DennisBeaverOctober 13, 2012 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver

For anyone having a low image of the legal profession, today’s story provides justification for taking that view several notches lower.

We do not make that statement lightly. An awareness of what many believe to be an indefensible position of the California State Bar could prove extremely important to doctors and their patients, where treatment is on a “lien” basis and the attorney plays fast and loose with the doctor’s money when the case settles.

The quickest way to lose your license

There are few credit-card-sized pieces of plastic as valuable as a Bar card. Membership in the State Bar requires years of study, and here in California, having passed one of the most difficult bar exams in the country.

That card — combined with skill, a large dose of timing and luck — can make its owner a millionaire. Bar membership is a grant of power — that’s what lawyers have, power to do good things, to help. But for those who lack a moral compass, that tiny piece of plastic is temptation on a Biblical scale.

Lawyers stand in the highest position of trust that the law recognizes. When an attorney receives money for a client, the lawyer is a fiduciary — a trustee — of those funds. Even when holding money or property intended for a third party — not the client — a fiduciary relationship still exists. That person is in the identical legal position as a client would be concerning the money or property.

Steal from a client and it’s all over, or it should be. All the years of study, the sweat, the time, plans for a good future, all out the window. That’s the way it generally is, for when the State Bar becomes aware of attorney misconduct, it is their duty to investigate.

But the California State Bar now has a dangerous double standard. While holding itself out as protector of the public from rogue lawyers, when it comes to protecting the health care professions, the Bar comes close to issuing big game hunting licenses — and the big game usually has an M.D. or D.C. behind its name.

My lawyer told me to tell you to lower your bill (or you might not get paid)

Why do we say this? Dr. K’s experience is a good example:

Dr. K. is a chiropractor in the Southern San Joaquin Valley. Almost six years ago, an  attorney referred a client who was in an auto accident, but had no medical insurance. Dr. K. agreed to treat on a “lien” basis.

A doctor’s lien is a contract between patient, attorney and treating health care professionals, simply stating that payment will be made when the case settles. The Rules of Professional Conduct for lawyers in all states require prompt payment of these liens, unless there is some legitimate dispute.

Dr. K told You and the Law, “We sent our report and bill, then waited all these years for payment. Most of my calls to the lawyer were ignored, or ‘Mr. Arrogance, Esquire’ came on the line acting as if I was an idiot. Finally, one day, my patient calls, explains that the case settled, he got his money, but says that his lawyer wants me to reduce my bill significantly.  Really? Then who would get my money? There was more than a hint that if I did not play ball, I might never be paid.”

Dr. K’s own attorney then phoned the patient’s lawyer and was also ignored. Finally, a call was placed to the California State Bar, complaint line. We were present when Dr. K’s lawyer made that call and legally heard both sides.

“My client’s bill and report were used to negotiate a settlement,” he told the intake clerk. “The patient has been paid, and the patient’s lawyer has the doctor’s money. No one has raised an objection to the bill. Talk about nerve, this jerk tells his own client to call the doctor and ask for a reduction in the bill, and the implication is ‘or else.’

“The Bar should look into this. It is not right and clearly violates our obligation as lawyers to honor liens and pay what is owed promptly.”

So, what was the response from the California State Bar complaint line? “You can file a complaint, but we don’t get involved in these matters.”

“What? This guy has a legal duty to pay my client. The Bar used to jump on these things! Your own rules are violated! What’s going on now with the State Bar? This is plain wrong,” replied the doctor’s attorney, frustrated and disappointed.

We asked the same questions at a much higher level. Next week, you’ll see their flat-out dangerous response, twisted reasoning and how the Bar’s attitude is an energy drink for unethical lawyers.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.