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Bar News - September 14, 2012

Attorneys Rescue Stranded Clients


Anne Driscoll was one of about 300 people who thought they were in the midst of filing for bankruptcy when they found out their attorney, Brian McCaffrey of Exeter, had not performed legal services for which they had already paid.

"I can’t tell you the stress I went through when I found out he hadn’t done anything, and he didn’t do it just to me, but he did it to other people, too," said Driscoll, 77, of Portsmouth.

Thanks to the NHBA’s Public Protection Fund (see related article), Driscoll was reimbursed the $1,300 she had scraped together to pay McCaffrey two years earlier.

And thanks to Sabrina Beavens of Iurillo and Associates in Portsmouth, her bankruptcy case was finalized last year. "She was absolutely wonderful," Driscoll said. "I don’t know what I would have done without her."

Beavens was one of dozens of New Hampshire attorneys who stepped up to take on McCaffrey’s cases following his emergency suspension for mishandling client trust accounts in late 2010. Many attorneys contacted by Philip Pettis, the attorney appointed by the court to review McCaffrey’s files, agreed to take the cases at a reduced rate or at no charge. (These cases were largely not referred through NHBA Pro Bono Referral program, which already had a waiting list of income-eligible clients.).

"I think it’s important that everybody know that there were a large number of people – attorneys and non-attorneys and the staff in the bankruptcy court – that made accommodations to clients that were in this situation," said sole practitioner Mark Cornell of Concord, who took a few of the McCaffrey cases. "It wasn’t just one or two or three people. It was a very large number of people. It was a group effort."

Cheryl Deshaies, who was setting up a solo practice in Exeter around the time of McCaffrey’s suspension, took about 20 of the cases, deeply discounting her standard fee.

"I got them very close in time to each other, so I went from having very little business to having a lot of business from people who needed attention right away," she said. "Many of them had paid money for work they didn’t receive, and people who need to file bankruptcy are generally already strapped."

Bradley Lown of Coughlin Rainboth Murphy & Lown in Portsmouth also handled some of the cases. "I felt sympathetic to the clients, because they paid money to a lawyer and trusted the lawyer, and got nothing for it," he said. "I wanted to help in some small way to restore confidence in the legal profession."

Mary Stewart, a sole practitioner in Concord who screens bankruptcy cases for the Pro Bono Program, also took on a few of the claimants’ cases.

"From the perspective of a client, when you lose your lawyer in the middle of a case, it’s scary, because you don’t know what’s going on," she said.

Cornell, who had previous experience with taking over cases for an attorney who was unable to finish out representation of his clients, said it’s important for members of the bar to volunteer to help clients in these situations for multiple reasons. "It’s not their fault that their attorney died or is sick or absconded with their money," he said. "By stepping in and helping these people, we are conveying to the public that we as a profession are going to help out, so that clients are not harmed."

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