“If one lawyer misappropriates money, the entire 11,300 members of the Bar feel the agony of indiscriminate criticism.”
Those were the words of Florida Bar President Mark Hulsey, Jr., of Jacksonville in March 1970, as the first payments were made from the: $15,534.40 to seven former clients of disbarred lawyers.Established in 1967, the Bar’s Clients’ Security Fund is celebrating its 50th year.Since its inception, the CSF has processed over 12,299 claims and paid out over $36.9 million to victims of attorney theft.
So far in fiscal year 2016-17, the CSF received 164 new claims and approved more than $2.5 million to clients for claims filed against 94 Florida lawyers.
“As lawyers, we tend to hold ourselves in high regard, especially after the rigors of law school, scrutiny by the Florida Board of Bar Examiners, and continued oversight by The Florida Bar throughout our careers,” Leslie Larkin Cooney, chair of the 2016-17 Clients’ Security Fund Committee, said in her recent CSF annual report. “Even though we feel this way about ourselves, during the investigation of claims and discussions with clients, we are repeatedly humbled by the notion that individual clients impart an unbelievable amount of trust in their chosen counsel. Breach of this trust devastates clients financially emotionally. Bar staff and the Clients’ Security Fund Committee are devoted to repairing the public’s trust in members of the Bar and the legal system in general. In return, the hard work is rewarded as most claimants are very grateful. Some, even when their claim is denied, are just grateful that someone cares about their ordeal and listened to them.”
The Clients’ Security Fund is currently financed by up to $25 of every Florida Bar member’s annual dues, as well as each application to appear pro hac vice in Florida.
Board of Governors member Scott Westheimer of Sarasota said the CSF is one way the Bar and its members work to mitigate the damage done by the wrongful acts of a few.
“It is a terrible breach of trust and a stain on our profession when someone is taken advantage of by their lawyer,” said Westheimer, the board’s liaison to the CSF Committee. “The Clients’ Security Fund demonstrates the Bar is sincere in its efforts to help those who were wronged and works to restore the public’s trust and confidence in the legal profession — one client at a time.”
The fund reimburses clients under two circumstances: when an attorney takes an advance fee, but then fails to provide any services up to a maximum amount of $5,000, and for misappropriation or theft of client monies up to a maximum amount of $250,000. Claims are paid only after a lawyer has been disbarred, suspended, incapacitated, or in the event of a death of an attorney when a client’s money is unaccounted for. Fee claims and misappropriation claims less than $1,000 are paid promptly after approval. All other claims are paid on a pro rata basis after the end of the fiscal year.
P.J. Osborne, administrator of the Clients’ Security Fund, said she recently had a conversation with an assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted a lawyer who stole millions from her clients.
“I was talking with him and explaining that we have paid almost $1 million to her victims. He said at the end of our conversation that it makes him feel better now about paying his Bar dues,” said Osborne, noting over the years she has heard similar sentiments expressed by many lawyers who were either assisting people with claims or prosecuting errant lawyers.
The Clients’ Security Fund Committee is composed of 25 volunteer attorneys. Cooney said committee membership is “not for the faint of heart” and involves extensive time and energy in the investigation of claims and preparation of reports, similar to what counsel would undertake in handling their own client matters.
Assisted by Bar staff, claims are thoroughly investigated and members make recommendations for approval or denial.
“Many investigations require active debate at committee meetings and discussions of claims at meetings are spirited, but always with the goal of doing the right thing for the injured client, as well as being good stewards of the fund,” Cooney said.
Or, as Hulsey said those many years ago: “Let it be known that the Bar has underwritten the integrity of every practicing lawyer in Florida.”