been disbarred for misappropriating trust funds, I am astonished at how cheaply that attorney valued his or her law license.

The lesson of Jacobson and his 120 fellow former attorneys: don’t steal from your trust account.

[1]As of January 25, 2011 the number of such cases has increased to 125, with the most recent being the January 7, 2011 case of In re Glover.  Ironically, Glover’s disbarment did not involve trust account violations.  However, in the seven months since this blog was posted, three more attorneys have been disbarred due to trust account violations, the most recent being the August 16, 2010 opinion of In re Crews, 389 S.C. 322, 698 S.E.2d 785 (2010).

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