Lawyer’s Privacy Concerns Trumped by Public Persona?  

In a recent and ongoing case out of California, a successful attorney’s highly visible public profile may have contributed to a judge ordering the disclosure of the attorney’s personal financial records in relation to a malpractice action initiated against the attorney.  A Los Angeles plaintiff’s attorney was recently sued by 28 former clients, who allege that the attorney misappropriated more than $12.5 million of settlement funds.  The plaintiffs claim that their former attorney never informed them of the terms of the $17 million settlement agreement, or provided accounting records related to the allocation of the settlement funds.

What makes this case notable for our purposes, however, is the recent decision by a U.S. Magistrate Judge ordering the attorney to turn over documents detailing his personal finances, as well as those of his law firm.  It is highly unusual for an attorney to have her personal finances exposed in a legal malpractice claim, and the judge did so only after finding the financial disclosures already made by the attorney to be “inadequate.” The judge reasoned that the attorney’s personal finances “may demonstrate the alleged misappropriation and breaches of duty.”  Moreover, the plaintiffs in the case have argued that their former attorney is a highly public figure, and that his concerns about privacy are overstated.

Moreover, the attorney’s wife is a cast member of a popular reality television series, upon which the attorney himself has appeared.  Within the context of the show, the wealth of this attorney and his family is regularly highlighted. The attorney’s private jet and a diamond ring purchased for his wife valued around $200,000 are among the examples given by the plaintiffs that this attorney has “made his wealth a matter of public interest.”

Of course, relatively few attorneys will ever appear on a reality TV series, and fewer still will achieve the level of fiscal success attained by this attorney. Nonetheless, the court’s evidentiary decision provides a cautionary example for all professionals.  Maintaining a relatively low public profile may keep one out of the spotlight, and might also limit the manner in which a plaintiff – or court – can investigate a professional’s personal affairs within the context of a professional malpractice claim.