► Wall Street Journal – 02/15/01 – Foiling Ethics Watchdog Print E-mail

Wall Street Journal – Feb 15, 2001 – Foiling Ethics Watchdog

By Richard B. Schmitt
Wall Street Journal Staff Reporter
Pages A1, A12 – Front Page
Lowering the Bar:  Lawyers Flood Web, But Many Ads Fail To Tell Whole Truth
Suspended Attorneys Hang Virtual Shingles Online
Foiling Ethics Watchdogs - `This Guy Must Be a Genius'
  On his Web site, Ronald E. Lais, a family-law attorney from Anaheim Hills, Calif., trumpets 25 years of legal know-how. He has orchestrated dramatic rescues of children caught in international custody disputes. He once won a big jury verdict on behalf of the relatives of a teenager who was stabbed to death at Disneyland.
  But Mr. Lais's Web site omits some less proud milestones, as his client Rachel Wilson discovered.
  A little more than a year ago, Ms. Wilson, 36 years old, was looking for a lawyer to help her win custody of her son. Trolling the Internet, she hit upon Mr. Lais. She was so impressed with his credentials, including a claim to the title of "Advocate, The Republic of India," that she agreed to wire him $5,000 so he could get right on the case. "I thought, `Oh my God, he is, like, international!'" Ms. Wilson recalls.
That was the last she ever saw of her money. Mr. Lais made himself scarce, too. When the lawyer didn't show up at a court hearing, Ms. Wilson began digging, and discovered that he had a history of run-ins with bar regulators. At the time she hired him, he was under a three-month suspension from the practice of law by the State Bar of California.
  Mr. Lais, 58, defends his work for Ms. Wilson. He says it was her decision to appear in court by herself, and that he never told her he was licensed in California. "I have established myself as an expert," he says.
  The Internet, it turns out, is crawling with lawyers a generation after they first got the green light from courts and bar associations to advertise.
  Drawn by the reach and economics of the World Wide Web, lawyers and law firms are promoting themselves like never before. The number of law-related Web sites has swelled to roughly 14,000, according to the Open Directory Project, an Internet data-tracking service. Such sites were rare just five or six years ago.
A majority of the one million or so attorneys in this country can now be found online, as accessible as pet supplies and CDs.


"Click on me, and you will find an article I wrote," says Lawrence Fox, a Philadelphia lawyer and a former ethics chair of the American Bar Association, which not that long ago viewed the whole idea of legal
advertising as demeaning and possibly dangerous. The Internet, on the other hand, "is a very nice way to be able to market yourself," he says.

  But the convergence of law and dot-com hype is raising questions. If the Web is making it easier than ever to find a lawyer, it is also making it easier to find a troubled one. People in need of lawyers can be, by
definition, vulnerable and susceptible to manipulation, which plays into the instant access that the Web affords.
  For unscrupulous lawyers, the Web is the perfect marketing tool -- cheap, pervasive and lacking serious regulation. As Web pages have replaced the Yellow pages, the cost of attorney advertising has declined precipitously, with some law-related Internet sites offering free space to lawyers as marketing
inducements. Compared with most print ads, the Internet also gives lawyers more reach for their dollar, instantly enabling them to advertise in multiple time zones and in states where they aren't licensed.
Bar authorities, who were already struggling in the Old Economy, are throwing up their hands in the New. Most don't even try to keep tabs on lawyers' Internet ads, citing a lack of resources. They also may lack the legal authority:
In general, lawyers are regulated on a state-by-state basis, complicating efforts to shut down far-flung cyber law offices. The regulatory vacuum has triggered proposals for national licensing or new standards for lawyers who operate on the Internet, but so far none has progressed very far.
  The technology is "a world ahead of our ethics rules," says Thomas Byerley, a lawyer-discipline official with the State Bar of Michigan. Mr. Byerley has been in court lately trying to stop an out-of-state bankruptcy lawyer who failed to meet the "character and fitness" requirements of the Michigan bar from soliciting down-and-out clients in the state's Upper Peninsula. The defendant had been hoping to expand his business through the Internet.
  Last April, a Grand Rapids, Mich., federal judge held that the attorney, Allan J. Rittenhouse, a member of the bar in Texas, was engaged in the unauthorized practice of law in Michigan. Mr. Rittenhouse argued that since he appeared only in federal court in Michigan, he didn't have to become a member of Michigan's bar. For a time after the order, he operated a Web site, touting offices in three states, including Michigan. After he was questioned about it by The Wall Street Journal, he shut the site down, saying it never got off the ground, and that, in any event, it was intended as a business for his wife.
As recently as yesterday, the site's address, www.topbankruptcypros.com, yielded the message "Coming Soon."
  For lawyers who have been suspended, the Web can be a way to keep up a virtual shingle. Last summer, Chicago class-action specialist Kenneth B. Moll was suspended for three months by Illinois regulators for pocketing fees that he was ethically obligated to share with some former partners. But his six-lawyer firm, Kenneth B. Moll & Associates, continued to appeal to clients with a Web site that waxed about the firm's "reputation for professional integrity."
  "Were people misled? I am sure they were. I looked at the Web site. I thought, `This guy must be a genius,'" says Grace Wein, a Chicago lawyer who represents a former client of Mr. Moll's who is suing him for allegedly charging excessive fees in some product-liability cases. According to Ms. Wein, whose
client didn't find Mr. Moll through his Web site, Mr. Moll's virtual office "made his suspension a joke." Ms. Wein's client subsequently filed a complaint with Illinois regulators about Mr. Moll, including his continued use of his Web site.
  Mr. Moll calls the fee complaint "frivolous." He says the Web site wasn't misleading because his firm had other attorneys available who were properly licensed. He also says he didn't want to "neglect" his clients,
many of whom had come to rely on his Web site for updates on their cases. An attorney for Mr. Moll analogizes the situation to that of large firms that retain the names of long-dead founding partners.
  Meanwhile, Mr. Moll's Web site, www.kbmoll.com, remains active and includes upbeat articles about his career. Mr. Moll says the articles were removed from the site during his suspension period. He says he didn't have to make other changes, citing an Illinois rule that requires lawyers to notify clients only when they have been suspended for at least six months.
  While declining to comment on the Moll case specifically, James Grogan, chief lawyer for the Illinois lawyer-disciplinary agency, says attorneys are obligated under state law to keep their clients fully informed, and that lawyers with Web sites have an obligation to make sure they aren't misleading. But he also acknowledges gaps in the state's pre-Internet discipline code, which, among other things, strictly prohibits soliciting clients via "telegraph."
  In the past, Mr. Grogan says, he would send investigators to physically shutter the offices of lawyers in trouble. Now, he asks: "Where is the office?
It could be a Web site or a cellular phone."
Beyond lawyers launching questionable pitches about themselves, some entrepreneurs have gotten into the act. LawyerDepot.com, one of a crop of online referral services that try to match lawyers and clients, is part of a dot-com conglomerate called WebFanatix Inc., whose main business is selling transmission-repair and maid-service franchises. The site, which claims to offer "the best hand-picked, consumer-rated lawyers on the planet," includes an Arroyo Grande, Calif., lawyer who in 1998 completed a 42-month suspension in connection with a federal conviction for defrauding his ex-wife in a bankruptcy proceeding.
  A LawyerDepot.com spokesman says he wasn't aware of the attorney's background and says the company doesn't usually check out lawyers before listing them, so long as they pay the annual $399 fee. The name of the attorney, Gerald I.  Sugarman still appears on the site. Mr. Sugarman declined to comment.
  Martindale-Hubbell, considered the bible of lawyer directories, recently overhauled the way it collects data for an online version, after being alerted to the fact that it was listing lawyers with a history of ethical
problems, including some who had actually been suspended. "Our processes are evolving," says Carol Cooper, the publisher of Martindale, a unit of Reed Elsevier PLC.
  Some states, including Texas and Florida, have begun to screen lawyers' ads on the Web. In 1999, regulators in North Carolina censured a criminal-defense lawyer who set up a Web service that claimed to help people find specialists in drunk-driving law, when it turned out he was the only lawyer the site ever recommended. The lawyer, E. Clarke Dummit, of Winston-Salem, N.C., says it wasn't his intention to mislead anyone, and that the site was merely in the early stages of development.
  California is experimenting with an online system, at www.calsb.org, that consumers can use to find out whether an attorney has been publicly sanctioned for violating professional ethics rules. Beyond self-help,
though, "there is very little we can do to protect consumers against all possibility of harm,"  says Judy Johnson, executive director of the State Bar of California, who calls regulating the Internet for lawyer misdeeds "a giant fishing expedition." The California bar organization doesn't screen the Web and doesn't have money to aggressively promote its site, bar officials say.
  Ms. Wilson became unwittingly tangled with Mr. Lais and his Web site in September 1999. At the time, Ms. Wilson, of Laytonville, Calif., was in a panic: Her 13-year-old son, who had been living with relatives in Indiana, called to say he was being physically abused by his father, who has a different surname than Ms. Wilson. The child was running away, headed to California on a Greyhound bus. Ms. Wilson, a self-employed operator of music-oriented Web sites, ran to the Internet.
  Mr. Lais wasn't hard to find. He was listed on three different Web sites, including one that he called "custodyattorneys.com." Making contact, the lawyer exuded confidence and sensitivity. "He said all the right things," she recalls. Flying blind, Ms. Wilson wired him the $5,000, about half her
  But she says the lawyer didn't file any court papers in the case, and that she was later forced to represent herself at a hearing. About the time an associate in the Lais law office suggested she take her son and go into hiding until the custody issues were resolved, she began to wonder: "I am paying $5,000 for this?" Later, she hired another attorney, recommended to her by a court clerk, who charged $700. Eventually, she was reunited with her son.
  Mr. Lais tells a different story. He says the firm gave Ms. Wilson valuable strategic advice, and that her decision to go to court on her own was simply one of the options presented. He says he felt no need to tell Ms. Wilson that he was suspended, because the associate, who was properly licensed, would be doing the heavy lifting.
  "We got the kid for her," he says. "I have no trouble justifying the fee."
   He says that he was also justified in continuing to advertise on the Web while suspended because he had temporarily transferred ownership of his practice to his associate. In court papers filed last August with the California state bar court hearing department in Los Angeles, responding to a bar disciplinary complaint, he asserted that charges against him stemmed from routine client disputes with "a collection of chronically hysterical personalities." He also says he is being singled out because of a lawsuit he has filed challenging the bar's own competence and ethics.
  Two-and-a-half months ago, the state Supreme Court upheld an additional two-year suspension of Mr. Lais's license, for helping a health-care executive defy a judge's alimony order and for his role in a visitation in which he was briefly arrested.
  California legal-discipline authorities are also pursuing Mr. Lais over the Wilson case, claiming his actions constituted "moral turpitude, dishonesty or corruption," court papers show. The complaint doesn't request a specific remedy, although Mr. Lais says he expects authorities to attempt to permanently disbar him. The State Bar complaint includes a separate allegation that Mr. Lais mishandled the case of another Internet client, pocketing $5,000 for filing what it termed a "useless" pleading in a child-support case.
    Mr. Lais denies any wrongdoing in that case as well. He continues to operate a Web site, offering custody services, but says it isn't misleading because it doesn't assert that he is licensed in California. A spokeswoman for the State Bar says the bar is aware of the Web page and is "taking appropriate action," but declines to elaborate.
 Ms. Wilson still kicks herself for not doing a more thorough background check on Mr. Lais, but says she thinks the bar should have tried harder, too.
     The bar says it wasn't aware of the site until Ms. Wilson started complaining, and that even if it had been, taking the legal steps to shut it down might have taken longer than his three-month suspension. In an effort to fight back, Ms. Wilson and a friend [Watchdawg Dave Palmer] recently erected a Web page -- "Fraud Involving Attorney Ron Lais of Los Angeles." In response, he filed a lawsuit for defamation in Orange County, Calif., Superior Court. If all else fails, Ms. Wilson says she hopes to win back her money from a fund set up for victims of dishonest or corrupt attorneys.
  Mr. Lais, meanwhile, is preparing for the worst, but plans to stay busy.
     He says he is taking steps to resign from the California bar, although he plans to apply for a license in another state, and continues to maintain his membership in the District Bar Association in Sonepat, India.
  In any event, he expects to be able to consult on custody issues in the future, hiring other attorneys to do courtroom work, as needed. The Web, which drives about 80% of his work, will be a big part of his business plan.

"We have very happy clients, by the way," he says. "Nobody is going to take away my expertise."
Well, Judge William Froeberg did mainly because Lais' "expertise" existed solely in his own mind.



Who's Online

We have 119 guests online

Donation Request

Your donations are needed to help defray the recurring costs for internet services, cable access, research via LexisNexis, media subscriptions, and the employment of a researcher and editor.

Donate Here

The Committee to Expose Dishonest and Incompetent Judges, Attorneys and Public Officials, Powered by Joomla!; Joomla templates by SG web hosting

website counter