The South Carolina Supreme Court meted out discipline to a lawyer in terms of a definite three-year suspension on January 22.* Three straightforward reasons for the suspension are highlighted by the very short opinion:
- The lawyer fell behind on his billable hours and falsified his time;
- The lawyer was not always truthful with clients regarding their cases in an attempt to cover for his uncompleted work; and
- The lawyer falsified expense reports. Specifically, he altered hotel and airline bills to receive reimbursement for trips that were not made and client dinners that did not occur.
The opinion details that the lawyer padded his time by more than 35 hours and his expense reports by more than $5,000.
I don’t know about you, but I find these sums shockingly small. I don’t mean the lawyer should not have been disciplined. The punishment clearly fits the crime in my mind. Rather, it seems to me that putting a license to practice at law at risk for such minor sums is a colossal act of inanity.
The time and effort each of us puts into obtaining the privilege to practice law should encourage all of us to follow the rules. Some of the rules are not intuitive. Some of them are indisputably difficult to understand and remember. But the rules this lawyer broke are the simplest of all and breaking them can be described by one word: dishonesty.
I remember the first time I handled a closing for more than $20 million way back in the 1980s. I joked that I knew then that I would never dip into my trust account. In retrospect, that was a terrible joke. None of us should ever think for a moment that we can “borrow” from our trust accounts, no matter how small or how large the number.
But facing a three-year suspension for $5,000 and 35 billable hours is inconceivable.
Be smart and safe out there, lawyer friends!
*In the Matter of Sloan, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27936 (January 22, 2020)