Aug. 4, 2021 – The Wisconsin Lawyers' Fund for Client Protection is an important and vital way to restore faith in the legal system for clients who are victims of lawyer theft and misconduct.
“When a lawyer steals money from their client, uncommon as that is, the client and those around them lose faith in lawyers and the legal system,” says Amy Wochos, chair of the
Wisconsin Lawyers’ Fund for Client Protection Committee.
“As lawyers, we need for the public to have faith in the integrity of lawyers and the functioning of the system. Ensuring those clients are reimbursed for their losses restores that faith. We have had some recipients say just that,” she said.
The committee’s task is to pay back funds taken dishonestly from clients by their lawyer. Over the past fiscal year (2020-21), the committee paid $411,905.02 to 23 clients who were victims of dishonest conduct by 10 Wisconsin lawyers, including unearned advanced fees and dishonest conduct.
It takes time for a claim to be reimbursed. Over the past year, the committee received 27 new claims – down from 47 new claims the previous year.
“We hope that this signals a trend but, historically, claim filings have been cyclical,” Wochos said. “It is also too soon to determine the effect the COVID 19 pandemic may have on claims. It will be a couple of years before we can identify actual trend lines.”
“As lawyers, we need for the public to have faith in the integrity of lawyers and the functioning of the system. Ensuring those clients are reimbursed for their losses restores that faith,” says Amy Wochos, chair of the Wisconsin Lawyers’ Fund for Client Protection Committee.
Serving the Bar, Helping People, Assisting Colleagues
While Wochos has served on a number of State Bar committees and the Board of Governors, “this is my favorite assignment. There is a real sense of helping people and doing good with our work. The committee members and staff make the hard work enjoyable,” she said.
She has a message for her colleagues who may feel overwhelmed. “It is important to ask for help as early as possible,” she said.
Many of the reimbursements the committee makes involve lawyers who report to Office of Lawyer Regulation that they had health issues, addiction issues, mental health crises, or are solo/small firm attorneys who seem to have become overwhelmed by their work, Wochos said.
Seeking help when overwhelmed benefits both the attorney and their clients. “The State Bar has a number of very helpful resources,” including the
Wisconsin Lawyer Assistance Program (WisLAP) – which offers free confidential assistance – as well as
Practice411 for practice management help, and the
Solo/Small Firm & General Practice Section and other substantive practice sections and their elists. “Wisconsin lawyers are generous with their expertise and willingness to assist in a colleague’s time of need,” Wochos said.
Compensating Victims of Lawyer Misconduct
Since 1981, more than $6.5 million has been returned to more than 1,012 victims of lawyer misconduct in Wisconsin.
Each claim is individually investigated, and reimbursement decisions are made at the discretion of the committee, which meets three times a year. Some of the money is returned to the fund via court-ordered restitution or voluntary payments from the lawyers who have approved claims against them.
The Wisconsin Lawyers' Fund for Client Protection, created by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1981, reimburses clients who incur financial losses from the dishonest conduct of their attorneys.
Wisconsin lawyers share in the efforts to make victims whole: the fee of $25 is assessed by the Wisconsin Supreme Court and collected by the State Bar of Wisconsin with annual dues statements. The amount of the assessments determined by the committee each year by Supreme Court Rule.
The Details: Claims for 2020-21
Between July 1, 2020, and July 1, 2021, the Wisconsin Lawyers’ Fund for Client Protection Committee considered 27 new claims involving 22 attorneys. During the fiscal year, the committee approved 23 claims – with 21 filed in previous years – reimbursing a total of $411,905.02.
The 23 approved claims were reimbursements for unearned advanced fees and dishonest conduct against 10 attorneys. Claims were approved for clients of:
- Joan Boyd: 1 claim for $2,000; dishonest conduct;
- Terry Constant: 1 claim for $5,757.87; dishonest conduct;
- Stanley Davis: 2 claims for a total of $19,000; dishonest conduct;
- Jesse Johansen: 1 claim for $2,000; unearned advance fees;
- Theodore Mazza: 3 claims for a total of $22,851.97; dishonest conduct;
- Robert Menard: 6 claims for a total of $189,759.76; dishonest conduct;
- Jeffrey Murrell: 1 claim for $6,500; unearned advance fees;
- James Runyon: 1 claim for $135,785.42; dishonest conduct;
- Walter Stern: 1 claim for $17,000; unearned advance fees; and
- Cole J. White: 6 claims for $11,250; unearned advance fees.