Larry Birkhead: File an Ethics Complaint Against Your Lawyer

Posted on Jul 1, 2007 in Celebrity Justice

annanicolelarry_136.jpgLarry Burkhead already filed a lawsuit against Debra Opri; on June 8, he took his fight to a totally different venue: Burkhead filed a formal complaint against attorney Debra Opri with the State Bar of California.  In it, Burkhead claims his former attorney “misappropriated” money (big six figure money) that Larry was paid for a TV deal.

Why did Larry Burkhead bother to complain to the California Bar?  Especially when he’s already filed a lawsuit about the same exact thing?  And, when should you consider filing a complaint against your attorney?

The California State Bar will investigate the validity of Burkhead’s complaint, and if the Bar determines it’s not a bunch of hooey, then a formal process will begin that could end up with Opri’s law license suspended for a certain period of time (read that: no work, no make money from legal services)  or even, having Opri disbarred.

In every state in the union, lawyers are given an actual license, which they carry in their wallet or purse.  (Usually, it’s close to their driver’s license.)

If they engage in inappropriate conduct, not only can they be sued in civil courts (and criminal ones) but they can have that license put on hold or taken away.

What’s the “inappropriate conduct”?  While each state finesses its own code of conduct, the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct provide a good, basic overview.

It’s not rocket science:  if a lawyer says she’ll work for free and this can be proven, and then she kept the client’s money, then odds are high she’s facing at least a suspension of that law license.  Bar Associations frown on this sort of thing.

As PhatLaw points out, in Opri’s case, billing for things like the time she spent in attending Anna Nicole’s funeral doesn’t put her in the best of lights, going in.

On the lawyer side, there is a debate on whether attorneys should take cases using publicity as a factor in setting their fees.  After all, it gets some people some really good legal counsel.

At the Wall Street Journal’s Law Blog, the point is made that lots of lawyers do this (e.g, Gloria Allred representing Amber Frey) and that the law recognizes publicity as a consideration in setting a fee (citing to the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit).

Lawyers can’t guarantee you will win and they do work for money (usually).  Law firms are for-profit businesses.   The value of publicity is the idea of free promotion, getting the lawyer’s name out there so he/she can make lots of money on the new work the publicity brings in.   Representing someone because you’ll get lots of press time, and maybe your photo on TMZ.COM may not be AtticusFinch-esque, but it’s not unethical.   Keeping client money is.

If you believe that your attorney has done something morally wrong: kept your money, overbilled you, ignored your case, settled the matter without your permission, etc. then contact your state bar organization.  FindLaw provides an online link list for all 50 states.    Filing a complaint is free.

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