Now THAT’S An Untrustworthy Legal Secretary!

 

"Hey! That's Barbara! See you at wok, Monday, Barbara!"

“Hey! That’s Barbara! See you at work, Monday, Barbara!”

The Connecticut Law Tribune reports that Barbara Kalpin, a former legal secretary at the Waterbury law firm of Grady & Riley,  has been charged with stealing more than $1 million while forging dozens of checks and documents.

She was, the story says, “a longtime and trusted employee at the firm.” It seems the firm’s trust was misplaced.  Investigators have discovered that she spent about $500,000 over the last few years at an off-track betting venue in New Haven for horse and dog racing. According to police, she wrote 93 checks from a client fund that she managed, among other things using the money to pay credit card bills and to finance multiple mortgages on her home. Kalpin is facing two counts of first-degree larceny and 112 counts of second-degree forgery, and is awaiting arraignment next week.

Connecticut’s bar, like every that of every other state, imposes a strict obligation on attorneys to supervise non-lawyers who are placed in positions of assisting in legal work and the handling of client matters:

RULE 5.3: RESPONSIBILITIES REGARDING NONLAWYER ASSISTANTS

With respect to a nonlawyer employed or retained by or associated with a lawyer:

(a) a partner, and a lawyer who individually or together with other lawyers possesses comparable managerial authority in a law firm shall make reasonable efforts to ensure that the firm has in effect measures giving reasonable assurance that the person’s conduct is compatible with the professional obligations of the lawyer;

(b) a lawyer having direct supervisory authority over the nonlawyer shall make reasonable efforts to ensure that the person’s conduct is compatible with the professional obligations of the lawyer; and

(c) a lawyer shall be responsible for conduct of such a person that would be a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct if engaged in by a lawyer if:

(1) the lawyer orders or, with the knowledge of the specific conduct, ratifies the conduct involved; or

(2) the lawyer is a partner or has comparable managerial authority in the law firm in which the person is employed, or has direct supervisory authority over the person, and knows of the conduct at a time when its consequences can be avoided or mitigated but fails to take reasonable remedial action.

Other states have disciplined lawyers whose non-lawyer assistants have engaged in egregious misconduct, and I’ve never seen or heard of it on this scale. On the other hand, as you can tell from reading the rule, it speaks of actual knowledge, and not whether the supervising lawyer should know—a tougher and, I would argue, a more appropriate standard. Bar disciplinary committees tend to give lawyers the benefit of the doubt, and to interpret rules narrowly rather than broadly, so I would be surprised if any lawyer is disciplined for allowing Ms. Kalpin to have what appears to be extensive and dangerously unsupervised authority over funds unless there were blatant signs that no one could reasonably miss.

State Chief Disciplinary Counsel Patricia King has said that the firm will be investigated. Two of its actions in response to this crime reflect well on the firm’s integrity: the firm’s partners instantly paid back the money that had been stolen back into the firm’s accounts from their personal funds, and the firm’s founder, Francis Grady, filed a grievance over the incident to the Statewide Grievance Committee, in effect calling for an ethics investigation of his own firm.

There’s not much more the firm can do now, but I will say this: as a general rule, the ethical supervision by law firms of non-lawyer assistants, including paralegals, secretaries, interns, IT staff and others, is most inadequate, and does not meet the high standard required by Rule 3.5. Maybe this will be a much needed wake-up call.

_________________________

Facts: The Connecticut Law Tribune

Graphic: UCLA

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work or property was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at  jamproethics@verizon.net.

6 thoughts on “Now THAT’S An Untrustworthy Legal Secretary!

  1. Not surprising.. Legal Secretaries assume a lot of the mundane work and receive little oversight from their lawyer/supervisor.

    During a closing on a home sale I pulled out my calculator (long time ago!) and checked the math of MY lawyer’s work…. Was shorting me a few hundred dollars.. The lawyer was angry not at his legal secretary, but at ME for checking her work… It was then I realized, at 26 yo, that lawyers don’t really care about such details.

  2. I knew Barbara when she was a teenager. She was the longtime girlfriend of a family member of mine. She had a unique combination of sweetness and poise, and she was a true beauty. I was shocked to hear that she committed such an egregious betrayal, especially to people who placed so much trust in her. It seemed completely out of character to me.
    Two things are clear:
    1. She definitely had a gambling problem/addiction.
    2. She was trusted unconditionally by the lawyers who employed her for nearly 30 years.

    The fact that she earned the level of trust required to have unsupervised access and control over a law office’s escrow account, in my opinion, indicates how trustworthy she was in general. She earned the unwavering trust of two attorneys over the first 2.5 decades she worked for them.
    Absolute power corrupts absolutely. If her work had been subject to quarterly or annual review, it’s unlikely she would’ve ever considered converting escrow funds. Her employers did not fulfill the ethical fiduciary responsibility to their clients, and this is one responsibility that cannot be delegated to a paralegal. Everyone seem a to overlook that detail while they consider these attorneys to be innocent victims of deceit. They created the environment that made this whole mess possible in the first place.

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