Watch Out for This!

By Michael P. Brodsky

Unethical Sub-contracting in Representation.

In February of last year, I was cold-called by a representative of the Terani Law Firm regarding sub-contracting representation for a then yet-to-be named client charged with a serious felony in another county where I practice pretty regularly. Terani, I later learned, is located in Beverly Hills, CA. It promotes itself heavily on the Web for just about any aspect of criminal defense you can imagine. It also claims to repre-sent defendants in pretty much every jurisdiction – state, federal or municipal – in the country claiming 98 offices in 45 states and the District of Columbia.

The woman from Terani who contacted me explained that they had been retained by the defendant and were seeking local counsel to represent him. Not to associate on the case or to be local counsel for Terani to appear pro hac vice, but to be the primary counsel on this case, a class “C” Felony. She explained that they had been paid a fee of $6,500.00 and would be paying local counsel $2,300.00 for “pre-trial” repre-sentation only. I told her I would think about it.

My initial reaction was that this proposal seemed wrong on a number of levels. First, while I consider my-self to be a highly qualified and competent criminal defense attorney, I can’t imagine that Terani has any idea of my competence or reputation. They just looked me up the internet. They conducted no interview, requested no endorsements and didn’t even ask for any showing that I had the knowledge and experience to handle an accusation of a serious violent felony.

Second, it appeared to me that Terani was taking an unreasonable and outrageous 65% finder’s fee for merely setting up the representation. They made no appearances, reviewed no discovery and would have no substantive participation in the case whatsoever.

Third, I have always been somewhat uncomfortable accepting a case on a “pre-trial” basis only. While I occasionally structure my fee agreements to include a trial fee, I only do so in the rare case where the case seems highly likely to settle and a trial will entail an enormous increase in the amount of time and work required to bring the case to trial. Also, accepting a matter on a “pre-trial” only basis places an additional financial burden on the defendant should they wish to assert their constitutional right to trial. And taking a case “pre-trial only” basically says to the defendant ‘Take the offer or I’m outta here’. The client is then presumably expected to go back to Terani who will then take another exorbitant finder’s fee to hire the same lawyer and pay that lawyer a similarly small percentage of that fee to handle the rest of the case.
Finally, after doing some research on Terani, I discovered some disturbing information.

Terani’s “Attorney Procedures for New Case Assignment” states in paragraph 3: “Attorney should intro-duce himself/herself as “calling from the Terani Law Firm” to ensure client is not confused in any way.” Put another way, this appeared to be a direction to the attorney to lie to the client since the Attorney is clearly NOT a “member of the Terani Law Firm”. Personally, I’ve always believed that initiating the attor-ney/client relationship by lying to the client seemed like a bad idea.2 Particularly where, as here, it appears to be calculated to deceive the client as to the true nature of the arrangement between the attorney and Terani.

Finally, try Googling Terani Law Firm. You can go more than 20 pages deep and still have almost nothing
but Terani’s own listings. Clearly, this is a business model that works.

Given my reservations I declined to accept the matter without ever learning the client’s name. A couple of
months later, in late April, I received an inquiry from a referral service I subscribe to. It was a client looking for representation on a serious felony in a nearby county. Hmmm, sounds familiar. It turned out to be
the same guy. As promised he had been summarily dumped by the attorney Terani had gotten to take the
case after the client predictably rejected the plead-as-charged offer. I disclosed that information to the client and he eventually hired me to represent him on the then still pending felony matter. But all’s well that
ends well, he was acquitted at trial. Or does it?

After the case was over, my client wrote to Terani requesting a refund. They never even responded. Bar
complaints are pending in both Washington and California alleging, among other things, that a $4,200.00
finder’s fee cannot in any way shape or form be considered reasonable under these circumstances. After
all, Terani made no appearances, reviewed no discovery, had no meetings with client or performed any
other service one would expect from competent, ethical representation.

One might reasonably ask; why would someone charged with a crime in Washington hire a law firm based
in California? Well, first, he was confused by their website which claims offices around the country
(some appear to be just mailboxes). Second, he had never been charged with a crime before and didn’t fully
comprehend how important it is to hire local counsel with knowledge of the jurisdiction, the prosecutors
and judges.

So is it just me or does anyone else think Terani’s model is just plain wrong? Particularly for a criminal
charge that is so very local in nature and not some national class action suit.

UPDATE – May 8, 2013
I received a letter from the State Bar of California today informing me that the grievance against
Michael Dayan Terani, principle at the Terani Law firm had been dismissed. The Bar found that Terani did
not owe my client a refund because their fee agreement made clear that scope of representation was for pre
-trial representation only. They don’t appear to have addressed the issue of whether the fees charged were
“reasonable” (perhaps that’s just a Washington thing). They did however send a “Warning Letter” to
Terani calling for changes to their practices regarding “the Terani Law Firm’s website, advertisements, and
new case assignment procedures”. Apparently some of the folks answering the phones at some of the supposed
98 offices were not aware they were being advertised as being a part of Terani’s nationwide network
of crack attorneys.

Endnotes
1— Michael P. Brodsky, practices criminal defense and can be reached at (360) 756-5120; or
mpbrodsky@brodskylawfirm.com
2— Interestingly, in writing this article I looked into whether lying to the client violates the RPCs. In my less than
thorough review, I believe it does not. Apparently, at least according to the Washington Bar, while you can’t lie to
other attorneys, “the tribunal” or folks you don’t represent, not a problem when it comes to your own clients.