Tuesday, July 6, 2010

For some area lawyers, the pressure is too much

Veteran attorneys say stress can lead to depression, substance abuse, crime.

Horace Hutson admitted to stealing $20,000 from a client.

Philip Rothschild faces charges in three separate cases involving unwanted contact with his ex-wife. He's already pleaded guilty to forcible touching and trespassing.

And Lauren Dillon was charged with driving while intoxicated after a Buffalo police officer said he saw her try to enter the wrong lanes of the Skyway.

Reports of embezzlement, trespassing and drunken driving are nothing out of the ordinary, but what makes these cases unusual is the occupation of the people accused of these crimes.

All are lawyers.

In fact, over the past 16 months, at least 15 current or former local lawyers — including one judge — were charged with, convicted of or sentenced for a crime.

Most of the attorneys were accused of financial crimes or drinking and driving.

"I think we're held to a higher standard, but the fact of the matter is we're human," said Michael J. Flaherty Sr., a lawyer and immediate past president of the Erie County Bar Foundation, which provides assistance to lawyers in need.

Disciplinary records show there hasn't been an increase in recent years of attorney disbarments, suspensions and censures in Western New York.

But drinking too much or attempting to steal money from a client may be a response to the intense stress lawyers face, veteran local attorneys said.

"There's a lot of competition out there, so there's a lot of pressure out there," Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III said.

For one thing, lawyers regularly are confronted with other people's high-stakes problems.

Their clients are dealing with business failures, audits, divorces, custody battles, serious injuries, the death of a loved one or a criminal charge — and the lawyer is expected to do something about it, said James G. Milles, a University at Buffalo law professor who is teaching a class this fall on ethics.

"People go to lawyers at the most difficult time in their lives," Milles said.

At large firms, lawyers must worry about performing enough billable work, while lawyers running their own shop worry about winning and retaining enough clients.

This is only more difficult during tough economic times, when companies are looking to cut their legal costs and fewer people have enough money to hire an attorney.

Many firms are using paralegals to do work long performed by lawyers, Flaherty said.

And this area is home to the UB Law School, which produces a couple hundred prospective lawyers each year even as the population stagnates.

There were 4,013 registered lawyers in Erie County at the end of 1999, according to the state Office of Court Administration, or 4.22 lawyers per 1,000 county residents.

At the end of 2009, there were 4,918 lawyers in the county, or 5.41 per 1,000 residents.

"There's an overabundance of lawyers in Western New York," said John V. Elmore, a lawyer and former chairman of the Attorney Grievance Committee of the 8th Judicial District.

This stress can produce anxiety and, if left untreated, lead to depression, said Dan Lukasik, a local attorney who has a national reputation for his work with lawyers who have depression.

Lawyers are on average twice as likely to suffer from depression as members of the general public, Lukasik said, pointing to recent research, though they may be reluctant to seek help.

The stress can lead to mistakes.

For other lawyers, this stress can lead to substance abuse.

Sedita and others said lawyers don't seem to drink as much as they did years ago.

But several said greater numbers of all drivers, not just lawyers, are charged today with DWI because the law is stricter and police have cracked down on this crime.

Many of the cases found through a search of The Buffalo News archives and interviews with the Erie County District Attorney's Office and local police agencies were alcohol-related, including six DWIs.

The DWI case that received the most attention, because of the subsequent coverup that brought down State Supreme Court Justice Joseph G. Makowski, involved Anne E. Adams, a former prosecutor.

Adams enlisted Makowski and her own doctor in a fraudulent scheme to avoid a DWI charge.

Adams pleaded guilty last year to several charges, but her 15-day sentence was overturned on appeal last month.

Makowski resigned after admitting filing a false affidavit — he claimed Adams appeared sober when he saw her shortly before her arrest — and agreed to never again serve as a judge.

Others weren't DWIs, but occurred at bars or following a night of drinking.

Lawyer John P. Liberti, well known for his TV ads, is accused of injuring an off-duty corrections officer in a March 23 fight at the Town Ballroom, according to the DA's office.

Liberti was charged with third-degree assault, a misdemeanor, and harassment, and is scheduled to return to City Court on Aug. 25, according to court records.

And John P. Duffy was disbarred and sentenced to 2 and a third to 7 years in prison last year after his guilty plea in a fatal hit-and-run and attempted accident coverup from October 2008.

Duffy's attorney later admitted that his client had had about four drinks during the evening, but he insisted Duffy wasn't drunk when he hit and killed a Hilbert College student.

A number of lawyers were accused of crimes that related to their professional work, notably the misuse of client money.

Lawyers often are entrusted with clients' money, and this responsibility can lead to temptation, Sedita said.

It can be too easy for a lawyer to commingle the money in a law firm account with the money in a client's account, or to "borrow" money from a client's account with the intent to pay it back before anyone notices.

"They do have access to other people's money," said Michael Mohun, a Wyoming County lawyer and former chairman of the 8th Judicial District's Attorney Grievance Committee. "It's a crime of opportunity."

In recent cases:

• Alan E. Fielitz resigned as a lawyer and was sentenced in March 2009 to weekends in jail following his guilty plea to grand larceny after he was accused of stealing $102,000 from six clients over 11 months.

• Horace Hutson was sentenced in April to six months in jail following his guilty plea to grand larceny. Hutson was accused of improperly using $20,000 from a client's guardianship account.

• And Robert L. Goods, a Williamsville real estate attorney, was accused of swindling $522,974 from a national mortgage company, an area physician and a Hamburg woman.

He pleaded guilty last month to grand larceny, was disbarred and will be sentenced Sept. 27.

Data show area lawyers aren't getting into trouble in high numbers in recent years.

Between 2005 and 2009, an average of about five lawyers per year in the 8th Judicial District were disbarred or resigned while under investigation by the district's Attorney Grievance Committee.

Similar numbers of lawyers were suspended or censured each year in the district, which has 5,877 registered attorneys.

Several organizations work to help lawyers before they get to the point where they need a lawyer of their own.

The Appellate Division, 4th Department, offers a diversion program for lawyers who can show that their alleged misconduct occurred at a time when they struggled with addiction.

The Bar Association of Erie County runs a program known as Lawyers Helping Lawyers, through which lawyers who have overcome a substance abuse problem counsel lawyers who are wrestling with an addiction, said Scott M. Schwartz, the association's president.

And the Erie County Bar Foundation provides assistance to lawyers who are struggling with addiction, a serious illness or student-loan debt load.

If lawyers don't seek help and they end up accused of a crime, they can't expect special treatment from prosecutors and judges now, defense attorneys said, if they ever could before.

"Once a lawyer crosses that line, I don't look at him as a lawyer anymore — I look at him as a defendant," Sedita said.

By Stephen T. Watson, News Staff Reporters, watson@buffnews.com

Source: Buffalonews.com

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