After practicing law for more than a half century and being president of one Milwaukee’s better known law firms, Joseph W. Weigel will be leaving the profession next year as a disbarred lawyer.
The state Supreme Court Wednesday unanimously agreed to revoke Weigel’s law license for misusing client funds by using the money to pay vendors or other clients. Special prosecutor Paul Schwarzenbart has argued that Weigel ran the firm’s client trust account like a Ponzi scheme. That is, Weigel, 77, ran hundreds of millions of dollars through the fund and used money won in new cases to pay off clients in older cases. Others, such as consultants and experts who assisted in cases, went unpaid.
“A six or seven figure deficit in an account that holds client funds is an ethical failure of epic proportions,” the court said in its 37-page decision.
Schwarzenbart has handled the case since 2006 because Weigel’s son, William Weigel, is a top official at the court’s Office of Lawyer Regulation and he often is involved in prosecutions of lawyers who violate ethical rules. Schwarzenbart made all decisions in the Joseph Weigel case and did not consult William Weigel or other agency officials, said Keith Sellen, agency director.
The Journal Sentinel first reported on the sluggish pace of the Weigel investigation in April 2011 as part of its Bar None series of stories about Wisconsin’s slow-moving and often lenient attorney disciplinary system. This year, a committee appointed by the Supreme Court called for toughening the disciplinary rules to allow for attorneys who commit felonies or other egregious acts to be disbarred for life. There has been no action taken as a result of the committee recommendation, however.
Currently, revoked or disbarred attorneys can apply to be readmitted to the bar after five years. The Supreme Court last rejected a call for lifetime disbarments in 2010.
As a result of the revocation, Weigel will not be able to receive any profits generated by his firm – Weigel, Carlson, Blau & Clemens – after Feb. 1, the date that his disbarment takes effect, according to court rules. The west side personal injury firm aggressively markets itself to central city residents for much of its business. It uses former Green Bay Packers safety LeRoy Butler as a celebrity spokesman to promote its tagline, “Don’t drop the ball. Make the call.”
The court’s action makes it unclear whether Weigel’s name could even remain on the firm’s masthead.
Weigel owns about one-third of the law firm, which he purchased with two other lawyers in about 1990.
Earlier this year, the court reprimanded Weigel for continuing to use the name Eisenberg in his firm’s title long after Alvin Eisenberg, the firm’s founder, had been pushed out by Weigel and his partners. The court found that Weigel hired an attorney by the name of Donald Eisenberg as a pretext for keeping the Eisenberg moniker in the firm’s title.
Weigel did not return calls left at his home and law firm Wednesday, and Terry Johnson, his attorney, declined to comment. Other partners at the firm also did not return calls for comment.
The action against Weigel is unusual both because of Weigel’s prominence and the level of wrongdoing the court said occurred.
“It’s a rare phenomenon for a name partner of a midsized law firm to have his or her license revoked,” said Peter Rofes, a Marquette University law professor and an expert in legal ethics.
The court rejected Weigel’s arguments that his motives in running the trust account were selfless and that he was attempting to remedy a situation he inherited when he bought into the firm. Weigel argued he was trying to gradually pay off the deficit.
But the court said that “profit motives as well as selfish motives led to Attorney Weigel’s decision to try to hide the trust account problems for many years rather than acknowledging the problems and dealing with them in an appropriate fashion.”
The court concluded “any sanctions less than revocation would undermine the public’s confidence in the honesty and integrity of the bar.”
Weigel tried to avoid the disciplinary action, asking the court in 2008 to allow him to voluntarily revoke his license. The court rejected the petition in April 2009.
“He knew he would be here someday,” Johnson told the court last fall in explaining why his client filed the petition. “He knew he would face discipline. At his age given everything else . . . he was prepared to . . . simply surrender his license.”
In addition to disbarring Weigel, the court ordered him to pay the $24,309 in costs incurred since Schwarzenbart filed the revocation complaint last year.
Prominent Milwaukee lawyer loses license for misuse of funds
December 19, 2012
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel