Jim Dey: Lawyer discipline depends on severity of actions
There's trouble, and there's such a thing as really stepping in it.
Mahomet lawyer Christina Gilbert-Manuel has trouble with the state agency that oversees lawyer conduct issues. But Clinton lawyer Dodie Leeann Junkert is neck deep in woes that could sideline her permanently from the practice of law.
The two were among 31 lawyers cited last week for disciplinary infractions by the Illinois Supreme Court. Their cases reflect problems associated with the less glamorous aspects of the business of practicing law — the need to drum up paying clients and handle their money.
Mahomet's Gilbert-Manuel ran afoul of Rule 7.2 (b) of the 1990 Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct, which prohibits lawyers from paying fees to non-lawyers for client referrals. Reprimand and censure are the two penalties that fall short of the more serious punishments — suspension and disbarment. But ARDC lawyer Peter Rotskoff said censure is "a mark against your record, it's permanent."
In an affidavit filed with the ARDC, Gilbert-Manuel said she had reviewed the "assertions" made against her by the ARDC and characterized them as "true" and "complete." But she said Wednesday that she doesn't agree with ARDC's interpretation of the rule and accepted the penalty because "I don't have the money to fight it."
"I worked with an estate planner to put on seminars, and I helped pay for the seminars," said Gilbert-Manuel, who stated that she also attended the seminars. "If I thought there was (a problem), I never would have done it."
The 38-year-old Gilbert-Manuel said she is distressed by the censure, commenting that "it has not been a happy time." But she expressed the hope that current clients and those who know her will continue to have faith in her.
"I'm concerned. But I also have a good client base that knows me," she said.
Gilbert-Manuel, a licensed lawyer since 2003, has been a solo practitioner since November 2004, concentrating on estate planning.
Between 2007 and 2012, according to the ARDC, she paid financial planner Robert Freshour "approximately $30,000 for referring estate planning clients to her."
Under their arrangement, Freshour, an insurance agent and financial planner, held "wealth protection" seminars and referred those interested in estate planning to Gilbert-Manuel in exchange for fees that averaged "about $1,600 for each matter referred to her."
The ARDC said Freshour held about six seminars per year and referred about 18 clients to Gilbert-Manuel.
In each case, Freshour met with potential clients, "presented (Gilbert-Manuel's) representation agreements to the clients and delivered the signed attorney representation agreements" to Gilbert-Manuel. Freshour also sent "invoices" to Gilbert-Manuel for "referral fees due to him in exchange for referring those clients."
Justifying its decision to not seek harsher sanctions, the ARDC said Gilbert-Manuel has not been previously disciplined and has provided free legal services to two churches and two civic organizations in Mahomet and Mansfield.
Despite their serious nature, Gilbert-Manuel's ARDC problems are a comparative stroll through the park compared to Clinton's Junkert.
Not only does Junkert face suspension "until further order of the court," she also faces criminal charges in DeWitt County. Junkert was among a handful of people arrested in May 2013 in connection with a drug distribution conspiracy.
A Wednesday call to her Clinton office produced the following voice message: "I am not available to take your call at the moment. If you'll leave a message, I'll return your call as soon as I can."
Junkert also was charged in 2003 with theft and drug possession. A jury was unable to reach a verdict and the charges were ultimately dismissed by special prosecutor Roger Simpson.
Junkert subsequently filed a federal lawsuit against Sheriff Roger Massey, alleging authorities had violated her rights, but that case was dismissed.
In the ARDC case, authorities alleged that she failed to "safeguard client funds," maintain proper records and promptly "deliver funds to which a client was entitled."
The ARDC cited the cases of four Junkert clients who "made advance payments" to her that were mishandled. In one case, Junkert did not repay $200 to a client "for over seven years" and not until the ARDC inquired about the matter.
Junkert's biggest problem in the ARDC case is that she's a repeat offender. A lawyer since 1998, she was cited in 2008 for "mishandling and commingling client funds similar to the conduct" in the current case. She escaped then with a 30-day suspension and one year of probation.
The ARDC noted that Junkert was "remorseful" and like Gilbert-Manuel acknowledged that she also provides free legal services to those in need. But the high court concluded that "given (Junkert's) recidivism, it is appropriate that her clients not be exposed to the possibility of similar conduct until (Junkert) has demonstrated her ability to adhere to normal professional standards."
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at email@example.com or at 351-5369,