How Can Lawyers Be Shockingly Unethical Without Breaching Any Legal Ethics Rules? Meet Styles & Pumpian

"Let's have a moment of silence for Ira, our troubled friend, partner and colleague, a fine lawyer who left this world too soon....Ok, now that's over, how can we keep his fee from his family?"

“Let’s have a moment of silence for Ira, our troubled friend, partner and colleague, a fine lawyer who left this world too soon….OK, now that’s over, how can we keep his fee from his family?”

Ira Bordow, a partner in the Wisconsin law firm of Styles & Pumpian, had been handling a family’s dispute with an insurance company. Successfully too: he negotiated a $250,000 settlement, and the company sent him the check for that amount, to be divided among the plaintiffs and Bordow’s firm. Bordow, as a partner, was going to get a $41,666 share.

The 54-year-old lawyer, however, had problems of his own that money could not solve, and committed suicide. His brother found the quarter of a million dollar check on the seat of Bordow’s Lexus coupe, and properly and correctly sent it on to  Styles & Pumpian.  Bordow had already earned his cut of the settlement at before he took his own life, for he, and the firm, were working on a contingent fee basis. The representation was at an end. Apparently, however, once the firm had the check in hand, the brilliant legal minds at Styles & Pumpian applied their craft to thinking of ways they could avoid paying the grieving family of their tragically demised partner any of the loot. They thought of one too, at least one they felt was worth a shot.  The firm is refusing to pay the Bordow estate the late lawyer’s $41,666 cut, arguing that Bordow’s suicide in his River Hills home negated his partnership agreement with the firm. It was a breach of contract, they say, and thus, even though he would have received the money if he had lived, the firm can keep it now.

Is the firm’s legal theory sound? So far, most commentators and experts are dubious. “I do not buy the argument that a death constitutes a withdrawal, even a suicide, ” says law professor and blogger Jonathan Turley. “Various bars have made clear that estates can collect on contingency arrangements after a death. See Lewsader v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 296 Ill.App.3d 169, 694 N.E.2d 191 (1998)(recovery of lawyer’s fees is not barred by the death of the lawyer).”  “It’s a creative argument, but it doesn’t make any sense to me,”  former state Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske opined. “Any theory of him breaching the contract by taking his own life is nonsense,” said Robert Rondini, David Bordow’s attorney. “He completed all of the work, he received the (settlement) check. The estate is entitled to the money.”

Even if the firm has a valid legal argument, the obvious commentary on the firm’s conduct is “Yecch!” Who behaves like this? “Boy, that’s tough. Poor Ira. We’ll miss him. I feel for his family; they must be devastated. And how will they live? That suicide means they won’t get any life insurance. On the bright side, his suicide gives us a loophole to keep the money he earned and screw his family! Talk about a silver lining!”

I know of many circumstances where law firms have gone to great lengths to help the grieving families of partners who have died, showing compassion, kindness, and generosity. Then there is Styles & Pumpian, whose partners regard the suicide of a colleague a lucky break, and are ready to take their dead colleague’s widow to court to keep what they think might be a $41,666 windfall.

This doesn’t make them unethical lawyers, however; not under the rules of the legal profession. They haven’t lied, and owe no professional duty to Bordow’s widow. As lawyers, they are in the clear. This is just business, and nothing personal, as the Corleone’s would remind us. These are ethical lawyers.

Just rotten human beings.

UPDATE: Apparently the news reports were mistaken regarding one important fact: Bordow was not a member of Styles & Pumpian, but had been partnering with the firm on this case. From one perspective, this makes the firm’s actions a bit less despicable—he was not a colleague or firm member, so this was not as much a betrayal as the original version of the story made it seem. On the other hand, it removes any justification, other than sheer greed, for the firm’s actions. Attorney Jay Marshall Wohlman argued below, to a lot of razzing, but he was right, that the suicide of a partner would cause more expense and disruption than the commentators have acknowledging. The money was earned, and the matter was complete, and this maneuver by the film to get an extra cut of the settlement that would not have been vulnerable without the lawyer’s tragic death is still crass and wrong, partner or not. (Source: Above the Law)

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Pointer and Source: Res Ipsa Loquitur
Facts and Graphic: Jounal-Sentinal

35 thoughts on “How Can Lawyers Be Shockingly Unethical Without Breaching Any Legal Ethics Rules? Meet Styles & Pumpian

  1. If I may play devil’s advocate, though it may appear in poor taste to deprive the grieving family of the funds, they are not the only victims. If a third party had murdered the attorney, the firm might have a cause of action for interference with advantageous business expectancy and perhaps other causes against the murderer. Here, the attorney killed himself, depriving the firm of his services, probably to a degree significantly greater than the funds at issue.
    The decedent had, likely, a slew of ongoing cases that will require huge expenditures to ensure now have a new attorney properly representing them. The decedent likely had numerous other potential cases that would have come to the firm, but now will not.
    Any life insurance policy the firm had on him was probably invalidated due to suicide. He cost the firm premiums they will never recover.
    The firm could, then, either pay the estate and then make a claim against the estate directly or force the estate to file suit to recover the funds in dispute. Here, the firm ensures that it can recover, as the estate would likely dissipate the funds in dispute.
    Business partners are victims, too. They just lack as much sympathy as family.

    • Doesn’t that mean the law firm is taking law into their own hands by assuming a legal outcome and choosing to confiscate money owed to the decedent as their version of ‘punishment’?

      • If it is arguably lawful for them to keep the funds, and they determine it is arguably lawful for them to do so, prudence dictates keeping the funds until challenged. It is not “taking law into their own hands” if they are not making up the law, but rather (and perhaps accurately) acting within what they believe the law is.

        • You have to know a lot more about the firm before drawing this conclusion Jay. Depending on how the attorneys were paid, some of the attorneys might make MORE money now that he is gone because they can take over his cases. In any event, this is very unethical behavior.

        • Jay, I tried to write a complimentary reply to you yesterday for raising this aspect of the firm’s action, but was locked out by my failure to remember my own password, and WordPress kept telling me that I couldn’t possibly be Jack Marshall.

          I just posted an update: apparently the dead lawyer was not a firm partner, but a lawyer who had only been partnering with the firm on that case. I think that removes your mitigating arguments, though the firm would be acting unethically either way.

          Assuming that the original assumptions were correct, you were citing considerations that could legally justify unethical conduct, which is a common occurrence. i agree that lawyers are trained to think this way, for good reason, but they should also be able to see where in is inappropriate, or, as in this case, stupid. The terrible publicity the firm had received is going to cost it a lot more than 40 grand. And if if Bordow had been a partner, what does this tell everyone else in the firm? I raised this as a hypothetical in the Atlanta firm I was talking to yesterday, and the unanimous response was “I would be shopping my resume immediately, or just quit. I wouldn’t want to work there, or be associated with a firm that treats its partners that way.”

          • Jack,
            If the lawyer was just partnering with the firm on that case, then there may be an ethical violation. I presume that Wisconsin has adopted some form of fee-splitting rule that may apply in this case. If there was a fee-splitting agreement,and the lawyer was entitled to a cut, then the firm is apparently violating the agreement and retaining unearned fees. I would need to know more, but your headline might be inaccurate.
            -Jut

            • Don’t think so. Wisconsin allows fee-splitting among lawyers, like most states, and in fact has fewer restriction on the practice than the ABA recommends. i haven’t seen the agreement in question, but Wisconsin does not discourage lawyer from splitting fees as long as the cuts are “reasonable.”

              • Jack, Maybe I was not clear. Fee-splitting is fine, if there is an agreement, yes. But, IF THERE WAS AN AGREEMENT, the firm is taking “fees” it is not entitled to. That has got to be a no-no.
                -Jut

                • Jack,

                  Having thought about this some more, I think I am going to double-down on my own ignorance (hey, is it ever a mistake to bet on yourself?).

                  If the lawyers were not part of the same firm, and there was a split-fee agreement, the client would likely have had to consent to the split. So, the dead lawyers fee was what the client consented to give him. At the same time, the firm’s fee was what the client agreed to.

                  If the law firm successfully argues that the dead lawyer is not entitled to the fee, the client would be the one to keep it. The law firm would only be entitled to the fee the client agreed to pay. So, there is a good argument to be made that the law firm is stealing client funds, and that is a serious violation of ethical rules.

                  Of course, that is only true if they can successfully argue that the dead lawyer has no right to be paid, which I think is incorrect to begin with.

                  But, of course, all this is a hypothetical based upon certain presumptions about the facts and the law.
                  -Jut

                  • “If the law firm successfully argues that the dead lawyer is not entitled to the fee, the client would be the one to keep it. The law firm would only be entitled to the fee the client agreed to pay. So, there is a good argument to be made that the law firm is stealing client funds, and that is a serious violation of ethical rules.”

                    Cool argument. The client MUST agree to the split, though the client does not have to agree to how the fee IS split. Typically the question is only…is the total amount reasonable for the work done, and if so, is the split reasonable too. I’ve never heard of a case where the client objected to the split after agreeing to a fee that he or she acknowledged was reasonable. I’m going to check.

                    • Yeah, I guess I have not seen it broken down by % (though there is no reason why you couldn’t). And, no, you probably won’t find such a case, because it may not come up unless you a scenario like the one in this post where there is a pot of money to lay claim to.
                      -Jut

          • Jack, I direct you to your comment here: https://ethicsalarms.com/2014/02/18/ethics-quiz-smashing-the-million-dollar-vase/#comment-170889
            You equate acting lawfully with acting ethically. Here, I am doing the same. [I understand that, technically, I am arguing the inverse–your thesis was “if one is acting unlawfully, then one is acting unethically” and mine is “if one is acting lawfully, then one is acting ethically.”] If the estate owes a debt to the firm, there is no ethical duty to release the funds to the estate, no matter how sympathetic.
            However, your update does undermine my countervailing considerations.

            • Jack’s assertion is “If conduct is illegal, then it is unethical” and if that assertion IS valid, it does not automatically validate the assertion “If conduct is legal, then is is ethical”. That error is known as an “inverse conditional” or a “converse contrapositive”.

              Although your assertion may be valid, it isn’t valid because of any apparant relation to Jack’s assertion. Jack could do an exposé on why it is not a valid assertion and did so in his rationalizations list– it’s the “Compliance Dodge”.

        • But it’s also arguably not theirs, which means it hasn’t been decided.

          What has been decided is that he DID complete tasks he was contracted, which the firm has failed to fulfill their half of the contract by paying him.

          That would ethically come first, before deciding what other issues are at play.

          • Gads, that 2nd sentence is atrocious.

            What has been decided is that he DID complete tasks for which he was contracted, which the firm has failed to pay him and fulfill their half of the contract.

    • What rubbish. The man was a partner in the firm. There will be many unforeseen consequences resulting from his death that both benefit and harm the firm. The obligation to pay a deceased partner (or his estate) monies earned during his life is clear. The idea the firm can withhold payment while formulating an excuse for why the payment should be refused or offset is both repulsive and unprincipled.

    • So tell me . . . is it common practice for a law firm to sue for these damages when a lawyer resigns?

      Because everything you described is the business cost of employee turnover, for every business, everywhere. Every business has overhead. It is not the employee’s responsibility to pay for it (not directly, at least).

      The law firm is entitled to NONE of that. The family IS entitled to cash the check that the firm already issued to him and is now (IMO) holding hostage.

      –Dwayne

      P.S. I do appreciate that you are making a contrary argument for the sake of debate itself.

    • “Any life insurance policy the firm had on him was probably invalidated due to suicide.”

      This is not true; it is just a very common misconception. Life insurance policies are by law contestable for suicide for only two years (and in some states, only one year). If the policy was older than two years it would still pay out.

      And its not an excuse for the partners acting like creeps. Are they victims here as well? Sure, I’ll grant you that. But the ones they are punishing are bigger victims than they are.

  2. I was under the impression that, by writing the check, they had given him the money already, whether he cashed it or not. I could walk out of my job today and might face penalties related to vactation time, 401(k), etc- but they couldn’t just tell me I didn’t get my back pay. I would think this works the same way.

  3. It seems simple to me Jack.

    The dead lawyer FINISHED the task he was assigned. He (now his family) is owed the compensation – were it a ‘perfect’ world, payment would instantaneously transfer from client -> firm -> worker. But not being a perfect world, the check representing the compensation has to go through the process, but that doesn’t mean that the moral behind where the money is SUPPOSED to *already be* doesn’t exist.

    If the logic of “he breached his contract, therefore money he earned is forfeit” IS logical, then the law firm would also have retroactive claim ON all compensation of ALL completed tasks in the past. But that isn’t logical.

    • Right on. Let’s say he killed himself the week before end of year bonuses were announced. It would be a show of good faith and a caring gesutre for the company to give the family his bonus, as it would already have been budgeted for and he already did the year’s work that merited it- but he hadn’t actually done a specific job for which that money was owed him, so they could make a (unethical, tight-fisted, jerkish) case to keep it.

    • A minor clarification: the check found by the brother was not written out to the lawyer and it was not his cut of the settlement. It was the settlement check itself, written by the defendant (or the defendant’s insurer), which is usually written out to the firm, who then divides and distributes the funds according to the client’s retainer agreement.

      The money had yet to be actually divided when the lawyer took his life, which is probably why the firm saw their despicable opportunity.

      Of course, you’ve hit on the substance in your other comment. It’s comparable to an hourly employee dying the day before payday. The hours were worked, and the money is owed even if the employment is terminated.

      • It looks like I’ve bungled twice with my comment, first in attaching my reply to the wrong comment, and second in misattributing Luke G’s comment to texagg04.

        So please allow me to correct myself and apologize: the majority of my comment was aimed at Luke G’s earlier top-level comment, and the closing paragraph was meant to be in agreement with texagg04’s comment, which I actually replied to.

        How embarrassing.

      • I didn’t mean to imply the whole check belonged to the deceased lawyer, but that whatever component of that check represented the fulfillment of the Firm’s half of the contract. Since the deceased did fulfill his terms for that specific task, he is owed the component of the money.

  4. Anybody want to know why so many jokes are made about lawyers and money? Look no further than this incident. The law firm may, through some legal technicality, make their case, but it sure doesn’t pass the smell test.

  5. For myself, I’d say this simply comes under the heading of “take the money and run”! After all, the entire purpose of the law suite was for a family in a dispute with an insurance firm. The attorneys were already getting a hefty chunk of the proceedings. Wasn’t even that enough?

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