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)