I’m Finally Off Probation; Now I Have Something to Say
by Michael Sweig
In kindergarten, my teacher asked about our fathers’ jobs. “My father is a lawyer,” I proclaimed. “What do lawyers do?” she asked. I thought briefly and quipped: “lawyers lawy.” If only the business of law had stayed that simple.
Seven years ago, to keep my firm afloat, I misappropriated over half a million dollars from the trust account of my biggest client, with whom we had a deteriorating relationship and a seven-figure fee dispute. Luckily, despite the betrayal, my former law partner helped restore the money before we sued the client for our fees. We never told the client what happened. Two years later, when my firm could not survive getting stiffed for more than a million dollars, an unsatisfactory mediated settlement, and my former partner could no longer tolerate the financial or emotional turmoil, he threatened to summon the authorities if he was not made whole. With wise counsel and finally, conscience, I turned myself in, was disbarred on consent, and pled guilty to a felony. Despite my former partner’s call for incarceration ("young black boys go to jail for less," he urged), the judge concluded that I had not intended harm; no client was out money, and while I had confronted a horrid business problem with horrid judgment, I was accountable. Still, at age 39, with two young children, I lost my law license, livelihood and reputation. I was sentenced to one year of home confinement, 500 hours of community service, and 48 months of probation.
I chose law school to make my living by reading, writing and speaking. I had not wanted to be "in business." But, as a new lawyer, success came too quickly. My response was to undertake responsibilities for which I was not trained. I could not wait seven years at the big firm for partnership, so I started my own business. With less than five years’ experience, I formed my own firm with a half-time partner 35 years my senior, who, in some respects treated me like family but, I came to understand later, had to an extent viewed me, ironically, as a potential retirement annuity. I had succumbed to flattery, greed and arrogance, and was the poster child for yuppie hubris.
I never considered that law school and a few years in practice had trained me only to represent the interests of others. To run the business of a law firm that would grow quickly to nine lawyers, I would need at least as much skill in representing my own interests as the interests of the many clients who would become, essentially, adversaries when it came to getting paid.
When I allowed client funds to prematurely pay our fees, (funds we were holding ultimately for that purpose), it wasn’t like I went offshore. I was running my business and, frankly, while in the midst of it I viewed myself like any self-respecting businessman with a mortgage and family about to get stiffed for over a million dollars. Like a businessman I thought, "Possession is nine tenths of the law; they’re going to hit us for more than a million; I have almost a million of theirs; I’m not going down that easy; we’ll work it out later."
Of course, since I was not just a businessman, and my law firm was not just a company, I was not entitled to do what I did, regardless of how that strategy might have worked in a purely business context. But then, in those circumstances, the pressure was intolerable and the temptation was irresistible.
With this episode I spoiled my identity, but spoiled identity is not just a disbarment novelty. Spoiled identity is what lawyers get when they stigmatize themselves by engaging in conduct that is ethically questionable or illegal. To an extent, just by being lawyers we are stigmatized by our indoctrination and the discharge of our obligations. We are "professionalized" that it is our duty to advance our clients’ interests without ultimate regard for what is "right" in lay terms, but ultimately, for what is legal. Indeed, moral relativism is the golden calf of the self-interested, and lawyers can be the worst offenders. It is too easy for talented young lawyers unwittingly to become like I was then: a creature of savage expedience.
There is no AA for ethically challenged lawyers. If you are practicing law and have violated the law or ethics rules, you have stigmatized yourself, spoiled your own identity, and have made it easier to end up where I did. Today, after excruciating loneliness following my fall, and painful groping for a healthy place in a judgmental society that is unabashedly scornful of a disbarred lawyer, I am a businessman, a professor, and I have a loving family. If only the business of law had been as simple as "lawyers ‘lawy.’"
Michael Sweig is President of Sweig Family Venture, LLC, and Adjunct Professor of Legal Studies, Roosevelt University, in Chicago.