More Trial Lawyers Behaving Badly
November 13, 2008
The Disciplinary Board concluded that Baton Rouge trial bar kingpins E. Eric Guirard and his partner Thomas R. Pittenger set up a “business first format” that allowed non-lawyers to practice law, split legal settlements on a commission basis and created outrageous conflicts of interest between the law firm and its clients. Under this arrangement:
… the potential for harm to the clients, the public, the legal system and the profession is immeasurable. [Because of the actions of Mr. Guirard and Mr. Pittenger] the reputation of the profession and the legal system has been undoubtedly marred.
Here’s how the scheme worked, according to the formal charges filed with the disciplinary office:
Calls to the Guirard law firm from prospective clients were given to non-lawyer case managers who dispatched investigators to visit the client and collect documentation of the claim. (Investigators returning with a signed legal contract were paid a bonus.) After a demand letter was sent to the defendant, the case manager was given a “high” and “low” range for negotiating a settlement within a specified period of time. If the case was settled, the case manager pocketed a commission – as high as 17% for some case managers. If the case had to be litigated, however, the case manager received zero.
This conflict of interest “created an overwhelming motive to settle a claim at any price before the case manager lost control” over the case – and, needless to say, put the financial interests of the law firm ahead of the interests of the clients.
Just as troubling, but somewhat more amusing, was the role Mr. Guirard and Mr. Pittenger reserved for themselves. After negotiating a settlement, the case manger would call the client and set up an appointment to pick up the check. That’s where the law partners stepped in:
On occasion, Mr. Guirard meets with the client at the disbursement to hand the client a check, pose for photographs, and/or give the client some type of advertising material such as a t-shirt or a Frisbee.
Mr. Guirard told one newspaper, “We always have approached this as a business first and a law firm second.” Putting legal case managers on a pay scheme more suited to used car salesman may have been good business, but it “unquestionably undermines the reputation of lawyers generally and the public’s attitude toward the profession,” wrote the Disciplinary Board. Given how low public esteem for lawyers already is, that’s a pretty tough standard to meet.