Stay current on your child support obligations, or you might lose your law license. As the ABA Journal reported yesterday, the Supreme Court of Kentucky disbarred Daniel Warren James for failing to pay over $200,000 in child support obligations over 13 years.
That's not just a failure to pay a little child support; it's a failure to pay a lot of child support. That, coupled with a history of attorney discipline, led the Supreme Court to conclude permanent disbarment was an appropriate sanction.
Lots of Discipline
James actually secured two violations: First, he committed a "criminal act that reflects adversely on [his] honesty" -- namely, failing to pay a whole lot of child support. In 2012, he pleaded guilty to a felony charge of "flagrant non-support," received 5 years in prison (probated for 10 years) and was ordered to pay $233,000 in restitution.
Following that judgment, the state bar filed a formal complaint against James, asking him to respond to the allegation that he committed a criminal act that reflects on dishonesty. James ultimately failed to respond to the inquiry, resulting in the second violation: Failing to respond to a demand for information from a disciplinary authority.
Incredibly, James still didn't respond even to these formal charges from the state bar, and it's uncertain whether he responded after the state inquiry commission found that he violated two professional conduct rules and recommended disbarment.
The decision for disbarment wasn't based solely on the current complaint. In 2013, the Kentucky Supreme Court suspended James' license for five years for a smorgasbord of bad conduct, including not returning unearned fees, misappropriating client money for personal use, and altering billing statements.
'Be Above Reproach'
James' defense in 2013 was that he had stopped taking medication prescribed for a mental health condition. (James didn't provide any defense to the instant complaint because he just never responded to it.) The Supreme Court noted that James could have availed himself of KYLAP, a program for Kentucky lawyers with mental health, depression, and substance abuse problems: "James was offered the opportunity to avail himself of this resource but, because he has not responded to the charge or the complaint, we cannot determine if he has done so. Furthermore, his failure to respond has made it impossible for us to determine whether there are any mitigating factors," the Court said.
Even though a lawyer in Kentucky has never been disciplined for criminally failing to keep up with child support, the Supreme Court easily found that such conduct violated attorneys' duty "to conduct their personal and professional life in such manner as to be above reproach." Even if mental health issues ultimately doomed James' career, it's important -- especially for solos -- to recognize that they need to treat and manage their problems, lest they adversely affect clients, who, after all, are the most important part of the legal profession.