Sham Divorce Lawyer Leaves Victims in the Lurch

A disbarred lawyer from Vermont has left a trail of broken lives behind him in Airzona. Here’s the story about it from the Republic. And here’s another from AZCentral.

Prosecutors in Arizona say they have identified 115 victims and expect there could be as many as 200 more. The attorney, Gary Jay Karpin, represented that he was an attorney and prepared divorce documents “pro per” (for the parties to file on their own behalf without listing an attorney). He either filed the documents improperly or never filed them at all, yet (apparently) assured his “clients” that their case was complete.

Karpin has been operating in the Maricopa County (Phoenix) area since 1996. Some of the people who trusted Karpin, who thought they were divorced or that they had custody of their children, are finding out only now that nothing ever changed.

News like this is agonizing for lawyers like me. I deal daily with people who trust me with the fine china of their lives at the time when they’re most vulnerable. How can they know whether I’m a legitimate and licensed attorney who does exactly what he says he will do, or a slimy opportunist like Karpin who brushes aside his own moral code and abuses their trust? In the wake of stories like this one from Arizona — unfortunately, it’s not the first one of these and won’t be the last — I am honestly searching for some way to provide reassurance to people so they know they can trust me.

A piece of me wants to recommend that you periodically look behind the statements you hear from your attorney (or anyone else, for that matter). For example, when your attorney tells you a case has been filed, make sure you get the case number and then call the court yourself to confirm that your case has actually been filed. The problem with this approach, of course, is that if we all did it we would quickly overwhelm the poor court staff who are already overburdened now.

Maybe some enterprising CPAs will develop a niche providing limited-purpose audits of legal services and granting some kind of “seal of approval” for firms whose integrity they monitor periodically. Or maybe bar associations could beef up their ethics staff so they could activeloy monitor compliance. Any other ideas? I’d love to hear them.