In re Barry E. O’Neill, No. BD-2014-059: Attorney Suspended for Assisting in the Unauthorized Practice of Law

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) has entered an order suspending an attorney after finding that he helped a non-lawyer set up a law practice.  In the Matter of Barry E. O’Neill, a lawyer, who was a business person and had never actively practiced law, helped a woman establish a law practice before she was licensed.

The woman had worked as a paralegal at a law firm, which practiced bankruptcy law and performed loan modifications. She was attempting to become an attorney, but had taken and failed the bar exam three times. She approached the attorney, who was a personal friend, to start her own firm.  Knowing that she was not licensed, the attorney nevertheless created an entity called the Business and Financial Law Group on behalf of the woman, and established an Interest on Lawyer’s Trust Account (“IOLTA”) for the firm.

Shortly thereafter, the attorney entered appearances in two pending bankruptcy cases and signed four new petitions for bankruptcy as counsel for the debtors.  The woman performed the substantive legal work on these cases without any supervision by the attorney.  Over a 9 month period, the woman held herself out as an attorney at the firm, entered into fee agreements with clients, and also failed to comply with accounting regulations for IOLTA accounts.

Upon learning of these circumstances, the Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers (“BBO”) issued a disciplinary complaint against the attorney.  The attorney entered into a stipulation, which resulted in the BBO issuing a recommendation of a three month suspension.

The SJC reviewed the BBO’s recommendation, and found that the attorney violated Massachusetts Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 5.5(a), by assisting a non-lawyer engage in the unauthorized practice of law, and Rule 5.3(b), by failing to properly supervise a non-lawyer.  The Court also found that the attorney violated Mass.R.Prof.C. Rules 1.1 and 1.3, by filing the bankruptcy petitions without any knowledge or experience in that area of law or associating with a competent attorney, and Rules 1.15 (e) and (f), by failing to keep proper records for an IOLTA account, on which he was a signatory.  The SJC accepted the BBO’s recommendation and entered a judgment suspending the attorney for a period of three months.

Decision: In re Barry E. O’Neill

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