The number of legal clients seeking reimbursement from New York lawyers jumped to 627 last year from 442 in 1999, according to the Lawyers’ Fund for Client Protection, the state agency that reimburses victims of dishonest attorneys. The fund paid out $5.1 million last year, including $3.7 million stemming from real estate transactions in which lawyers absconded with escrow funds. Lawyers from the two Long Island counties, Nassau and Suffolk, accounted for 41 percent of the thefts and other losses in real estate deals, reports the New York Times.
An increasing number of Long Island lawyers ended up behind bars for other reasons, too. Since 2002, Suffolk prosecutors have convicted 16 lawyers of crimes ranging from drug possession to theft. Since 2001, Nassau prosecutors have convicted 21. Together, the two district attorney offices have recovered about $3.1 million in stolen funds and obtained another $3.5 million in judgments. Edward Heilig, the chief of the Suffolk district attorney’s economic crimes bureau, said a dozen other lawyers were under investigation there. “These guys, they start taking a little bit, thinking they’re going to put it back before anyone finds out,” Heilig said. “They’re usually middle-aged because it takes that long to build up a practice and get a lot of clients to trust them with money. On the other hand, they have big egos, convince themselves they know what they’re doing.” Why is the problem more acute on Long Island? Some say tough competition may be a factor. Long Island has about 14,000 lawyers, more than Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx combined.