What Gives Paralegals a Bad Rap- Lawyer Gets Suspended for Trusting Too Much – Again

By March 22, 2008Ethics

This just sent chills down my spine.  Made my hair on my neck stand up.  Whatever the cliche, I had it.

The Maryland Daily Record reported that longtime lawyer Charles Jay Zuckerman said he has had it with private practice after a unanimous Court of Appeals on Monday suspended him a second time for mismanaging his client trust account, from which two successive paralegals stole more than $300,000.

Zuckerman failed again to oversee a second paralegal, who wrote checks payable to clients but endorsed by her husband. The paralegal,  Rhonda L. Elkins, pleaded guilty in February 2007 to stealing $170,000 from Zuckerman’s trust account between 2003 and 2005.  The first paralegal took $144,000.

Zuckerman got wind of the scheme in January 2006, when he learned Elkins had taken out a credit card in his name. Elkins was fired when she told Zuckerman she dipped into the trust account. Elkins was sentenced to five years in prison with all but one year suspended.

Zuckerman hired Elkins to clean up the financial mess left by Shannon Becker, her predecessor. Instead, she made checks out to friends and falsified the records.

“In the instant case, respondent [Zuckerman] delegated to Elkins the task of dealing with the consequences of the original theft in addition to management of the day to day operations of respondent’s trust account,” retired Judge Dale R. Cathell wrote for the court. “Again … he failed to correct his funds disbursement system, which allowed Elkins to steal in the same manner that the previous employee had.”

Zuckerman closed his practice in January 2007 and paid back clients. He served as an assistant attorney general in Baltimore City before going into private practice about 25 years ago.

“I’ve never taken a nickel from anybody,” Zuckerman said, adding that the two grievance proceedings were emotionally draining. “I was so stressed out I couldn’t even sleep at night.”

The court said Zuckerman’s poor hiring choices were just part of a general, repeated mismanagement of the client trust account.

Zuckerman did not notice the theft by Becker, the first paralegal, until an anonymous caller tipped him off. Becker pleaded guilty and received a 10-year sentence with all but three years suspended and was ordered to pay restitution.

In its Monday suspension order, the Court of Appeals said it considered several mitigating factors, including Zuckerman’s “own remedial measures to rectify the situation”.

The court’s action follows Judge John N. Prevas’ conclusion by clear and convincing evidence that Zuckerman violated rules of professional conduct governing competence, diligence, safekeeping property, overseeing non-lawyer assistants and misconduct.

While it is so rare that paralegals are out-and-out criminals, it’s interesting that Zuckerman would consecutively hire two dishonest paralegals.  Is this akin to men and women who consistently end up attracting the "wrong" mate?  Is there a radar that zeroes in on a certain type of person?  How is it, that in all the law firms in all the states in all the world, these two paralegals walk into Zuckermans?