Robert Bennett was a high-flying attorney in Texas with a big reputation as a go-to litigator. He included among his clients uber-wealthy financier R. Allen Stanford, sentenced to 110 years in prison for a $7 billion dollar Ponzi scheme arising from the fictional Stanford International Bank in Antigua and wrongfully convicted death row inmate Anthony Graves, exonerated in the murders of six people and released from prison.
But the case that has ended his career relates to client Gary Land who retained Mr. Bennett in 2011 to handle a breach of contract case and a potential civil rights violation action. The latter case had been turned down by other lawyers as it involved an improbable allegation that Mr. Land was being secretly surveilled by unnamed persons, possibly federal agents.
Bennett asked for and received a $50,000 retainer. Bennett was instructed by his client to forward his bills for legal services to him by email as he would be engaged in extensive travel. Bennett’s first bill arrived by email but the rest were mailed to Mr. Land’s parents’ home. When Mr. Land finally received the posted bills he learned that Mr. Bennett had already billed for $75,000 worth of legal services. Land fired Mr. Bennett and challenged the legal fees.
When Mr. Bennett agreed to act for Mr. Land he asked him to sign an agreement that any fee dispute would be subject to binding arbitration by the Houston Bar Association Fee Dispute Committee. Mr. Land had agreed and an arbitration was scheduled.
Mr. Land’s position that he had been charged excessive fees for very limited legal services was upheld by the arbitrators whose award included a provision that Mr. Bennett would not receive the outstanding amount of $25,000 and that $27,500 in legal fees would be reimbursed to Mr. Land by Mr. Bennett. The award was binding, conclusive and not appealable in accordance with the agreement between Mr. Bennett and his client.
Rather than paying the award, Mr. Bennett filed an application to the Committee for a Modification and Clarification of the award. His application was denied. Mr. Land then applied to the district court who turned the award into a court order. Bennett still refused to pay and appealed the court’s order.
That’s when the Texas State Bar commenced disciplinary proceedings against Mr. Bennett seeking a two-year suspension from the practice of law.
In a rare three-day hearing in district court Judge Carmen Kelsey upheld the Bar Association’s findings of professional misconduct based on Mr. Bennett’s failure to pay the arbitration award and his pursuit of several appeals that were barred by agreement between the parties. However, Judge Kelsey ignored the Bar Association’s submission that Bennett be suspended. She ordered him disbarred. In Texas a lawyer who has been disbarred cannot apply for reinstatement until five years have passed.
But this case is not over. Last week Mr. Bennett’s appeal from the order of the district court was argued before three judges of the Court of Appeal. Most impressive were the one thousand amicus briefs filed by local lawyers in order to show solidarity with Mr. Bennett’s position that disbarment is out of proportion to the alleged offences.
I still can’t figure out why such a notable and successful lawyer would refuse to reimburse his client a mere $27,500, only to engage in protracted, expensive, high-profile disciplinary and court proceedings?
The appeal is under reserve.
Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang