Law firms giving credentials a 2nd look Klein case points up lapses, consultants say

August 22, 1996|By Mark Hyman | Mark Hyman,SUN STAFF

Checking whether an attorney is licensed to practice law in Maryland is hardly an arduous task.

It can be handled with a phone call to the Court of Appeals, keeper of the official list of bar-admitted attorneys. Or, more simply, by asking the lawyer in question to prove it.

But many law firms don't bother with those simple checks when they hire attorneys. And Carolyn Thornlow says it's about time they did.

"Law firms notoriously are on the trailing edge of sound management practices," says Thornlow, a New York-based management consultant to law firms. "The profession grew out of a collegiality that doesn't exist today. There's a need for more control."

By all accounts, lawyers overwhelmingly are what they claim to be on their resumes. But the recent case of Baltimore attorney John Martin Klein suggests there are occasional abuses.

Klein, a partner at Gordon, Feinblatt, Rothman, Hoffberger & Hollander, resigned from the prominent law firm last month, days after it was discovered he wasn't admitted to the Maryland Bar.

The disclosure set off a buzz among local lawyers. Inside some of the city's largest firms, senior lawyers are scrutinizing procedures used to check credentials.

"We're very careful about looking into the backgrounds of lawyers we invite to join the firm," said Frank Burch, chairman of ++ Piper & Marbury, the city's largest law firm.

But in the wake of the Klein case, Burch added, "We'll take a second look."

Some senior lawyers said their firms would have to balance the need for closer scrutiny against the fact that cases of exaggerated credentials appear to be very unusual.

"How much effort do you put into something that happens so rarely? It's an interesting question," said Chris Olander, managing partner at Shapiro & Olander.

Olander said he's generally satisfied with checks made when lawyers fresh from law school join his firm. New attorneys are relatively easy to track as they graduate, sit for the bar exam and earn their licenses, he said.

Checking on established lawyers can be trickier, Olander said. Usually, they've been out of school for years. Their reputations precede them, and it can be awkward or seem unnecessary to ask them to back up their credentials.

Burch said the word of some lawyers is proof enough.

"You're talking about cases where people are so well-known to us -- it's just not necessary," the Piper & Marbury chairman said.

"We haven't hired anybody [from another firm] lately, so I haven't had to confront the issue," Olander said. But, he said, "The only way to ascertain whether [the lawyer] is licensed is to call the Maryland Court of Appeals. I guess that's something people will start doing."

It could not be determined whether changes related to credential checks are in the offing at Gordon, Feinblatt. The law firm's chairman, Barry Rosen, was not available for comment yesterday.

Cases of unlicensed lawyering are rare in Maryland. Last year, the state Attorney Grievance Commission investigated 39 such complaints. Many were cases of lawyers licensed in Pennsylvania or the District of Columbia who set up unauthorized practices in Maryland. Several involved non-lawyers posing as attorneys, according to Mel Hirshman, bar counsel.

The unlicensed lawyers can be disciplined for posing as attorneys. Partners or so-called "supervising" lawyers -- ones in charge of ensuring that new hires have the credentials to practice -- also can be penalized.

The facts of Klein's case are extremely unusual. The bankruptcy attorney appears to have been licensed in Texas when he joined Gordon, Feinblatt several years ago. Klein then passed the most daunting hurdle to bar admission here, scoring a passing grade on the Maryland Bar Exam.

But Klein was never admitted to the Maryland Bar. Rosen has declined to say how the lawyer explains his unusual circumstances. Efforts to reach Klein have been unsuccessful.

Consultants to law firms say lawyers generally haven't placed a high priority on checking on their new colleagues.

"Surprisingly, many law firms have been rather cavalier about this," said Michael K. Magness, a consultant who has published articles on managing law practices. "Generally, the thinking is, if you graduated from law school with a good set of grades, that's all the firm needs to know."

Thornlow, who has published a book on managing law offices, said law firms are more vulnerable than ever to being tricked about credentials.

"It doesn't surprise me to hear a story that begins, 'Oops, we may have had a partner who hasn't been licensed,' " the consultant said.

The root of the problem, she says, is that lawyers are trying to play every role in their offices.

"They're wearing too many hats," she said. "They're trying to operate as attorneys, as owners and as managers. You can see the internal conflict."

Pub Date: 8/22/96

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