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For attorneys facing financial duress, the temptation to touch client funds held in trust is tamped down easily thanks to ethics rules. However, when ethics aren't enough and more serious transgressions have occurred, attorneys can face serious criminal charges.
Just ask the Ohio attorney who was recently sentenced to serve a year in jail for more than just mishandling client funds. In addition to the actual prison term, he was also suspended from practice for one to two years by the Ohio bar, despite one dissenting judge on the Ohio Supreme Court believing the suspension should have, minimally, been indefinite, as the misconduct actually warranted disbarment.
The Good, the Bad, and the Sentence
Attorney Benjamin Joltin apparently had fallen on hard times. He not only withdrew client funds before they were earned, he also commingled personal and client funds in his trust account, and failed to return client funds upon his termination. In a statement, Joltin pleaded: "I somehow lost who I was. I was a good attorney. I was a good person, a good father, a good friend, a good son. I was good, I was."
Perhaps it was his former life as a "good person" that inspired the judge to sentence him to three concurrent one year sentences, rather than stacking them back to back. In addition to the time behind bars, Joltin will be required to pay back his former clients to the tune of $80,000. And making matters worse for the convicted attorney, it is unlikely he will be readmitted to practice anytime soon with a felony conviction on his rap sheet.
No Commingling, Nor Client Trust Loans
For attorneys, two of the most important rules of handling a client's money involve keeping it safe and separate, and not using it for non-case related costs and expenses. For new, and financially struggling, attorneys, this can be rather frustrating as a trust account may have tens of thousands of dollars in it while the firm's operations account teeters on the brink of destruction. Regardless of the frustration, "borrowing" client money is mishandling client money.
And mishandling client money is the quickest way to end up on the wrong side of a state bar ethics complaint, particularly as most state bars see mishandling of client monies as one of the most grievous breaches of the public's trust as it erodes public confidence in the profession.