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Criticized for not acting faster to jerk the license of a Dallas lawyer now serving jail time for burglary, the State Bar of Texas has initiated a process that allows other lawyers to comb through his files and return documents to his clients. Dawn Miller, the Bar’s chief disciplinary counsel, says Walter John Kowalski signed papers to resign his license on Oct. 2. Four days later, Judge Sally Montgomery of the 95th District Court in Dallas signed an order appointing four lawyers to serve as custodians of Kowalski’s practice, Miller says. Miller says Montgomery acted on the Bar’s petition for an assumption of jurisdiction that enables the appointed lawyers to search Kowalski’s files for any materials his clients might need. The slow pace at which the Bar has acted in Kowalski’s case was the topic of a recent article published in The Dallas Morning News. The newspaper says in an Oct. 17 article that some of Kowalski’s clients have complained that they were not told about their lawyer’s criminal record and were left in the lurch when he was sent to the Hutchins State Jail for almost two years. Miller says the Bar has received complaints from approximately half a dozen of Kowalski’s clients. But Bar spokesman Mark Pinckard says, “We don’t have standing to act until there is a conviction.” The Bar has had the ability to initiate an action against Kowalski for the past five months. A spokeswoman in the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office says Kowalski received deferred adjudication on May 24 and was placed on probation for two years on a burglary charge and five years for aggravated assault. In August, he received deferred adjudication again for the theft of more than $100,000 and was put on probation for seven years, according to the DA’s office. Kowalski’s probation in the burglary case was revoked on Aug. 17 and he was sentenced to 700 days in the state jail, the spokeswoman says. Miller says nothing in the law prevented Kowalski from representing clients while his own legal problems were being sorted out. A lawyer can continue practicing law until a disciplinary case against him is adjudicated or he has agreed to sanctions. “That’s unfortunate but it’s true,” she says. Kowalski represented himself on the charges; he could not be reached for comment. PROCESS DELAYED Miller says Kowalski had a conversation with a State Bar investigator in May about the possibility of resigning his law license in lieu of being sanctioned. But she says Kowalski decided not to resign once he understood that he would not be eligible for reinstatement for five years after completing his longest sentence and would have to retake the bar exam. Although the Bar could have filed to have Kowalski disbarred after he was placed on deferred adjudication, Miller says the decision was made to wait because the district attorney’s office had decided to file for revocation of his probation. In 99 percent of compulsory action cases, the lawyers’ licenses are suspended for the time they are on criminal probation, Miller says. If a lawyer receives prison time, disbarment is assured, she says. Pinckard says the Bar generally seeks disbarment if a lawyer is convicted of an intentional crime that is deemed to be serious. That term covers a number of crimes, including barratry, financial misdemeanors, felonies involving “moral turpitude” and conspiracy to commit these crimes. After hearing that the district attorney would not seek to revoke Kowalski’s probation, the Bar filed to begin disbarment proceedings in August but then had to amend its petition to show the conviction, Miller says. The process was delayed, Miller says, because the Bar is required to give a lawyer 45 days’ notice of a trial date. There wasn’t enough time to provide the notice before the Board of Disciplinary Appeals’ meeting in September, she says. Pinckard says the petition in Kowalski’s case was on the agenda for the board’s Nov. 16 meeting, but his resignation makes board action unnecessary. The paperwork for the resignation has been sent to the Texas Supreme Court, which is expected to act within the next couple of weeks, Miller says. The Bar possibly could have taken faster action to stop Kowalski from practicing law if officials had used a process available under the rules of disciplinary procedure. The rules allow the Bar to seek the interim suspension of a person’s law license based on allegations of irreparable harm to his clients unless action is taken. “It’s not used very often,” Miller says. “Only twice in eight years have we tried a contested case seeking an interim suspension and gotten it.” Miller says the Bar has to be directed to take such action by the grievance committee serving the area where the lawyer practices. The grievance committee in Dallas did not necessarily have sufficient information to make such a recommendation, she says. Miller says for an interim suspension to be granted, a judge must be convinced that it is in the public’s best interests that a lawyer’s license be taken away immediately.

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