MARCH 21, 2011 VOLUME 18 NUMBER 10
Rebecca Susan Blair had practiced law in Cleveland, Ohio, since 1986. When the local probate court appointed her to take over as a successor guardian (of the estate — what we in Arizona would call a conservator) early in 2005, she had a good reputation and seemed to be responsible.
In most jurisdictions lawyers are required to maintain a separate bank account to hold client funds, usually only for short periods of time. Sometimes it does not make economic sense to set up a separate account for the client’s funds, and the interest earned for the client in a separate account would likely not even cover the costs of opening and monitoring the account. Those accounts are usually called “client trust” accounts; in some jurisdictions, any interest earned on such an account is paid to a charitable foundation set up by the state bar association. That is the case in Ohio, where Ms. Blair practiced, and in Arizona.
Client trust accounts are not a substitute for separate fiduciary accounts for money managed by a guardian or conservator who happens to be a lawyer. And client trust accounts have scrupulous management and accounting requirements — it is impermissible, for instance, to mix the lawyer’s own funds with the client trust account funds. It is also a violation of ethical rules to ever allow a client trust account to be overdrawn — or even to fall below the level necessary to protect each and every client deposit in the account. As just two examples, even a stop-payment fee, or the charges for new checks, must be paid out of the lawyer’s operating account and never out of the client trust account.
Ms. Blair seems to have started out fine with her ward’s funds. She took in $30,000, placing it temporarily in her client trust account. She had already earned fees from the estate, and she promptly wrote herself a check for those fees. Then she left the money in her client trust account for two months (mistake #1) until she began writing checks out of the account to herself (mistake #2) totaling $33,150, which left her client trust account overdrawn (mistake #3). Within eight months of her initial appointment she had used all of her ward’s money for herself.
It took the probate court two years to begin demanding an accounting from Ms. Blair. She kept putting the probate judge off, filing eight separate requests for one-month extensions of her reporting requirements rather than confessing to her misdeeds (mistake #4). Near the end of that cycle, one of her employees prepared a falsified document indicating that the ward’s share of her client trust account was about $5,000 less than it really was; the employee forged Ms. Blair’s signature, secured a notarization and filed it with the court. Ms. Blair was ultimately held responsible for failure to supervise her staff closely enough to prevent the forgery (mistake #5).
Ms. Blair continued to practice law, and by the end of that final year (three years after her initial appointment) she had accumulated over $20,000 of earned fees on other cases in her client trust account. She repaid her ward $16,972.83 plus an additional $2,000 to compensate the ward for the interest that might have been earned if the funds had been properly held in a separate account.
Not surprisingly, a complaint was filed alleging that Ms. Blair had violated her ethical duties as a lawyer. She acknowledged that she had, and agreed that sanctions should be imposed. She and the Disciplinary Counsel (responsible in Ohio for maintaining lawyer discipline cases) agreed to submit her case on stipulated facts and with an agreed-upon sanction.
How severe should Ms. Blair’s discipline be? The stipulation called for a one-year suspension from the practice of law, but with six months of that suspension “stayed.” That would mean that Ms. Blair would be unable to practice law at all for six months, and for another six months she would be monitored by the bar while practicing.
Ms. Blair acknowledged that she had been diagnosed as suffering from a major depressive disorder, and she also was alcohol-dependent. Her probationary period would require her to maintain her mental health and alcohol treatment programs, take continuing legal education classes on office management and avoid any further disciplinary actions.
When the stipulated suspension was submitted for formal approval, however, the disciplinary authorities ruled that Ms. Blair’s one-year suspension with a six-month stay was too mild. They insisted on a two-year suspension — though with an 18-month stay. The practical effect: Ms. Blair will be unable to practice law for the same six months, but her probationary period thereafter will last for a year and a half rather than just another six months. Disciplinary Counsel v. Blair, Ohio Supreme Court, February 24, 2011.
Ms. Blair’s legal troubles (and bar discipline) points out a related issue. Although her problems were known in 2007 and the formal disciplinary proceedings were begun in 2009, as of this writing (at least two years into the disciplinary process and a month after the formal order suspending her), Ms. Blair continues to appear in internet-based evaluations as actively practicing and strongly rated by her peers. She is shown as having an “AV” rating by Martindale-Hubbell, the oldest and best-known lawyer rating service. Interestingly, her client ratings are a much-lower 1.0 out of 5.0 (that may be the lowest possible rating), though without any explanation. Martindale.com cheerfully provides a link to Ms. Blair’s website, which (in turn) advises the reader “New Web Site Coming Very Soon!”
But on Avvo, another lawyer rating system, Ms. Blair already appears as having been “cited for professional misconduct.” Her rating, if she had one prior to the suspension, does not appear as of this writing. Instead a red icon flags it for “!Attention”. No link appears to her individual web address.
What is our point? That it can be very difficult to get complete, up-to-date and accurate information about lawyers. We suggest checking multiple online listings, looking at the lawyer’s online presence, checking state bar websites and asking friends and colleagues for their personal experiences.