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Handling Client Funds - A Primer

Posted by attorney Joseph Brophy

There is a strict requirement that clients' funds must always be held in accounts separate from any of the attorney's money. Large amounts of money, or money being held for months or years, should generally be placed In a separate account for the benefit of the individual client, with all interest on the account payable to that client. When the amount of funds is modest, or funds are to be held only for a short time, lawyers are permitted to deposit funds of several clients together in a single account, provided that it is set up in accordance with the guidelines of the Court system. Such a mingled account is called an IOLA ("Interest on Lawyer's Account") account. The interest on IOLA accounts is paid to the Fund for Client Protection, which is a sort of insurance fund for clients whose attorneys have misappropriated their money. . Lawyers must not only keep their client's funds separate and inviolate, but must also be prepared to account fully for each client's funds at any time. An overdraft or bounced check on an account containing a client's funds is a serious offense, even if the money is repaid promptly and the client suffers no financial harm. The Office of Court Administration has the right to conduct audits of attorneys' escrow accounts, and at times even conducts random audits. . Lawyers who are found guilty of taking money from escrow accounts for their own use are almost always severely punished. Moreover, all of the partners of an attorney who misuses a client's funds may be held responsible, even if they were unaware that it happened. Penalties for mishandling clients' funds often result in suspension from law practice, and sometimes disbarment. Criminal prosecution is usually reserved for lawyers who outright steal large sums of money. Of course, funds that were taken must be repaid, and the Judiciary Law provides for treble damages in such cases. When guilty lawyers lack the funds to repay their clients, the Fund for Client Protection may repay part or all of the client's losses.

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