Pattis-Norm ()

News that Bill Gallagher’s financial house may not have been in order at the time of his death strikes me with the brute force of a syllogism:

To be human is to err.

Bill Gallagher was a human.

Therefore, Bill Gallagher erred.

But I cannot accept the conclusion; I rebel against it, both out of regard for the man, and out of a deep need to believe in the loftier aspirations of the bar.

The New Haven lawyer died on Christmas Day last year, taking his encyclopedic knowledge of the law with him. A trustee was appointed to wind up his firm’s affairs. Although Gallagher had been ill for some time, he remained an active lawyer to the very end. Those abandoned by time’s theft of the man needed protection.

Disturbing suggestions arose at a recent hearing before Superior Court Judge Brian Fischer. The trustee for Gallagher’s firm was ordered to contact some 60 former clients or persons with interests in the firm’s cases. They may be owed money. It’s been suggested that liens may not have been paid before settlement funds were disbursed. Gallagher’s trust account is the focus of the inquiry.

An accountant hired by the trustee was the first to raise questions. A lawyer from the Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel told a reporter: “There may be claims made that will be more than the account has in it. Our goal is to make sure that everyone is made whole.” As much as $1 million could be at issue.

There will be further hearings before Judge Fischer in the summer. Interested parties must submit verified claims. A final accounting will determine just how monies were disbursed, and whether there are shortfalls.

Everything in me is hoping this is all a misunderstanding, that his accounts will be reconciled, that the legacy of this former giant of the bar will not be tarnished. Iconoclasm is one thing, but Gallagher? I want him to be beyond reach. I need to believe in something, someone, I tell you.

We lawyers are ambassadors for other people’s troubles. We are routinely dropped into the center of storms that sometimes ruin the lives of others. The Rules of Professional Conduct are the lifeline that is supposed to keep us tethered to a world of shared values.

One of the simpler rules involves caring for the funds of others. We are required to honor liens, and to see to it that those who assert claims to monies we hold in trust are paid. When there is a dispute about the lien’s validity, the funds in dispute must be held until the rights of the claimants are determined. This is simple stuff, really.

In tough times, whether due to a faltering economy or bad health, a lawyer might be tempted to use money held in trust for his own purposes. But this is a cardinal sin, an unforgivable breach of the trust placed in us as guardians of life’s whirlwinds.

I cannot fathom the suggestion that Gallagher was anything other than a staunch guardian of his client’s rights until he breathed his last. There must be an explanation. There will be an explanation, right?

But still, that damn syllogism haunts me:

To be human is to err.

Bill Gallagher was a human.

Therefore, Bill Gallagher erred.

I do not want it to be true.