First, trust but verify. Second, trust until verified.

Lawyers need to be able to trust some people to do their jobs.  These people might be support staff, colleagues, or sometimes even opposing counsel.

When it comes to trust accounting though, situation after situation demonstrates that no matter how much a lawyer trusts an employee with access to or some control over trust account funds, the lawyer always has to take a “trust but verify” approach to the situation.

A recent disciplinary decision out of Louisiana provides yet another example of the risk to lawyers in not actively supervising employees with access to and control over trust funds.  In this instance, a long-trusted employee of the lawyer (and someone who had in fact previously worked for the lawyer’s own father) started stealing funds from the settlement of the lawyer’s cases and continued to do so for a period of about five years.  The total amount of the theft appears to have been unclear to all involved for quite some time.  Even the ex-employee ultimately was unsure exactly how much she had stolen.

The opinion makes clear that the lawyer did not do anything to verify the employee’s handling of funds and also makes clear that, if that had been all there was to the story, that negligent supervision alone would likely have been sufficient to result in discipline to the lawyer even though what the employee did was criminal.  (RPC 5.3(b) in Louisiana and elsewhere requires that lawyers having direct supervisory authority over nonlawyers “shall make reasonable efforts to ensure that the person’s conduct is compatible with the professional obligation of the lawyer.”)  The opinion also reads pretty clearly though that, if that had been all that was in the mix, the lawyer likely would have only ended up walking away with a public reprimand.

The disciplinary consequences, however, ended up being a 30-day suspension because, in addition to not verifying the handling of funds done by the trusted employee in the first place, he didn’t do the correct thing with funds received after the crime.  The ex-employee was able to swing a loan from a relative and, after she had been reported to the police, repaid $39,312.35 to the lawyer.  Unfortunately, he didn’t put all of those funds in trust and wait until after he was able to completely verify how many clients or third parties funds were missing (and exactly how much) before treating any of the restitution money as his own.

Instead, as the opinion indicates, he had the ex-employee pay the restitution in the form of three separate, simultaneous checks – one for $19,612.35 that went into his trust account; another for $9,700 that went to his operating account, and then a third for $10,000 that went to his personal account.  In the disciplinary proceedings, he claimed that this approach was not provably wrong because he did not know that the amount being put into trust would not be sufficient.  The problem though was that, at that time, he had not yet had any audit performed on his accounts and only after depositing those three checks did he have a a CPA perform an audit of his trust account going back five years.  At the end of that audit though, the CPA determined that the $19,612.35 in trust was not the correct amount and that it should have been $22,330.96.  The lawyer immediately put his own personal funds in to make up the difference.

Unfortunately, the lawyer did not have his CPA also audit his operating account at that time.  The lawyer didn’t help his cause by testifying that he didn’t give access to the operating account, in part, out of a fear that it would be determined that the ex-employee paid back too much and was now actually owed money by the lawyer.

Subsequently, an audit performed by a different CPA retained by disciplinary counsel’s office, looking at both operating account records and trust account records, found that more trust funds were missing and that the balance in trust should have been something north of $34,000.  As a result, he was disciplined more harshly because he was viewed, in the best light, as having put his own personal financial interests ahead of the interests of clients and third parties who were harmed by his ex-employee’s criminal conduct and, in the worst light, of having twice violated RPC 1.15 with respect to the deposit of two of the three checks written by his ex-employee.

The practical lesson from all of this should be — in addition to the incredible importance of the “trust but verify” construct as to those with access to the trust account in the first place — if you are a lawyer victimized by an employee’s criminal conduct, and fortunate enough to be able to get that person to make restitution, you need to deposit the entirety of such funds into your trust account until you can completely verify just how much damage has been done and to whom.  RPC 1.15(a) in most jurisdictions, including in Louisiana, provides for the ability to hold both funds known to belong to clients and funds belonging to third parties together in the same trust account, it is just the lawyer’s own money that must be kept separate.  This Louisiana lawyer absolutely should have had the entire $39,312.35 deposited into his trust account and only moved any of it into his own personal account or his operating account once he was absolutely certain that the money was truly his.

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