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Despite a quarter-century of paying out millions to consumers who were bilked by unscrupulous lawyers, the chairman of the Massachusetts Clients’ Security Board concedes that his agency still remains “remarkably invisible.” But that low profile may be changing now that the board, which has paid out more than $15.5 million since its formation in 1974, has taken to the Internet in an effort to enlighten the State Bar and the public about its mission, says board chairman Mark I. Berson. Over the past month, the board, whose seven members are appointed by the Supreme Judicial Court, has publicized details about bad lawyers and what money, if any, the board has paid their victims. The board’s Web site is www.state.ma.us/ClientsSecurityBoard. Because lawyers like Brookline, Mass.’s Walter E. Palmer — who stole millions from six working-class, mostly elderly clients — are often the only lawyers who make headlines, the board says it is important for the public to understand that people are being paid back, and that only a tiny percentage of the state’s attorneys ever get into trouble. “Hopefully, [the public] will learn this is a significant consumer protection agency,” says Berson, president of Greenfield’s Levy Winer. “I don’t think the ‘ostrich mode’ does anything to improve the profession,” adds Edward W. McIntyre, of Clinton, Mass., a 20-year trial litigator and board member. “Unfortunately, the public’s recovery of money doesn’t make enough news.” The fund has paid Palmer’s clients $2.3 million, with one receiving $700,000. Palmer, 71, was disbarred and sentenced to 16 years in prison. Teesha Alston, 19, was reimbursed in full for the $101,000 that Palmer had stolen from a trust a relative had created for her education. A medical assistant trainee, Alston says he is “satisfied with the fund. I’m getting an education — which is what I wanted.” “Mr. Palmer has caused great havoc on the public,” says Berson. “We want to demonstrate that this is not an epidemic problem. The end of the story is [that his victims] are compensated.” TOTAL REIMBURSEMENT Most states have an agency like the Client Security Board, whose members volunteer to serve five-year terms. Massachusetts, however, is one of the few that actually reimburse some consumers for 100 percent of their documented losses. But even though 20 percent of a state lawyer’s annual Bar fee goes to the board, few lawyers seem to be aware of what the agency does, says board Vice Chairman Thomas G. Sitzmann. Assistant Board Counsel Karen D. O’Toole explains that the board serves as a last resort for duped clients who cannot find a remedy anywhere else. She says that claimants must first exhaust all other remedies, including civil litigation, and must wait for related criminal cases to conclude before filing a claim. Critics who point to long delays, she says, fail to understand that the board doesn’t have jurisdiction over a claim until a lawyer is “suspended, disbarred, or dies.” Says O’Toole, “If a client’s money is stolen in 1985, and the attorney is not disbarred until 1995, I can’t do anything until 1995.” Claimants must also fill out a financial disclosure form “since the board may, in determining if someone is of extreme wealth, [give them] a smaller award than someone of modest means,” says O’Toole. The board also evaluates whether a client is partially to blame for his or her loss and how much money has been awarded to any other victims of the attorney, she says, adding that imprisoned clients’ claims are deferred until their release. According to the board, only 0.01 percent of the state’s approximately 45,000 practicing lawyers are ever the subject of disciplinary proceedings. This is reflected by the fact that, of the $2.11 million paid out by the board in fiscal year 1999, Palmer’s thefts accounted for nearly half. Fitchburg, Mass., lawyer Edward P. Ryan Jr., who will take over as president of the Massachusetts Bar Association on Sept. 1, says that the board’s initiative will have only positive consequences for the Bar: “It enhances the image of lawyers by demonstrating that most of them are hardworking, honest individuals.” The initiative may reassure the public about lawyers, Sitzmann says, but it also may generate some unwanted publicity. Timothy J. Dacey III, an attorney at Boston’s Hill & Barlow and vice chair of the State Bar’s Committee on Professional Ethics, says that “the penalty [for] publicizing this information about the lawyers is a small price to pay for getting the word out about the … board. We are much better off as a profession to have a swift and relatively inexpensive remedy for reimbursing clients.”

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