A Santa Clara attorney was recently suspended by the State Bar of California over improper billing procedures. The suspension will last a year, followed by a three-year period of probation.
While that seems harsh, it’s still a better outcome than might have been expected. The State Bar didn’t pursue harsher action — like disbarment — because it was the attorney’s first offense, and he cooperated and accepted responsibility for his misconduct.
The action stems from interactions the attorney had with at least two different clients. In a 2016 incident, the attorney charged $14,000 in legal fees to his client’s credit card — both before the services had been rendered and without the client’s permission. He did refund the money once a complaint was filed.
The second incident involved multiple issues with another client. After the attorney eventually withdrew from a client’s case in 2017– but he tried to charge his client’s credit card $6,200. When the transaction didn’t go through, he tried to push the charge through $1,000 at a time. Only one charge actually turned out to be successful.
In order to gain back his license to practice, the attorney will need to attend ethics and accounting classes and pass examinations in both, as well as pass the Multistate Profession Responsibility exam.
Cases like this are instructive to others for several reasons. First, there’s a strong possibility that the attorney didn’t think his actions were unethical at the time. He may have felt he was genuinely due the money — particularly in the second case. (In the first incident, he may have simply been making sure that he would get paid for his services.) He clearly didn’t think through the way that those actions would be perceived by the California State Bar, however.
Second, they show how important it is to take responsibility for a mistake. An attorney’s willingness to own up to a past mistake can often soften the perspective of the Bar and lighten the blow when judgment is passed.
If you’re facing professional discipline due to ethical complaints, don’t try to handle the case on your own. Make use of your right to counsel in order to better protect your future.