February 15, 2013

Breach of Trust

In order to practice law in California, one needs to acquire a license. More particularly, a person needs to acquire a law license. Like any other license granted by the state of California, the license can be stripped from the licensee by the issuing body. Lawyers who lose their license are said to have been "disbarred." Yes lawyers are so special that they get their own word to describe loss of professional status.

Probably the fastest way for a lawyer to lose their license, disbarment, is to steal money from a client. This initially might seem like a difficult task at first blush but often times clients entrust their lawyer with a large some of money. For example, a few years ago, a client asked me to hold $60,000 in an escrow account. Since I was the sole signatory on the account, I could (if I wanted to destroy my professional and personal life) withdraw all the money from said account and expend it for my personal benefit. Since I am writing this post as an active member of the state bar of California, let us just say that the client's money was handled ethically.

Unfortunately some lawyers do not exhibit ethical behavior, commit egregious breaches of trust and suffer disbarment for stealing client money. An example of such is the sordid story of an attorney by the name of Sydney Kirkland, a soon to be former member of the state bar of California.

Jeanette Letman created a revocable trust which named Grover Gordon, a close elderly friend and companion, as sole beneficiary of her trust estate. Ms. Letman amended her trust numerous times and eventually settled on Mr. Gordon and Ms. Kirkland as successor co-trustees. This last amendment occurred on April 14, 2010. It should be noted that an attorney should rarely, if ever, name themselves as trustee because of ethical and legal

Ms. Letman passed away on January 15, 2011 and thereby Mr. Gordon and Ms. Kirkland became co-trustees. According to state bar, the trust bank account when Ms. Letman passed away was $285,730. During her time as trustee, Ms. Kirkland's trusteeship was marked by serious problems. According to a ruling by a San Diego Superior Court judge: "Ms. Kirkland violated numerous fiduciary duties. Ms. Kirkland exercised undue influence. Ms. Kirkland forged a bank statement. Ms. Kirkland forged the signature of Mr. Gordon. Ms. Kirkland prepared a false accounting. Ms. Kirkland misappropriated substantial money and also jewelry and personal property without knowledge or consent of Mr. Gordon."

Ultimately it was found that Ms. Kirkland had misappropriated $275,742.5 of Mr. Gordon's inheritance. Consequently, Ms. Kirkland stipulated to disbarment in light of her wrongful conduct in a January 16, 2013 filing with the state bar court of California. Additionally, Ms. Kirkland faces criminal and possibly civil charges for her actions.

It is obviously difficult to rationalize why an attorney with no discipline record up to that point would act in such a heinous fashion. Lawyers are often entrusted with great sums of money and sometimes attorneys do not follow through on their ethical requirements. Ms. Kirkland is an unfortunate example of that.