12-Month Suspension from the Bar, for Fraudulently Manipulating Billings to Get Bonus Money from Firm

Note that the fraud here was on the firm, not on clients. From In re Siderits (Wis. Jan. 4, 2013):

In both 2007 and 2008, Attorney Siderits allegedly recorded in excess of 1,800 hours (1,803.3 hours in 2007 and 1806.3 hours in 2008). Because his recorded billable hours exceeded 1,800 hours, Attorney Siderits participated in the bonus system in 2007 and 2008, earning … [a total of] $46,978.04.

After the Firm paid Attorney Siderits each of the bonuses, but before the Firm mailed his bills to his clients, Attorney Siderits reduced, or “wrote-down,” certain of his billable hours for the years for which the bonuses were paid. In early 2008 Attorney Siderits wrote-down 29.2 hours of time from his 2007 billings without notifying the Firm. These write-downs caused Attorney Siderits’ 2007 billables to drop about 25 hours below the 1,800 level. In early 2009 Attorney Siderits wrote-down 231.9 hours from his 2008 billings, again without notifying the Firm. These write-downs caused Attorney Siderits’ 2008 billables to drop below 1,600 hours….

The referee believed the most damning evidence of wrongdoing was Attorney Siderits’ time-recording for 2008. Focusing on Attorney Siderits’ billings for Matter “A,” the referee wrote:

[I]t is inconceivable to me that an experienced attorney could expect anyone to believe that he spent 140 hours on a relatively straightforward brief; especially since the matter had been fully briefed previously and the new brief was substantially based on the work of an associate. His protestations to the contrary are simply not credible. Furthermore, his time on that brief was entered late in the year, at times one would not normally expect an attorney to be working on the brief, in large quantities, and entered days and weeks after the work was allegedly performed. The same amounts were then routinely deleted following the end of the year, without following the normal procedure of deleting them on the paper pre-bills. Siderits entered the computer system himself, telling no one, and deleted all of the time that he entered. The time he ultimately billed the client was within the realm of reason, and consistent with what two other attorneys testified should be the time for such a brief. He never discussed with his partners any of the massive write downs that he did on Matter “A.”

… [T]his case does not turn on the bare fact that Attorney Siderits wrote-down his time; if Attorney Siderits had made occasional, modest write-downs which did not affect his eligibility for a bonus, this misconduct case would not exist. At issue here is whether Attorney Siderits was manipulating his billing records for the sole purpose of achieving a bonus. The answer to this question, according to the referee, is an unequivocal yes; the referee determined that Attorney Siderits’ arguments to the contrary were not credible — a determination which we will not disturb. It is obvious that with or without a written Firm policy, misappropriating Firm funds through billing sleight of hand is inimical to the best interests of the Firm, the public, and the profession, and, as such, constitutes misconduct….

We already have commented on the absolving effect of the absence of a formal Firm policy governing write-downs: none. Once again, this case does not turn on the bare fact that Attorney Siderits wrote-down his time; this case is about Attorney Siderits abusing his write-down discretion and lying to his law partners in order to collect almost $47,000 in bonuses to which he was not entitled. Attorney Siderits cannot seriously contend that firms must have a written policy forbidding stealing and lying before a misconduct charge for one of these actions can be sustained.

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