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Solo attorney grapples with employee’s actions

Attorney Kevin Jamison in his law office in Gladstone, Mo. Behind him are portraits of his great-great grandfather, his father and his son, who served in the Civil War, World War II and Afghanistan, respectively. Photo by Scott Lauck.

In 2010, Kansas City, Mo., solo practitioner Kevin L. Jamison fell headlong into the ultimate nightmare for a small law office.

Jamison fired his office manager of 10 years after she refused to turn over the password to her desk computer. He soon learned that his client trust accounts had been overdrawn. His long-trusted employee, he alleges, had been embezzling from him for years.

It was not only a financial headache and a personal betrayal, but also an attorney discipline matter. In 2011, the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel filed an information charging Jamison with professional misconduct for failing to effectively monitor his office manager. In August, the Missouri Supreme Court gave him two years of probation.

For Jamison, 60, a lawyer since 1983, the episode offers no easy answers. He has hired a new office manager and says he now spends more time checking the books than he used to. But for a small office to function, there’s a certain amount of autonomy that his lone staff member has to have – especially, Jamison said, since he has always wanted “to practice law and not be bothered” with the day-to-day operations of the business.

Read more articles on legal malpractice and attorney discipline at Lawyers USA’s Legal Malpractice Monitor.

“I’d grown to trust her over the years and hadn’t been paying as much attention as I used to,” he said. “You can’t afford to trust anybody, apparently.”

Jamison’s practice consists of immigration, divorce and criminal defense work, including an unusual specialization in weapons and self-defense law. His office, a converted residential home in a Kansas City suburb, is decorated with posters extolling the virtues of the Second Amendment and photos that relate his family’s long history of military service.

One photo, of his great-great grandfather, Harley Matthewson, a Civil War surgeon, was originally a small tintype. Jamison’s current office manager, Sheila Tillman, who joined the firm in December, said she discovered it while dusting a shelf and suggested blowing it up and making it part of a display on the front wall of the office.

“When I got here, the office wasn’t really decorated,” she said. “I was trying to come up with ideas to reflect Kevin’s personality.”

It’s this cozy, almost familial atmosphere that makes what Jamison’s former employee allegedly did so galling. According to records filed in the disciplinary case, the former office manager had in some instances forged Jamison’s endorsement on checks and deposited them in her own bank account.

She has also apparently engaged in her own practice of law. According to Jamison, several people showed up at his office in the year after her firing to inquire about cases he’d never heard of. Apparently, when prospective clients showed up at the office without an appointment while Jamison wasn’t there, she would accept their money – cash or checks made out to her – without creating a legal file for them. Jamison told the OCDC that “she warned these persons not to talk to me about these cases, only to her.”

“She could be quite convincing,” he wrote.

Jamison said he completed those cases without further charge to the clients. He also covered all of the missing amounts in his trust accounts, costing him “tens of thousands of dollars,” he told the OCDC.

Jamison reported the office manager to authorities in Clay County, Mo., though she has never been charged with anything. A spokesman for the prosecutor’s office, Jim Roberts, said the case was forwarded to Gladstone Public Safety. A spokesman for that agency, Sgt. Richard King, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Jamison said he has been unable to locate his former employee and doubts he will ever recover any of the money.

“Apparently I’m the only one who’s getting punished for this,” he said.

(Jamison’s response to the OCDC information lists the former employee’s name, but Lawyers USA has chosen not to use it because she has not been charged with a crime. There were no valid phone listings under her name in the Kansas City area.)

Melinda Bentley, the state’s ethics counsel, declined to speak about any specific case but said that in general lawyers must be extremely cautious in what they allow non-lawyer staff members to do.

“A lawyer can’t delegate his or her professional responsibility,” she said.

Jamison said he now checks his bank accounts almost every day and is more closely reviewing accounting reports. He doubts, however, that he could ever devise a foolproof way to ensure he’s never victimized.

“If somebody is going to take advantage of their position, they’re going to figure a way around it, unless I spend all of my time doing these things,” he said. “I hired this lady so I didn’t have to spend time on it, but that doesn’t seem to have worked out. I’m spending time on it now.”

A version of this article originally appeared in Missouri Lawyers Weekly, a sister publication of Lawyers USA.

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