Posts Tagged ‘Maine’

More Follow-up on “Handling Unethical Attorney Conduct: An Example”

Friday, December 9th, 2011

Partly because the case is from the jurisdiction in which I have been licensed since 1976 and I know several of the players, but mostly because it provides an excellent illustration for discussions of how paralegals should handle unethical conduct by their attorney, this blog has been following the saga of ethical charges against Verrill-Dana, one of Maine largest law firms. According to ABAJournal.com today, Maine’s highest court has ruled that six partners at Verrill Dana violated ethics rules by failing to have procedures in place to monitor a lawyer after questions arose about his handling of a client account, but upheld a finding that the six partners didn’t violate ethics rules by foot-dragging in reporting misconduct.

The intricacies of this ruling are interesting in their own right, but only marginally so for this blog which is more concerned with how the saga started:

A paralegal and a secretary were first to discover the problem, according to the opinion. The paralegal noticed in late 2006 that Duncan had prepared a check register for a client showing a payment to Verrill Dana, but the check had been made payable to Duncan. The paralegal brought the matter to the attention of Duncan’s secretary, who investigated and found 14 such discrepancies.

The secretary finally told another lawyer in the firm about the discrepancies in June 2007, spurring Warren to launch an investigation of the client account. When confronted, Duncan said the checks written to himself represented attorney fees, and he offered to resign. Warren spoke to the executive committee about Duncan’s resignation offer; it was declined. Warren did require Duncan to repay $77,500 to the firm, however, and he complied.

The court’s opinion tells the end (or the near end) of the story for the attorneys involved. Check out the previous posts here for the beginning including the story of the paralegal and secretary who “did the right thing” when confronted with an attorney for whom they worked doing the wrong thing.

Handling Unethical Attorney Conduct: An Example

Monday, December 13th, 2010

From time to time I’ve done posts here on the dilemma paralegals face when working for an attorney who is engaged in unethical conduct. Often a certain amount of judgment is required as to whether the conduct requires the paralegal to report the conduct. I write about this in The Empowered Paralegal: Effective, Efficient, and Professional. There I emphasize,

If you do decide to report, I do suggest obtaining legal advice first from an attorney outside of the one in which you work. Remember that attorney has a firm obligation to keep what you tell her confidential. That attorney can advise you regarding protections to which you may be entitled, the proper authority to which you should report and the correct procedures for reporting. Generally, you will receive immunity from being sued by your employer for slander and libel, and you may be entitled to certain protections against on-the-job retaliation under “Whistleblower” laws. She will help you analyze the situation to determine whether you have the necessary facts, have properly interpreted the facts and validate your decision regarding the proper balancing of interest and integrity.

In fact a paralegal is well advised to seek independent legal advice from an outside attorney in determining whether to report.

I write about this again now because of a proceeding brought against six attorneys in Maine by the  Board of  Bar Overseers. Having practiced in Maine for over thirty years, I am familiar with many of the player in this drama, but the reason I am writing about it here is that the matter involved the theft of $300,000 from an elderly client (of particular interest to me because of the recent publication of The Empowered Paralegal: Working with the Elder Client, wherein I discuss such dangers) which theft was discovered by the attorney’s legal secretary who may very well have been a full paralegal.

The attorney (a member of one of the largest and most prominent firms in Maine) who stole the money has been disbarred for life and served two years in federal prison. The present proceeding is against six members of the firm’s executive board. The Board of  Bar Overseers is alleging they failed to properly supervised and report with regard to the incident. The full story is reported in the Portland Press Herald here and here. However, this is the allegation most pertinent to this post:

According to Davis [Bar Counsel representing the  Board of Bar Overseers – Hi, Scott!], Warren should have begun a thorough investigation of Duncan’s billing practices immediately after his legal secretary came forward with concerns about suspicious checks. Instead, Davis alleges, Warren accepted a false explanation from Duncan and told secretary Ellie Rommel not to seek legal advice from her private attorney.

If Rommel had listened to that advice, Davis alleges, “Duncan’s misconduct would have remained hidden, covered up and never properly reported by any of the firm’s board members as they were required to do.”

But Rommel continued to blow the whistle and consulted with attorney Daniel Lilley, whose interaction with Verrill Dana forced the firm to bring in outside auditors, Davis wrote.

Hence my modification of my original advice: a paralegal in this position should consult an outside attorney not only if they decide to report, but in determining whether a report should be made. This case, whether or not the allegation is true, demonstrates the folly of seeking that advice within the firm.