Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Disciplinary Rules Are Made On the Backs of Small Law

The ABAJournal is reporting on the suspension of two NYC law partners who were victimized by their managing partner.  Anthony Bellettieri who was in charge of the trust account, stole money from the firm trust account ripping off his two partners and the small firm's clients.  The Legal Profession Blog had the story on Friday and I planned to talk about it, then, but did not get around to it.

This is from Martha Neil's tidy summary of the story from the

"Two lawyers who themselves were victims of a former partner's $17 million fraud have been suspended for failing to do enough to catch Anthony Bellettieri in wrongdoing as he stole from client trust accounts.  Although Bellettieri, who is now disbarred and serving a prison sentence, oversaw the Bellettieri Fonte and Laundonio escrow accounts, partners Robert Fonte and Tara Anne Laundonio were both signatories and should have paid more attention to red flags, held a New York Supreme Court Appellate Division panel in separate opinions last week.

The appellate panel found that the two violated their "nonwaivable fiduciary duty" to protect the firm's escrow funds, and suspended Fonte for three years and Laundonio for six months, reports the New York Law Journal[. . . . ] Fonte and Laundonio, who were admitted to the state bar in 1986 and 1998, respectively, never even saw bank statements for the firm's escrow and operating accounts, according to a report by special referee Steven Krane. '[W]hen it comes to safekeeping of funds ... the proper approach is 'trust but verify,' ' he wrote.

Given the commingling of personal and client funds by Bellettieri of which they were aware and Bellettieri's refusal to timely provide documents for one account that had been requested by Fonte, he and Laundonio should have asked more questions, the Second Department panel said. Attorney Neil Comer, who represented Fonte and Laudonio, didn't respond to a request by the legal publication for comment.
Look, there may be extenuating circumstances justifying the suspension of these lawyers, but having been suspended for 2 years in a similar situation you will pardon my yap about how disciplinary rules are made on the backs of small law while much more egregious acts in BigLaw are ignored.  For instance, in Chicago we had the Greenberg Traurig partner who stole a million dollars or more from a greater Chicago suburb;  and, I guarantee you that there will be no disciplinary consequences for the managing partners of this mammoth BigLaw firm.  This happens all the time--it's the natural course of things. 

If Cheryl, my secretary had opened her Home Depot and furniture rental accounts in a BigLaw firm escrow account there would have been no disciplinary action against the partners.  Errors on my level do not become disciplinary suspensions when your law firm is big enough to maintain an accounts payable, payroll, and accounting departments and host the local and state judiciary for brunch, lunch, cocktails and, or sporting events. 

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