Attorney Siderits was a recently promoted law-firm shareholder who allegedly cheated on his firm’s bonus policy by submitting several inflated bills, which he reduced before the clients were invoiced. Each of the two years, Siderits obtained a bonus of about $25,000 that he allegedly would not have obtained had he reported his billings accurately. Despite returning the bonuses, Siderits was terminated by the firm.
Equating dishonesty with clients and business associates wasn’t always the rule in Wisconsin, where the courts announced the new policy in In re Casey (1993) 174 Wis.2d 341, in which the attorney nevertheless received the traditional lesser suspension lasting 60 days. The Wisconsin Supreme Court has been clear that disbarment is warranted when an attorney steals from his clients. Taking money belonging to a client for oneself "warrants the most severe discipline—license revocation." (In re Wright (1994) 180 Wis.2d 492, 493.) But even in its zeal to defend the interests of major partners, the court imposed discipline much less severe than if Siderits had stolen funds from a client trust account.
Although the Wisconsin bar hasn’t succeeded in its drive to equate offenses against clients with those against business partners, we’re left with the question of why it’s pushing that envelope. Who benefits? The answer, the major partners in the large law firms, who can use free bar discipline in place of expensive civil suits. The state bars impose the heavy financial costs of discipline on the respondent. The threat of discipline secured the return of the bonus money without cost to the firm. The firm, which could have sought punitive damages under Wisconsin law, otherwise might have had to sue Siderits on its own dime. (Wisconsin Stat. § 895.043, subd. (3); Berner Cheese Corporation v. Krug (2008) 312 Wis.2d 251 [plaintiff may receive punitive damages for defendant's breach of fiduciary duty if defendant acted maliciously toward plaintiff or with intentional disregard of plaintiff's rights].)