Wisconsin Lawyer: Your State Bar: Restoring Confidence:

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  • Wisconsin Lawyer

    Your State Bar: Restoring Confidence

    George C. Brown

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    The Wisconsin Lawyers’ Fund for Client Protection helps restore and maintain confidence in the state’s lawyers and legal system by reimbursing clients for losses suffered at the hands of the few dishonest attorneys.

    No letterhead. No fancy borders. But the brief note in the file handwritten on plain white paper says it all.

    “Please find enclosed the subrogation agreement signed and notarized. Thank the committee for there (sic) resolving this situation for me. My confidence in the legal profession is restored.”

    The “situation” was attorney theft. I don’t know how much money or which lawyer was involved; that is confidential. But it is evident that the lawyer stole much more from the client than merely money; he or she took away the client’s trust and confidence in lawyers and the legal profession.

    George C. Brownorg gbrown wisbar George C. Brown is the executive director for the State Bar of Wisconsin.

    “The 170 attorneys whose former clients required reimbursement during the Fund’s 32-year existence are only a tiny percentage of the tens of thousands of attorneys licensed to practice in Wisconsin in those years.”

    The stolen money was returned to the client by the Wisconsin Lawyers’ Fund for Client Protection (the Fund). The Wisconsin Supreme Court created the Fund in 1981, at the request of the State Bar Board of Governors, and the State Bar administers the Fund. All State Bar members, whether active, inactive, or emeritus, pay the same amount (this year, $20), as part of the supreme court assessments portion of their dues, to support the Fund.

    In the 32 years since its creation, the Fund has paid more than $5.3 million to clients who suffered attorney theft. Although that’s a lot of money, the 170 lawyers whose former clients were reimbursed are only a tiny percentage of the tens of thousands of attorneys licensed to practice in Wisconsin in those years. Some you have never read about, probably because their cases involved only a few hundred dollars. Others, however, are the ones who truly have given the profession a black eye because claims against them, in some instances brought by dozens of clients, run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

    Of the 756 claims paid against the 170 attorneys, two attorneys had a total of 148 claims filed and paid against them and three attorneys accounted for 22 claims totaling more than $1.3 million.

    Not all claims are paid, and many are not paid to the full extent of the amount requested. Some valid claims are so large they exceed the maximum amount allowed to be paid per claim (currently $150,000; it was lower in previous years). The Fund’s administrators sometimes reduce or completely deny claims based on details of the underlying situation. One claimant requested $400,000 and received $650. In all instances in which a claim is paid, subrogation against the attorney or his or her estate is required. Starting 10 years ago, the supreme court has ordered subrogation as part of any agreement to allow the attorney to return to practice.

    Seven people constitute the Fund committee that makes these decisions: five attorneys and two nonattorneys. They are appointed by the State Bar president for five-year terms and meet three times a year to deal with an agenda and a stack of claims almost a foot high. They come prepared, they work hard making tough decisions, they manage your $20 well, and they deserve our sincere thanks because, ultimately, they restore confidence.