Early last month an attorney whose name I’ll spare you was suspended from practice for 12 months by his state’s lawyer disciplinary panel. Someone the lawyer had represented in a criminal case presented documentation indicating that he (the client) was the beneficiary of a large bequest. From a long-lost cousin. In Nigeria.
You read that correctly. Believing, or hoping, that the paperwork was legit, the lawyer agreed to help his client secure the inheritance. For a 10 percent contingency fee – $1.8 million. Over the course of the next several days, the lawyer communicated with people he believed worked for the “Central Bank of Nigeria,” the “African Union” and the President of Nigeria.
This practitioner also had contact with someone who held himself out as “the Nigerian lawyer who had witnessed the decedent’s will.” This guy “claimed to be a lawyer in England (who), on (the client’s) behalf, traveled to Nigeria and investigated the legitimacy of the inheritance.”
Our fated counselor was told that, before the money could be delivered to the U.S., a transfer of $120,000 to legal representatives of Nigeria was required. Apparently the lawyer did not have that kind of money on hand – and his client certainly didn’t – so he solicited loans from other clients, promising each a share of the expected recovery.
After wiring the funds as instructed, the lawyer was told the inherited money would be transferred to the Royal Bank of Canada. And then … a problem arose with “Canadian banking authorities.” And then … the money – over $18 million in $100-bills – was “shipped in two trunks” to a diplomat in Madrid.
And then … the Spanish diplomat demanded 25,000 Euros and needed to be prepaid, in cash. The lawyer helped his client secure the Euros, the client went to Spain, and surely by now you’ve guessed the outcome.
When told that transfer of the inherited funds was on indefinite hold, the client-investors began to file ethics complaints against the lawyer. You can easily enough guess the details of those complaints.
Disclaimer: This did not happen in Arkansas or Tennessee, and I am not reporting it in the spirit of comedy. Indeed, it is tragic on many levels. According to an online post at a site where you’d expect to read about such matters,
“At the time of the disciplinary proceedings . . . (the lawyer) appeared to have been still unaware that he might have fallen victim to a scam. The Grievance Commission wrote at the time (that the lawyer) ‘appears to have honestly believed – and continues to believe – that one day a trunk full of . . . one hundred dollar bills is going to appear on his office doorstep’.”
I can only imagine how one would have gone about preparing the lawyer’s defense to the ethics charges involved here. There’s a lesson here somewhere that we all might learn or relearn. Whether or not you’ve grasped that lesson, for goodness sakes, delete the email about long-lost Nigerian cousins.
Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.