California  |  Legal Ethics

Legal Question

Asked on: 2/13/13, 4:19 am

Question regarding a legal firm made up of one lawyer and a paralegal/admin who have been friends for 15+ years. The admin is responsible for many duties including preparing legal documents, taking client calls, handling the law firm's financial books including the checkbook, invoicing clients, etc. The firm has been in business for six years. The admin basically runs the office.

The firm takes a small city as a client to respresent when necessary. The lawyer recommends the admin to the client to be the city clerk, which involves collecting taxes, paying all debts and writing the checks for any client purchases, all while handling the client's checkbook. Each check must be signed by the admin/clerk and a member of the client.

The admin, for the past six years, has purchased things for the law firm with their own money and reimbursed themselves with a check from the firm, without ever an incident, never having been accused of any wrongdoing towards the firm. Receipts and invoices are always kept for the accountant who audits the firm monthly. The admin makes a small purchase for the client (under $300) and pays with the law firm's credit card. The admin mistakenly thought they used their own credit card (as is often done) and wrote themself a reimbursement check from the client's checkbook. The receipt was attached to an invoice and presented to the accountant. The check was signed by the admin and the client. The client paid for a service and did received the service.

At month's end, the accountant notices the firm has not been reimbursed for the purchase, and the admin is questioned. When the admin researches it and realizes what happened, the admin immediately reimburses the law firm and applies an invoice to correct the mistake. The next day the lawyer fired the admin.

Overall, the admin made an honest mistake that did not affect the client in any way, only the law firm which was immediately reimbursed. I read the legal definition of misappropriation as "intentional, illegal use of funds..."

In the case described above, is the admin guilty of theft or misappropriation of funds for clearly making an honest mistake, and is the lawyer in jeopardy of being disbarred for an ethics violation?

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