License loss should not be end of story
An Urbana lawyer, Charles E. Petit, recently was suspended from the practice of law for billing a client for more than $10,000 in legal work he didn't perform. Or to put it another way, he was disciplined for stealing $10,899.12 from Nancy Steinbeck of Arkansas.
Although he was only suspended for six months, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that he would not be allowed to practice law until further order of the court. That's legalese suggesting it's highly unlikely the 1995 graduate of the University of Illinois College of Law ever will be allowed to return to his profession.
So far as it goes, the court's ruling is fine. The justices take a very dim view of lawyers who steal from their clients, and they should.
But this is more than just a dispute between a lawyer and a client. It's also involves alleged criminal behavior, theft of a substantial amount of money, and it ought to be treated as such. So while the local state's attorney's office is prosecuting small-time thieves for shoplifting, shouldn't it also go after after big-time thieves armed with licenses to practice law and the trust of their clients?
Obviously, it's a little more complicated than that, but not impossibly so.
The Urbana Police Department reports that it has no reports on file indicating that Steinbeck filed a criminal complaint in connection with the matter. With no police investigation on which to act, the state's attorney's office will rarely, if ever, file criminal charges on its own.
But there's plenty of available documentation in this case. The state's Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission conducted a lengthy investigation, held an evidentiary hearing, reached conclusions about facts and law and recommended punishment. After the ARDC produced a lengthy written decision explaining what happened and what punishment it recommended, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled.
All it would take is a phone call to the ARDC's Springfield office and a copy of virtually the entire record would be available to local authorities.
The only thing standing in the way of such action is a trend of prosecutors to ignore lawyers who have been punished by the loss of their law licenses for behavior that amounts to stealing. Call it an oversight or call it a particularly repugnant form of professional courtesy, it's time for a change.
Lawyers, whether they practice in small, medium or large communities, ought to be on notice that they risk far more than their law licenses when they use their professional standing to unjusty enrich themselves. Like everybody else, they ought to be dragged into criminal court and held accountable for their actions.