Legally Speaking: Lawyers Behaving Badly -- Once More, With Feeling

John G. Browning Oct. 15, 2008, 5:55pm

As "Legally Speaking" readers know, I've delved into the issue of lawyers on their worst behavior before, in a series of columns entitled "Lawyers Behaving Badly."

I've even tried to impart a little refresher course in professionalism for such ethically-challenged attorneys. But judging by recent events in the legal system, it appears as though not everyone got the memo. So here I go again with another helpful primer on how not to be a lawyer.

First Rule of Thumb: Don't Accept Lap Dances as Payment for Legal Fees

Evidently Scott Erwin of DeKalb, Ill., missed this in ethics class. Erwin, a lawyer since 1980, has been suspended by the Illinois bar for 15 months for arranging to have a stripper client perform nude dances for him in exchange for credit on her legal fees.

Erwin represented the dancer and several of her family members in different types of legal matters after meeting in 2001 at Heartbreakers, an Illinois strip club. They mutually agreed that the stripper would perform nude dances for Erwin in his office as a way to cut down the legal bill, and so on several occasions from February to June of 2002 she dutifully did so.

When Erwin "credited" her for only $534 on a legal tab that had reached $7,000, however, the woman went to DeKalb police and complained. Although no criminal charges were brought, an attorney misconduct investigation was launched, resulting in Erwin's suspension.

The woman in question is no longer an exotic dancer, but rather engages in a "show and tell" of a very different kind: she's a real estate agent.

Second Rule of Thumb: Don't Try to Deduct Prostitutes and Porn on Your Taxes, Especially If You're a Tax Lawyer

By all accounts, 77-year-old Brooklyn attorney William Halby is a well-regarded tax specialist. But a recent ruling by New York's Department of Taxation and Finance may cause him to re-think his approach to deductions.

Halby, who's divorced and semi-retired, attempted to deduct approximately $322,000 for prostitutes, pornography, sex toys and "erotic massages," claiming that they were reasonable medical expenses for what Halby considered to be sex therapy and relief from osteoarthritis and depression.

The state of New York differed, however, rejecting the septuagenarian sex addict's deductions and leaving him with a $24,271 state tax bill (similar action by the IRS is pending).

Among other reasons, the state agency pointed out that much of what Halby was attempting to deduct involved sex for money, a criminal act. Halby intends to appeal.

I don't think this tax attorney is going to get the "happy ending" he's accustomed to.

Third Rule of Thumb: Don't Act Like a Drunken Idiot in Public

In September, Oklahoma attorneys Lewis Moon and David Bedford were arrested after witnesses reported them driving the wrong way through the drive-through lane of a Whataburger in suburban Oklahoma City. When police arrived, Moon allegedly spit on one of the officers and waved around a badge, claiming to be a deputy.

Moon was arrested on charges of driving a motor vehicle while intoxicated, impersonating a law officer, resisting arrest, and "placing bodily fluids on a law officer;" while Bedford was arrested for public intoxication. Both lawyers are currently free on bond, so if you work at a fast food drive-through, beware!

Fourth Rule of Thumb: Don't Sleep With Clients, Or Their Spouses

This was a very expensive lesson to learn for Mississippi attorney Ronald Henry Pierce, who recently lost an appeal to that state's Supreme Court of a $1.5 million verdict entered against him.

Pierce had been hired to represent Ernest Allen Cook and his wife Kathleen in a medical malpractice case in 1997. Sometime in 2000, Pierce began an affair with Kathleen, and the Cooks divorced shortly thereafter.

Ernest Cook then sued his former lawyer for intentional infliction of emotional distress, breach of contract, and "alienation of affection" (still a cause of action in a handful of states).

Reacting to the verdict's being upheld on appeal, Pierce told the National Law Journal "I knew I was going to get screwed." Sounds like you're an expert in that department, Ronald.

Fifth Rule of Thumb: Dead Men Tell No Tales, and They Don't Sign Documents, Either

Patent law is usually pretty dull, and at first the patent lawsuit filed by semiconductor equipment company Applied Materials against MultiMetrixs was no exception.

Then MultiMetrixs made infringement counterclaims of its own, and things started to get interesting. In court, testimony was introduced about one of the alleged inventors at MultiMetrixs, David Margulis, who had signed declarations to the U.S. Patent Office in 2003 and 2004.

There was just one problem: Margulis had died in 2002. Ilya Zborovsky, the New York patent lawyer who had worked on the patent application, "could not remember anything because his files were lost in a fire."

U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel found that MultiMetrixs had committed "inequitable conduct" (lying to the Patent Office) and declared the company's patent to be unenforceable.

Word to the wise for lawyers drafting documents: make sure that the individual you say signed the paperwork is actually alive to do so.

Sixth Rule of Thumb: If That E-Mail from a Foreign Country Promising Easy Money Seems Too Good to be True, It Probably Is

All of us have seen varieties of the e-mail scams purporting to be someone in a foreign country who needs to access some ridiculously huge sum of money, and is willing to pay you handsomely for your help in doing so.

Nearly all of us are smart enough to hit the "delete" key when such scams hit our inbox; not Atlanta attorney Gregory Bartko, however.

Bartko, who sometimes handles international transactions, received an e-mail from a Taiwan company that asked him to help collect a debt in the U.S. Bartko received a cashier's check for nearly $200,000 as a partial payment, which he deposited in his trust account before wiring the money to a South Korean company.

The only problem was that the check he deposited was counterfeit, and Bartko's bank, Wachovia, is suing him for the money that was wired, claiming it had extended him provisional credit.

Bartko may have been conned, but he's not alone: officials at Wells Fargo Bank and City National Bank in California say that at least six lawyers in that state have been caught up in the same e-mail scam.

Seventh Rule of Thumb: Being A "Full Service" Law Firm Doesn't Include Being a Drug Mule for Your Client

Tempe, Ariz., criminal defense lawyer Jason John Keller was recently charged by the Arizona Attorney General with multiple counts of promoting prison contraband.

According to court documents, the 34-year-old attorney had – on at least three separate occasions - allegedly smuggled heroin, a cell phone, and a cell phone charger into the Maricopa County Jail for inmates, at least one of whom is a client of Keller's.

Just say no, Jason.

And as for your cellphone-seeking clients, the only bars they should be concerned about are the ones they're behind.

Eighth Rule of Thumb: Don't Steal – From Anyone

Former Houston personal injury attorney Steven Bearman was recently sentenced to 35 years in prison for theft.

According to court records, Bearman would settle his clients' cases without their knowledge (a big no-no), take the money for his own use (a bigger no-no), and then refuse to answer calls about the cases (also a no-no).

However, Bearman didn't just stop at stealing from clients (more than $1.6 million over a six year period, from at least 46 victims).

While he was awaiting trial on charges of stealing from clients, Bearman was hired by another law firm – and he stole from his new employer, too!

Before Judge Vanessa Velasquez sentenced Bearman, she asked him "What were you thinking?" Good question.

I hope the legal profession doesn't provide me with fodder for future columns of this type, but the ranks of the ethically impaired don't seem to be dwindling anytime soon.

John Browning is a partner in the Dallas office of Gordon & Rees, LLP. He may be contacted at:

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