How to employ a suspended lawyer

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Supreme Court offers guidance

Have you ever wanted to hire your suspended lawyer buddy?  What if your best friend from law school gets suspended and is desperate for work?  What if she is a great title abstractor? Now you can, under limited circumstances, hire her, and if you’re careful, you’ll keep your own license safe.

In February of 2015, the South Carolina Supreme Court softened its long-standing rule barring lawyers from employing disbarred or suspended lawyers, directly or indirectly, in any capacity. Under the former version of Rule 34* a lawyer without a current license could not be employed as a paralegal, investigator or in any capacity connected with a law practice.

Rule 34 was amended in 2015 to allow the employment of a lawyer suspended from practice for less than nine months under limited circumstances. The new version of Rule 34 allows these suspended lawyers to engage in:

  • Clerical legal research and writing, including document drafting, library or online database research, and searching titles, including obtaining information in the recording office; and
  • non law-related office tasks, including but not limited to, building and grounds maintenance, personal errands for employees, computer and network maintenance, and marketing or design support.

These suspended lawyers who are employed by a lawyer or law firm are forbidden from:

  • Practicing law in any form;
  • Having contact or interaction with clients, former clients or potential clients;
  • Soliciting prospective clients;
  • Handling client funds or trust accounting;
  • Holding himself or herself out as a lawyer; or
  • Continuing employment with the lawyer, law firm, or any other entity where the misconduct resulting in the suspension occurred.

The suspended lawyer must be supervised by a lawyer in good standing, and the two must submit a written plan to the Commission on Lawyer Conduct to outline the scope of the employment, anticipated assignments and procedures in place to insure no further misconduct.

After the amendment of Rule 34, the South Carolina Bar filed a petition with the Supreme Court to amend Rule 5.1 of the Rules of Professional Conduct, to detail the responsibilities of a supervising lawyer who elects to employ a suspended lawyer. By its order dated May 17, 2017, the Court adopted the Bar’s proposal and amended Rule 5.3 in addition to Rule 5.1.  You can read the entire order here.

If you have a heart of gold and want to help out a friend down on his luck, you now have the Court’s blessing and guidance. But, use caution and meticulously follow the rules to avoid finding yourself in your friend’s unfortunate position!

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A Certain Path to Disbarment:

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Fake a title insurance agency and ignore a real estate practice!

In the Matter of Samaha* is a South Carolina Supreme Court attorney disciplinary case that resulted in disbarment.

This lawyer was creative; you have to give him that!

For starters, he witnessed and notarized the signature of his client’s late wife, who had died seven years earlier. He typed, witnessed and notarized a revocation of a durable power of attorney for an 83 year old retired paralegal with cognitive and physical limitations.

Perhaps the most interesting violations, however, had to do with the title insurance. (What? It’s tough to make title insurance interesting. Trust me. I try and fail on a daily basis. This stuff is only interesting to title nerds like me!)

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A relationship with a title insurance company is essential to a real estate practice in South Carolina. The closing attorney must either be in a position to issue his own title insurance commitments and policies as an agent, or to certify to a title insurance company as an approved attorney to obtain those documents.

Consider the activities of  Mr. Breckenridge, the lawyer who was publicly reprimanded this spring for allowing non-attorney entities to control his real estate practice.** During oral arguments, he stated that he preferred to handle closings in the customary manner in South Carolina, where the attorney acts as agent for a title insurance company as well as closing attorney. But he had been suspended by the Supreme Court for a short time and, as a result, had been canceled as an agent by his title insurance company. He said he was then forced to work for an entity that hires lawyers to attend closings only.  When a problem arose with the disbursement of one of those closings, he found himself in front of the Supreme Court again.

Mr. Samaha had also been canceled by his title insurance companies. That did not stop him and his staff from proceeding full steam ahead with closings in the customary manner.  Although he originally denied any knowledge that documents had been forged in his office, he ultimately admitted that closing protection letters had been forged and issued to lenders.

A mortgage lender later uncovered not only forged closing protection letters, but also forged title insurance commitments and policies. It was not possible for Mr. Samaha to obtain any of these documents legitimately during this timeframe, because his status had been canceled as an approved attorney as well as an agent. The Court commented that, absent the forgeries of these documents, the lawyer’s real estate practice could not have functioned.

(This is not the first disbarred lawyer in South Carolina to have included the forgery of title insurance documents in his repertoire of misdeeds.***)

The Court stated that Mr. Samaha allowed his staff to, in effect, run his office. He failed to supervise them and failed to supervise and review closing documents.  He, in effect, completely ignored his real estate practice.


He also committed professional violations of a more mundane but equally scary nature. For example, he made false and misleading statements on the application for his professional liability insurance.

red card - suitHe failed to pay off four mortgages. By his own calculations, the loss was more than $200,000, but the Office of Disciplinary Counsel stated that his financial records and computers had been destroyed, making it impossible to prove the true extent of the financial mismanagement and misappropriation.  Apparently, the money from new closings was used to fund prior closings, up until the date of Mr. Samaha’s suspension from the practice of law.

 

*In the Matter of Samaha, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27660 (August 24, 2016)

** In the Matter of Breckenridge, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27625 (April 20, 2016)

*** In the Matter of Davis, 411 S.C. 209, 768 S.E.2d 206 (2015)