Whose money is it?

Maryland State Bar Association Thomas D. Murphy urged a House panel this week to reject legislation that would require any unspent annual revenue of the Attorney Grievance Commission to go to the state’s general fund rather than remain with the disciplinary body.

The AGC receives its funding from an annual court-ordered assessment on attorneys that is earmarked for oversight of the legal profession, Murphy told the House Judiciary Committee. The funds are not intended for the general use of the state and thus should not go to the general fund, he added.

“We Maryland lawyers paid our money to that [AGC] fund,” said Murphy, of Murphy & Mood PC in Rockville. The money “should be spent for the purpose we wrote our checks,” he added.

Murphy testified against House Bill 765, which would require AGC’s $7.85 million surplus as of last June 30 to go to the state treasury, as well as any future annual surpluses. The commission anticipates a $9 million surplus as of next June 30.

Del. Frank M. Conaway Jr., the bill’s chief sponsor, told the committee that Maryland must find ways to “beef’ up its revenue. Transferring AGC’s unspent money to the general fund would generate “$9 million worth of the beef,” said Conaway, D-Baltimore City.

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Vicodin and flowers

As you probably read in today’s paper, the Court of Appeals yesterday sanctioned a lawyer for exchanging a Vicodin pill for oral sex in a women’s restroom. While searching for additional information on disciplined lawyer Jeffrey Marcalus yesterday, I came across (part of) an Annapolis Capital article written shortly after his case was argued. The Capital points out that Marcalus’ attorney, Andrew Jay Graham, compared the drugs-for-sex exchange to a guy bringing a woman flowers.

Sure enough, I watched the recording of the argument, and Graham says to the judges, “Would it be different if he’d given her a $50 bouquet of flowers and he holds it out and says, ‘What’s in it for me?’ and she offers this? Does that make it prostitution? I don’t think so.”

The court is skeptical, with Judge Mary Ellen Barbera pointing out that Marcalus himself obviously thought the encounter was not so harmless, or he wouldn’t have told police officers about it in order to impeach the woman’s credibility after she made a rape allegation against Marcalus’ client.

You can’t find justice here

Unlike the highest tribunals of many states, Maryland’s top court — the Court of Appeals — has “judges,” not “justices.”

Remembering this can be a problem for lawyers who also practice in states — such as neighboring Virginia, Pennsylvania and West Virginia — or in the federal system, where the top jurists are justices.

Thankfully, Maryland’s top jurist — Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell — has provided attorneys with a way to remember how to address the state’s top judges.

It happened Wednesday, when attorney David C. Gardner appeared before the Court of Appeals to press the case of fellow lawyer Timur Edib, whom the state Attorney Grievance Commission has accused of charging a client an unreasonable fee. At one point, Gardner referred to Judge Mary Ellen Barbera as “Justice Barbera.”

That error elicited a tongue-in-cheek correction from Bell.

“There is no ‘justice’ in Maryland,” he said.

The $10,000 phone call

In my story today about a collection dispute between two lawyers, I was unable to include some interesting expert witness testimony.

Leonard H. Shapiro, a longtime criminal defense lawyer in Owings Mills, testified for the defense about the $10,000 legal fee at the heart of the case. George Michael Perez paid that amount to T. Wray McCurdy up front to defend Perez against arson charges filed by prosecutors in June 2007.

The sides dispute whether the money was an engagement or retainer fee. Shapiro, who called it an engagement fee based on the contract, said that was a reasonable amount regardless of what type of fee it was because of the complex nature of arson cases.

“Almost always you’re dealing with expert testimony and lots of discovery,” he said. “They are circumstantial cases developed through evidence.”

Under cross-examination by Michael T. Wyatt, Shapiro said retainer fees are different in a criminal case than in a divorce case. A criminal retainer does not have to be earned, he said, and there are some cases where an entire fee is required up front.

Shapiro then hypothetically made himself a lawyer who received a $10,000 fee to defend a client against arson charges. Shapiro said that money would be a reasonable fee if he called the State’s Attorney’s office and pointed out the flaws in prosecutors’ case, which ultimately led to the charges being dropped.

“Is $10,000 for a phone call reasonable?” Wyatt asked.

“In certain circumstances, it could be,” Shapiro replied.

Thoughts from the peanut gallery?

Help Wanted: Bar Counsel

Are you a Maryland lawyer or willing to become one?

Are you a Maryland resident or willing to become one?

Are you in good standing?

Do you have 10 years of progressively responsible active experience in the practice of law?

Did at least two of those years involve prosecutoral or similar legal experience before administrative or disciplinary agencies, as well as supervisory experience over other lawyers and a budget?

If you answered yes to all of these questions, you qualify for a $115,000-$130,000-a-year job that has been held by the same person since 1981.

Oh, one other thing: You must be willing to prosecute Maryland attorneys who violate the Rules of Professional Conduct.

Yes, for the first time in nearly 30 years, Maryland’s Attorney Grievance Commission is in need of a new bar counsel.

Melvin Hirshman, who has been the chief prosecutor of wayward lawyers since 1981, has announced he will retire on June 30.

Linda H. Lamone, who chairs the AGC, said the panel will conduct “as wide a search as we can” for a successor to Hirshman. The commission will post ads on the websites of the Maryland Judiciary, the American Bar Association and the Maryland State Bar Association, among other places, Lamone added.

The AGC will screen the applicants. The applicant or applicants who make the commission’s cut will be submitted to the Court of Appeals for its final approval, Lamone said.

Applications are due by 5 p.m. Jan. 4 at the Maryland Judiciary’s human-resources department in Annapolis.

Any takers?

This week in Maryland Lawyer

ON THE COVER: Life after Law — You’ve earned your J.D., passed the bar and taken the oath. But now you realize you no longer want to practice law. Caryn Tamber spotlights lawyers who have chosen alternative careers.

A consumer, saying the Gateway computer he bought at Best Buy is defective,  challenges the arbitration clause in the manufacturer’s warranty — and wins in the Court of Special Appeals. Find out how in Danny Jacobs’ report on Barrington D. Henry v. Gateway Inc., et al.

In Breaking News, former Nigerian presidential candidate Godson M. Nnaka, a Baltimore lawyer, runs afoul of the Attorney Grievance Commission — but is nowhere to be found; and the Maryland Comptroller owes Lenox Inc. a refund of more than $280,000 on taxes the china company paid on a product-handling system at its Hagerstown facility.

Upper Marlboro lawyer Rick Jaklitsch presides over the Terrapin Club, the University of Maryland’s booster group that raises money and provides scholarships for the more than 700 student-athletes on the 27 varsity teams at College Park.

In Verdicts & Settlements, a toymaker settles with its founder’s Hunt Valley consulting company over fees and royalties.

Guest columnist Linda D. Schwartz provides advice on what to do upon receiving a letter from Bar Counsel.

Stay up-to-date with our Law Digest, which includes cases from the Maryland Court of Appeals and the U.S. District Court, Maryland.

This week in Maryland Lawyer

ON THE COVER: Top court returns — The Court of Appeals begins its September 2009 term this week. The high court will hear cases addressing the cap on non-economic damages, legal malpractice and whether a truck driver can be guilty of vehicular manslaughter for leaving the scene of a gravel spill from his truck.

Also on the Court of Appeals — the judges recall their summer break; columnist Chris Brown ranks last year’s votes; and plaintiffs’ lawyers Henry E. Dugan Jr. and George S. Tolley III explain the importance of last term’s landmark informed-consent decision.

In Breaking News, Baltimore City Councilwoman Helen L. Holton fights new charges; an immigration lawyer is disbarred after pleading guilty to fraud; and an attorney owes fees for having filed suit without sufficient justification.

In Verdicts & Settlements, a motorcyclist receives $200,000 in damages after colliding with a hand truck that fell from a passing box truck.

U.S. District Magisitrate Judge Charles B. Day of Greenbelt has no plans to take it easy after stepping down from the Federal Magistrate Judges Association after a decade in senior posts at the group.

Stay up-to-date with our Law Digest, which includes cases from the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. District Court, Maryland.

This Week in Maryland Lawyer

mdlaw.jpgOn the Cover: Right on the Money – Murder. Larceny. Can this really be a civil insurance case?

Also, a 2-1 panel of the 4th Circuit upholds the federal sex offender registration law and a regulation that makes it apply retroactively.

In Breaking News, a retired Rockville lawyer escapes disbarment by a single vote on the Court of Appeals, and Baltimore County Circuit Judge Lawrence R. Daniels says he will not run for re-election.

Read about a settlement between a Baltimore dry cleaner and a Lutherville couple who claim the store ruined their wedding attire, in Verdicts & Settlements.

In this week’s Pro Bono, real-estate lawyer Sophie Dagenais discusses her effort to get arabbers — horse-and-cart produce vendors — a new headquarters.

Joe Surkiewicz explains why IOLTA doesn’t work, in his Of Service column.

Stay up to date with our Legal Briefs and Case Digest, with cases from the Maryland Court of Appeals, Maryland Court of Special Appeals and the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Did Gisriel get what he deserved?

We’re already getting mixed reactions to this story about Michael U. Gisriel’s disbarment. On the one hand, you can’t go around signing your clients’ names and cashing checks made out to them without their permission – even if the check is only for $1,000 and you have your reasons for believing the money is actually meant for you. On the other hand, after three decades of an unblemished career, should you lose your license over a thousand-dollar mistake that’s since been rectified?

And, given the Court of Appeals‘ use of the term “hubris” to describe Gisriel’s actions, does it matter if that career has been a relatively high-profile one, including stints as a lobbyist, state delegate and media commentator?  

What do you think?