Maryland’s Court of Appeals this week disbarred a Westminster attorney who “violated one of the most sacred obligations” of the legal profession by borrowing money from his attorney trust account without permission from a client.
The court found that Clifford B. Silbiger’s lengthy and otherwise untarnished career as a lawyer was not enough to prevent his disbarment for misappropriating the funds, nor was the fact that his client never knew the money was missing.
“To impose a sanction less than disbarment simply on that basis would send a message to both the public and the legal profession that this Court subscribes to the adage that ‘it’s better to be lucky than good’ when it comes to wrongfully borrowing funds from an attorney’s trust account,” Judge Brynja M. Booth wrote in the 34-page opinion.
According to the opinion, Silbiger used funds from his attorney trust to cover costs at his law firm after an expensive marketing investment failed to generate significant new business. Silbiger admitted, when Maryland Bar Counsel investigated, that he had “borrowed” $35,000 from a client’s settlement that was being held until a lien could be resolved.
Silbiger quickly repaid the money from his personal funds, but the attorney trust became overdrawn by several thousand dollars when a creditor cashed a check for $7,000 he was owed from the settlement.
Silbiger admitted to the conduct at an evidentiary hearing in July. He told the hearing judge that he chose to “rob Peter to pay Paul” because he was “so anguished over the fact that I couldn’t satisfy (his) expenses.”
Silbiger did, however, hold 50% ownership of a successful marina that had an operating account he could access freely, according to his testimony. He did not take money from that account to cover his expenses because he was too embarrassed to ask his partner at the marina to take the funds.
The Court of Appeals recognized that Silbiger had a successful career that stretched for more than five decades, and that this was his only violation of attorney ethics rules.
Silbiger asked the court to impose a six-month suspension instead of disbarment. But Booth noted that the court has not imposed a sanction less that disbarment for misappropriation of funds in decades.
“Some of the most difficult attorney discipline cases for this Court are those in which the attorney, like Mr. Silbiger, has had a long and distinguished career,” Booth wrote. “However, we cannot ignore that Mr. Silbiger violated one of the most sacred obligations of an attorney.”
Silbiger’s lawyer, Kathleen Meredith, said that her client respects the court’s decision, but is disappointed.
“Mr. Silbiger very much regrets the conduct that led to the court’s action,” Meredith said. “He cherished his career as a lawyer. He cherished the many years of service he provided to his clients, his community and the courts. Being a lawyer was truly a privilege and it is one he will very much miss.”