f/k/a archives . . . real opinions & real haiku

May 22, 2004

1-800-CENSURED

Filed under: pre-06-2006 — David Giacalone @ 12:51 am

subway car neg . . 


The very visible NYC law firm of Wilens & Baker — known for its 1-800-DIVORCE, 1-800-BANKRUPT and 1-800-IMMIGRATION subway ads — has received public censure “for engaging in a pattern of rude, neglectful and demeaning conduct toward clients.”  Partner Lawrence M. Wilens was also censured individually.  (NYLawyer/NYLJ, High-Visibility NY Law Firm Censured, 05-21-04)


According to the NYLJ article:




“The violations arose in connection with the firm’s representation of several immigration clients between 1998 and 2002. When these clients or their relatives, many of whom spoke little English, visited the firm’s offices to inquire about their cases, employees would refuse to discuss the cases unless overdue or additional fees were paid. Those who were unable to pay were often yelled at and ordered to leave.”


newspaper  In its unanimous, per curiam decision, the Appellate Division, 1st Department, was unmoved by WB’s arguments that the censure should be private, due to the efforts made by the firm to improve its behavior — including anger management classes — and procedures; its sending of (rather vague and circumspect) apology letters; the refunding of fees to the complainants; and the garnering of character references from prominent corporate and criminal lawyers .  In Matter of Wilens and Baker (2004 NYSlipOp 04077, May 20, 2004) the court stressed:



“In our view, it would be particularly inappropriate to impose private discipline against an attorney or law firm that engages in a pattern of misconduct involving rude and discourteous behavior to clients-conduct that strikes at the very heart of a lawyer’s or law firm’s relationship to the public.” 

The court also noted:


The Referee found that the respondents had “conducted themselves offensively with their clients… and also acted in intimidating ways to obtain additional or due fee payments,” and that consequently, “[they] should face the consequences of public knowledge of what they have done, notwithstanding their real and sincere efforts at reform.” The Referee also found it appropriate to impute to the WB firm the misconduct of its name partner.


It rejected an argument that being rude was not worthy of public censure, because it isn’t neglect of legal matters in the “classic sense.”  The court retorted: “this argument overlooks the prejudice and anguish caused by their pattern of threatening to cease working on their clients’ cases until additional legal fees were paid.”  Significantly, the court also stressed that (emphasis added):


Disciplinary sanctions serve both deterrent and punitive functions . . . and although respondents’ reforms of their office procedures likely will assist in preventing future violations, they do not serve the punitive purpose of demonstrating that such unbridled misconduct will not go unpunished.



The pyj gang agree with the 1st Department — public censure is most appropriate, and “respondents’ misconduct likely would have warranted the more severe sanction of suspension,” had WB not taken such significant reform efforts.   We hope other firms are duly deterred.




  • subway car  We disagree with the Referee, however, to the extent that he suggests that public censure is more appropriate for high-volume law practices than for classier firms.  Per NYLJ, the Referee stated “All of us at the bar who practice in more discrete [sic] realms, subject to far less exposure, are in a sense ‘represented’ by our colleagues who choose to take on such a volume of clients, advertise on subways and in other ways reach out to the public.”    Okay, but the public (and the non-elite bar) would like to see that “more discreet” law firms are held accountable, too.
  • Afterthought (05-22-04):  We try not to be catty around here, so we didn’t directly mention the Referee’s malaprop “discrete” last night.    But, we do have to chuckle at the fact that “discreet” means both showing self-restraint and “Free from ostentation or pretension; modest.”

12 Comments

  1. David – See, I am not being paranoid about the bars treating large genteel never-get-their-hands-dirty firms different from smaller ones. The other component of this that I don’t understand is that many of my solo colleagues are struggling to keep afloat while these loser attorneys are apparently able to generate clients. Those clients should just leave and find someone else. The bar should not have to step in and I am wondering why there’s that market breakdown such that it does. I’ll post more on this at http://www.myshingle.com

    Comment by Carolyn Elefant — May 22, 2004 @ 1:20 pm

  2. David – See, I am not being paranoid about the bars treating large genteel never-get-their-hands-dirty firms different from smaller ones. The other component of this that I don’t understand is that many of my solo colleagues are struggling to keep afloat while these loser attorneys are apparently able to generate clients. Those clients should just leave and find someone else. The bar should not have to step in and I am wondering why there’s that market breakdown such that it does. I’ll post more on this at http://www.myshingle.com

    Comment by Carolyn Elefant — May 22, 2004 @ 1:20 pm

  3. Elite lawyers often get better treatment from disciplinary committees, just as the rich and powerful (and their children) often get better treatment by prosecutors and judges — when deciding to arrest, when deciding what to charge, when deciding the penalty.  That doesn’t mean, necessarily, that the poor and powerless aren’t out there committing a lot of crimes we’d like to have punished, does it?  I’m for equal treatment, but it will always be easier to catch the street-level crimes than the ones behind the fancy doors, and there will never be enough watchdog funding to catch everyone.
    As for sleazoids getting lots of clients when saintly solos do not, I suggest to the saints:

    have an enormous advertising budget and be ubiquitous (a catchy Toll-Free phone number is real good)
    find a target group of prospective clients that is vulnerable and not used to red-carpet treatment
    optimally, make sure the clients have enough money to pay your fee, but not enough to easily switch to another lawyer when dissatisfied with your services.
    Speaking of toll-free numbers, I wonder if a restaurant has 888-888-8888 (or maybe a weight-reduction clinic).

    Comment by David Giacalone — May 22, 2004 @ 2:30 pm

  4. Elite lawyers often get better treatment from disciplinary committees, just as the rich and powerful (and their children) often get better treatment by prosecutors and judges — when deciding to arrest, when deciding what to charge, when deciding the penalty.  That doesn’t mean, necessarily, that the poor and powerless aren’t out there committing a lot of crimes we’d like to have punished, does it?  I’m for equal treatment, but it will always be easier to catch the street-level crimes than the ones behind the fancy doors, and there will never be enough watchdog funding to catch everyone.
    As for sleazoids getting lots of clients when saintly solos do not, I suggest to the saints:

    have an enormous advertising budget and be ubiquitous (a catchy Toll-Free phone number is real good)
    find a target group of prospective clients that is vulnerable and not used to red-carpet treatment
    optimally, make sure the clients have enough money to pay your fee, but not enough to easily switch to another lawyer when dissatisfied with your services.
    Speaking of toll-free numbers, I wonder if a restaurant has 888-888-8888 (or maybe a weight-reduction clinic).

    Comment by David Giacalone — May 22, 2004 @ 2:30 pm

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