In Clients We Trust

America’s political sphere is characterized today by a unique combination of an all-time high in civic participation by the populace, and an all-time high in distrust for those same institutions. During the 2020 election, an unprecedented 66.9% of eligible voters participated in the election [1]. However, In 2022, it was reported that only 25% of the population have a great deal of confidence in the Supreme Court [2]. Perhaps, these trends mark a healthy direction in our democracy towards an awareness of social ills, and a mind towards the reform of those institutions responsible for said ills. 

Recently, the LA Times reported that more than 1,600 attorneys had been suspended by the California State Bar. These attorneys were suspended for violating rules instituted following the Thomas Girardi scandal in which he stole millions of dollars from his clients. Unfortunately, the reality of the situation is not as exciting as the headline suggests. The Client Trust Account Protection Program, formed in the wake the Girardi debacle, “requires attorneys to register their client trust accounts annually with the California State Bar, complete a yearly self-assessment of their practices managing client trust accounts and certify with the state bar that they comply and understand the requirements for safekeeping funds [3].” The suspensions from the state bar were simply an administrative measure having to do with a failure to fill out the paperwork that has to do with these new requirements. It could be that those who failed to comply had done so because of their intent to conceal their shady business dealings. A variety of other reasons could lead attorneys to be unable to fulfill this obligation. Most notably, it could simply be due to the fact that the attorney had died, and no one had reported this fact to the state bar.

So again, these suspensions are not a terribly exciting episode in the bureaucratic battles with corruption. The saga of Thomas Girardi preceding these measures is a much more interesting one. What can we say about that? Thomas Girardi is “a vaunted Los Angeles trial lawyer, a regular on ‘Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,’ and his firm were sued more than a hundred times between the 1980s and last year, with at least half of those cases asserting misconduct in his law practice [4].” As of this year, Girardi is facing federal fraud charges, and despite a diagnosis of late onset Alzheimer’s, will be standing trial for these charges. He lived a lavish and public lifestyle. To get there, he “was known for taking on “David v. Goliath” cases, suing large corporations — including Pacific Gas and Electric, Lockheed Martin and Boeing, among others — and extracting huge settlements for his clients [5].” Perhaps his most well-known case, portrayed in the film Erin Brockovich, was his 1993 representation of Hinkley California in a class action lawsuit against Pacific Gas and Electric. The residents claimed that natural gas leaking into the town’s water supply resulted in an increase in cancer and other illnesses. The Los Angeles Times reports that settlement for this suit was upwards of 333 million dollars [6].

How was this illusion that one could be both a Robin hood and a millionaire kept up for so long?  As the LA times reports, many lawyers have gotten much more for a lot less than Girardi. Making friends with State Bar investigators and bribing California State officials has hitherto protected his record. However, it seems that a combination of a new regime running the state bar and a more engaged public has upped the expectations of justice and honesty demanded from legal institutions. A step in the right direction has been taken to fight corruption in our court systems, but the fight is far from over.

In regard to the topic of client trust accounts, the Riverside County Law Library has several texts that can help attorneys navigate the complexities of professional responsibility including:

References & Resources







California State Bar Client Trust Accounting Handbook

Written by: Yanis Azzou, Library Assistant


By rcll

September 07, 2023

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