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Legal Defense (Tampa Edition)

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  • | 6:00 p.m. October 31, 2003
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Legal Defense

A small group of Tampa Bay area lawyers, including some former Florida Bar prosecutors, make a living defending peers accused of wrongdoing.

By Hali White

Legal Affairs Editor

When the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission filed charges against Hillsborough Judge Cynthia Holloway in 2000, she turned to Tampa attorney Scott Tozian for representation. Holloway, who retired in 2002 before a court-ordered suspension, might also have called Tozian's law partner, Don Smith, or three other Tampa Bay area attorneys - David Ristoff, Joe Corsmeier or Martin Rice.

These five lawyers, four of whom are former Florida Bar prosecutors, have cornered a specialty market in the local legal community. While other attorneys are known for successfully defending their peers, these five men specialize in Florida Bar disciplinary actions and JQC investigations. More than half of their practice is spent representing lawyers in trouble. Some also represent would-be lawyers whose applications to the Bar are red flagged for a criminal history or questionable finances.

Of course, because of client privacy issues, the five are more willing to talk about cases they handled as prosecutors.

Ristoff, who prosecuted the famed F. Lee Bailey, recently defended a lawyer accused by a client, a stripper, who said he had sex with her and then later represented her in another matter. The lawyer was publicly reprimanded. Another client recently received a 10-day suspension for hitting on clients.

"The Bar has a rule on exploitation; you can't exploit a client to have sex," Ristoff says. However, he adds, it's easier to prove conflict of interest, so that's how lawyer/client sex cases typically are categorized.

Corsmeier left the firm of Tew, Barnes & Atkinson last month to open his own practice. In the early 1990s, he prosecuted prominent Tampa lawyer, Ed C. Rood, who was accused of transferring property to his father, attorney Ed B. Rood, to defraud creditors. The son was disbarred, and his father suspended for participating in the fraud. Corsmeier later prosecuted the dad, who was ultimately disbarred, for practicing law during his suspension.

Corsmeier also tells the tale of a suspended Florida lawyer who applied to be attorney general in Micronesia/Palau, claiming he was in good standing in the Sunshine State.

"His theory was that since the time frame for the suspension had ended, he could legitimately say he was in good standing," Corsmeier says. "Of course, the Bar's position was, 'You're on suspension until you're actually reinstated.' " The lawyer was disbarred for making false statements.

Tozian remembers the lawyer who allegedly threatened to give evidence of his client's bad checks to state prosecutors if she refused his sexual advances. The woman claimed she had sex with the lawyer in his office, and that he later demanded a repeat performance aboard his boat. The case was eventually dismissed.

The former Bar prosecutors say their experience is useful because lawyer disciplines are handled differently than regular court proceedings.

They agree the majority of attorney discipline investigations before the Florida Supreme Court could be avoided if lawyers communicated more with clients.

The No. 1 piece of free advice Corsmeier gives other attorneys: "Return your phone calls."

"I just had a case that concluded where the client said, 'My lawyer didn't call me back,' " he says.

Tozian agrees.

"Communication is big," he says. "The other thing I tell people is, 'If there's a problem, address it.' Our profession is made up of a lot of people with big egos. Sometimes lawyers take offense at their methods being questioned (by clients), but they exacerbate the problem by getting defensive. It becomes a confrontation thing that can lead to grievances."

Says Ristoff: "If they'd pick up phones, they could avoid the Bar knowing about their problems."

Rice, who has represented lawyers for about 25 years, adds, "The largest number of complaints deal with communication and diligence - lawyers who don't return phone calls. And these can be very capable lawyers who don't communicate well with clients. Sometimes they're folks who've gotten themselves so busy they've lost track of the importance of communicating with clients.

The advice varies after that, but most agree on the importance of leaving a paper trail within client files. It's hard for lawyers to prove they weren't negligent if they can't document the actions taken during a case, especially if a complaint is filed months after representation has ended.

Also, they add, lawyers should leave clients' trust accounts alone.

Remember F. Lee Bailey? He was disbarred in 2001 for his handling of 600,000 shares of a stock owned by a client, an international drug smuggler. Bar prosecutors said Claude Duboc asked Bailey to keep a $6 million stock in trust. Prosecutors said Bailey put $3.5 million to personal use. Bailey claims the money was used to pay his fees, as per an agreement with the government.

As for the pros and cons of representing their peers, most agree that the pros - clients who understand the legal issues being presented - outweigh the cons. The major con: lawyers tend to second-guess their counsel.

"My response is, if your judgment was so great, you wouldn't be in trouble in the first place," Tozian says.

Lawyers in trouble also tend to be more emotional as clients, says Corsmeier. Maybe it's because their careers are on the line.

"I don't want to go so far as to say that the person who represents themselves has a fool for a client, but the emotions are so high that a lot of times it results in a negative for the person," Corsmeier says. "Either they're perceived as lying - thou protests too much - or they make mistakes because it's personal."

Lawyer Discipline

Fiscal Year: 96-9797-9898-9999-0000-0101-0202-03



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