Attorney Misconduct, Biglaw, Lateral Moves, Legal Ethics, Money, Musical Chairs, Partner Issues, Weirdness

Mystery Departure Solved: Ex-Sidley Austin Partner Hit With Ethics Charges

Last September, we wrote about the mysterious departure of Lee Smolen from Sidley Austin. Smolen, former head of Sidley’s real estate practice in Chicago and a member of the firm’s executive committee, departed without comment or a known destination. When that happens, something interesting is usually afoot.

Earlier this month, the other white shoe dropped. A lawyer ethics commission in Illinois leveled charges against Smolen arising out of his time at Sidley.

What has he been accused of? And what does his new law firm have to say about it?

You can read the full complaint here (via the Legal Profession Blog). Here’s a summary, from the ABA Journal:

[Former Sidley partner Smolen] is facing an Illinois legal ethics complaint over $69,000 in cab fare reimbursement, among other issues.

In case you’re wondering how one can rack up almost $70K in car fares, short of being chauffeured around in a Rolls-Royce, here is the relevant paragraph from the complaint:

2. Between 2007 and 2012, Respondent submitted more than 800 requests that the firm reimburse him from the unallocated account for cab rides that he knew he had not taken. In support of the false requests, Respondent fabricated false taxi receipts, in amounts averaging approximately $80 each, and the firm paid Respondent approximately $69,000 based on the false submissions.

Eight hundred cab rides over a five- or six-year period is more understandable. But that’s still a lot to charge to a single client (according to the complaint, “a major financial institution, one of the firm’s largest clients”). And that’s not all, according to the complaint:

4. Also during the same period, Respondent submitted requests that he be reimbursed from the unallocated account for purported entertainment expenses, including restaurant gift cards (totaling at least $13,000), tickets to sporting events (totaling at least $35,000) and meals at various locations, including his country club, on Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Thanksgiving and other dates (totaling at least $2,000), that had not been incurred for legitimate firm purposes.

Lee Smolen

These are allegations I just can’t understand. High-ranking Sidley partners like Lee Smolen make millions of dollars a year. Why risk it all so you can stick the firm or a client with the tab for a Mother’s Day brunch? You’re a partner at a top law firm; pay for your own freaking brunch.

Of course, these things do happen. Partners at top firms get accused of cheating on their taxes, embezzling, and engaging in other conduct that might be penny-wise but pound-foolish. See, e.g., Carlos Spinelli-Noseda (former Sullivan & Cromwell partner who defrauded the firm and its clients); Theodore Freedman (former Kirkland & Ellis partner who pleaded guilty to tax charges); John J. O’Brien (former S&C partner who also pleaded guilty to tax charges).

As we previously reported, Lee Smolen is now a partner at DLA Piper. He’s found a good home: DLA is known for sparing no expense when it comes to partner pampering.

We reached out to both Sidley and DLA for comment on the Smolen situation. Sidley did not respond to us, but DLA issued this statement:

The firm was aware of this matter during the hiring process. After our own due diligence and a thorough review of the facts, the firm decided to give great weight to the total body of Lee’s work over his 25-plus years as a lawyer and to extend to him the opportunity to continue his career at DLA Piper. Lee is a well-respected attorney who has learned from his experience and taken all the necessary steps to move forward as a productive member of our team.

We’re sure that DLA Piper will make Lee Smolen march to their tune, subjecting his reimbursement requests to the strictest scrutiny. The firm is all too familiar with bad publicity of the “churn that bill, baby” variety.

In the Matter of Lee Mark Smolen: Complaint [Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission]
The Ride Not Taken [Legal Profession Blog]
Former Sidley Austin partner faces ethics case over $69K in cab fare reimbursement [ABA Journal]

Earlier: Musical Chairs: A Sidley Austin Partner’s Mysterious Departure
Overbilling Gone Wild: Paying the (DLA) Piper
Law Firm Rents Entire Cruise Liner For Partner Meeting While the Rest of You Look for Work

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