A longtime Sidley Austin partner in Chicago who left the firm last fall and reemerged at DLA Piper in February is being investigated by an Illinois attorney discipline board for allegedly fabricating nearly $120,000 in expenses during his final years at his former firm.
The Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission filed a complaint June 14 against real estate lawyer Lee Smolen detailing a series of either false expenses or non-work-related expenses that Smolen apparently charged to a Sidley account between 2007 and 2012. Smolen, 53, joined Sidley's Chicago office after graduating from The University of Chicago Law School in 1985 and became a partner there eight years later. A leader at the firm, he was named a member of Sidley's nearly 50-lawyer executive committee in 2008 and served as the global coordinator of the firm's real estate practice.
During the six years in question, Smolen submitted more than 800 reimbursement requests for taxi rides averaging $80 apiece that "he knew he had not taken," according to the disciplinary complaint. In addition to the approximately $69,000 he allegedly pocketed in connection with the false taxi rides, Smolen also submitted requests for entertainment expenses "that had not been incurred for legitimate firm purposes," including at least $13,000 in restaurant gift cards; $35,000 in sporting events; and $2,000 for meals, including from his country club on Mother's Day, Father's Day, and Thanksgiving, according to the complaint.
Most of the expenses, the disciplinary commission says, were paid out of an account linked to a large Sidley financial client that "contained funds that had been paid by the client as fees, but against which additional charges could be made for various matters." (Legal Profession Blog first noted the complaint against Smolen on Sunday.)
Smolen, now a partner at DLA Piper, did not respond to a request for comment. Sidley Austin chair Carter Phillips declined to comment.
DLA Piper spokesman Josh Epstein said in a statement that the firm was aware of the matter when it hired Smolen earlier this year. "After our own due diligence and a thorough review of the facts, the firm decided to give great weight to the total body of Lee's work over his 25-plus years as a lawyer and to extend to him the opportunity to continue his career at DLA Piper," the statement continues. "Lee is a well-respected attorney who has learned from his experience and taken all the necessary steps to move forward as a productive member of our team." (Roger Meltzer, DLA Piper's Americas cochair, a member of the board of directors of Am Law Daily parent company ALM.)
Legal blog Above the Law reported on what it called Smolen's abrupt and mysterious departure from Sidley in September, citing sources within the firm. Partner departures from Sidley are rare, according to Chicago-based legal recruiter Mark Jungers, in large part because the firm "does a fantastic job at institutionalizing clients." When Sidley partners being recruited by other firms are asked how much portable business they have, "They typically answer, 'I don't know,' because they don't," says Jungers, adding that Smolen is well-regarded in the local real estate bar.
According to his bio on the DLA website, Smolen, a certified public accountant, specializes in commercial real estate and structured finance transactions. His bio notes that he is "devoted to mentoring the next generation of lawyers."
The disciplinary complaint requests that the matter be assigned to a panel for further investigation and a recommendation "for such discipline as is warranted." Smolen is accused in the complaint of conversion; breach of fiduciary duty to his Sidley partners and clients; conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation; and conduct which tends to defeat the administration of justice.
Robert Merrick, a Chicago lawyer specializing in legal ethics who is representing Smolen, declined to comment Tuesday. Smolen was served with the complaint June 18 and has 21 days to respond, according to a spokesman for the Illinois disciplinary commission.
Sara Randazzo writes for AmLaw Daily, a Daily Report affiliate.