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Try Not To Be a Patsy, Seriously.

I’m not sure why, but I’ve always had a fondness for the word patsy. While the word doesn’t seem to be in wide use anymore, I personally believe the time for its resurgence has arrived given its meaning. Think about it. A patsy is a person who is easily taken advantage of, especially by being cheated or blamed for something. So, for example, when I look at how successful social engineering as a cybercrime tool is these days, it certainly seems like there are a lot of patsies out there. Here are a few stories that further explain why I feel the way I do.

In two separate claims here at ALPS, the attorneys being sued basically allowed their clients to independently negotiate a deal with their respective opposing party. Apparently both attorneys ran with an assumption that all parties were sophisticated enough to do so. Making matters worse, throughout both negotiations these two attorneys also allowed themselves to be the conduit for the exchange of email and documents between the parties, all of which were never reviewed or commented upon. In fact, in one of these matters the client actually signed a document admitting to fraud done with the hope of being able to extend loan payments! Of course, both of these situations ended badly for the clients and both clients blamed their respective attorneys for the fallout. To me, this is another one of those “How in the world????” situations. I just don’t get it. All I can say is the word patsy fits.

Want more? A lawyer is handling a real estate transaction and is well aware of the parties, the banks involved, etc. This lawyer confirmed the wiring instructions with her client a day or so prior to the actual closing. Unfortunately and unbeknownst to anyone, the email account of this lawyer’s client had been hacked. Someone had been monitoring the email exchange for who knows how long. On the day of the closing, this lawyer received an email purportedly from her client with new wiring instructions. The lawyer never noticed that the email address was off by one letter and she never questioned the change. The “updated” wiring instructions were simply passed along to this lawyer’s paralegal. Shortly thereafter, roughly $800,000 ended up in the hands of the wrong person and those funds were never recovered. Again, I can understand how some might miss the spoofed email; but to never question the last minute change in wiring instructions? Situations like this baffle me. Another patsy? You bet.

My final story involves a lawyer who was retained to prepare a deed for a real estate transaction, which again, was negotiated and finalized by his client. In short, several hundred acres in farmland were being transferred with the client retaining 50% of the wind lease/royalty rights should an electric generating wind tower ever be erected on the property. To the attorney this appeared to be a simple matter and a fast 50 bucks. Unfortunately this lawyer never bothered to review the deal and determine if it was possible to reserve or retain wind rights in that particular jurisdiction. It wasn’t. So what we have here is a “Hey, I’ll give you a quick $50 and all you have to do is draft a deed!” situation. Easy money? I don’t think so. Easy for the lawyer to be taken advantage of and blamed for any fallout? Of course. Patsy.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not trying to be derogatory by referring to the above-mentioned attorneys as patsies. As I see it, however, the decisions they made during the course of representation placed each of them in a position where each could be easily taken advantage of, especially by being cheated or blamed for something. Patsy is an appropriate descriptor.

I will never know what these attorneys were actually thinking at the time or why they did what they did; but I can certainly make a few guesses. Perhaps it was a busy day or their overall workloads were too demanding to allow them to do more than they did. Perhaps they were just tired and didn’t see the need. After all, all the other times they made similar decisions things worked out just fine. Perhaps these clients were good folk, people the attorneys knew well and trusted and the attorneys just never saw it coming.

That said, as attorneys we often burn the candle at both ends. Trying to keep up in our personal and professional lives can be a real challenge at times. Unfortunately when one is tired, stressed, overworked or even bored, it can become too easy to let your guard down and be trusting of everyone and everything, particularly if it saves a little of that precious commodity: time. Let that happen and now you become an easy target. That’s when you risk becoming a patsy.

Clearly it takes extra time and energy to try to avoid becoming a patsy, particularly in your professional life. That’s where the time and effort is most called for because as the spoofed email story above underscores, sometimes other people can be seriously harmed when you let your guard down. Remember, as an attorney you are in someone else’s employ. Your clients expect you to look out for them, to protect their interests, to advise them as to the legal ramifications of all that’s going on just as you would if the roles were reversed.

Look, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been taken advantage of and even scammed before. Yes, I’ve been a patsy. We all are at times. I’ve been taken off guard and at other times I simply let my guard down. Whenever that happened, however, I took those lessons to heart and became the better for it. Honestly, my hope for the attorneys referenced above is that they responded similarly. Hopefully you can learn something from their stories too because being a patsy rarely turns out well.

As a Risk Manager for ALPS, Mark Bassingthwaighte. Esq. is responsible for developing and delivering new risk management and CLE products and services, risk management consulting, law firm risk evaluations, and writing content for the ALPS 411 blog at: www.alps411.com. In his tenure with the company, Mark has conducted over 1,000 law firm risk management assessment visits, presented numerous continuing legal education seminars throughout the United States and written extensively on risk management and technology. Mark received his J.D. from Drake Law School. He can be contacted at: mbass@alpsnet.com

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