By Anna Berry
In every profession, there are a few bad apples, says Sandra Keans. But over the past two decades of her service on the NH Bar Association’s Public Protection Fund committee, she says the committee’s work has ensured that a handful of unwise attorneys don’t spoil the bushel.
And, she’s confident that the committee has approached each claim with the care and consideration that is necessary to meet the Bar’s high standards.
“The care, the consideration, and the interest in reading the whole explanation that these folks that are applying for some relief have [submitted] — it amazes me,” Keans said in a recent interview. “… We’re trying to do our best to get these people whole again.”
For more than 20 years, Keans has been, in her words, one of the “average citizens” serving on the committee of the Public Protection Fund, a fund protecting clients of New Hampshire lawyers that is supported by a small fee assessed by the New Hampshire Supreme Court to New Hampshire lawyers. In fact, Keans was the first public member of the committee.
The Fund, in its current incarnation, was adopted as part of Supreme Court Rule 55 in 1998 and is administered by the New Hampshire Bar Association through a nine-member committee. The committee is under the general oversight of the Supreme Court and was created as a “last resort from which a victim might obtain some measure of relief.”
The Court’s 1998 order, In re The Proposed Public Protection Fund Rule (Petition of the New Hampshire Bar Association), highlighted the long history of the concept in the state:
“As early as 1961, the Bar Association created a client indemnity fund to reimburse clients who suffered losses at the hands of a legal counsel. Between 1961 and 1985, revenue for the fund was generated by either mandatory assessments on all bar members or allocations from bar dues. … By 1985, the fund had accumulated a reserve of approximately $123,000. As a consequence of a favorable claims history, a sizeable reserve, and income earned on the reserve, the Bar Association ceased annual contributions to the fund in 1985. Unfortunately, by 1992, as a result of the dishonesty of Attorney John Fairbanks and a few others, the client indemnity fund was in default. Although a large number of voluntary contributions were made to the fund by Bar Association members, the revenues raised were insufficient to provide meaningful protection to affected clients.”
Then, in 1998, the Supreme Court decided to impose bonding requirements by court rule as part of its responsibility as supervisory authority to protect “the public and promote confidence in and respect for the bar.”
It wrote:“The overwhelming majority of New Hampshire lawyers have continually served the needs and interests of their clients and communities with competence, adherence to ethical principles, and respect for the rule of law. The creation of the PPF is made necessary by the unscrupulous conduct of a few and not from any concern for the conduct of the many. It is consistent with the high ethical and professional standards espoused by the Bar Association during its remarkable history.”
Over the 2019 reporting year, the fund paid a total of $128,756.89 in claims and received a total of $437,341 in new claims filed during that time, and approved $778,256.89 in claims to be paid, according to its annual report to the Supreme Court. At the end of the 2019 fiscal year, the Fund had a balance of $2,187,147.11. Claims approved by the committee and paid in the current reporting year 2020, as per the directive of NH Supreme Court Rule 55, total to date $400,000 with an additional claim payment of $250,000 expected in June 2020, reducing the expected fund balance to $1,537,147.
Keans says she’s always had a “natural inclination” to understand the court system and what attorneys do and her long service on the committee reflected, and enhanced, that fascination.
“In all my years there I was so impressed with all of the attorneys who came in and served,” she says. “Everybody had empathy for the [applicant].”
Keans, who has served in the New Hampshire legislature for a total of more than 30 years (she represents District Strafford 23), is also part of the Rochester City Council. She is a graduate of UNH and has a daughter who is an attorney.
“She’s generally been a very engaged and committed member of the board,” said Thomas Quarles, the chair of the committee and a shareholder at Devine Millimet, of Keans. “We’re certainly appreciative of her 20 years of service.”
Both the NH Bar Association and the NH Supreme Court have planned to officially recognize Keans for her contributions to the committee soon.
Even after her retirement from the Public Protection Fund Committee, Keans hopes that the visibility of the Fund will continue to increase.
“I don’t think enough people know about it,” she says. “It really is a very dedicated bunch of attorneys … I’m very proud of the work this committee did.”