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Feb 11 2011

Loud Lawyer Dominic Barbara suspended for 18 months

Self-promotion can only go so far, I guess.  Long Island lawyer Dominic Barbara has been suspended from the practice of law for 18 months.  The Appellate Division which monitors and supervises attorney conduct cited an “avalanche” of Attorney Grievance Committee sanctions levied against him — among them nine “letters of caution,” nine admonitions and two advisements. Many of the complaints were surrounding failure to return unearned fees and not properly supervising subordinate lawyers.

I have seen from my practice that many “high-profile” lawyers such as Barbara extract huge retainers based on their headline-grabbing bravado in outlandish cases but then shuffle off their non-high profile clients to junior lawyers without the same level of experience and without proper oversight.  Those who practiced in Nassau knew that DB was all talk and not much substance – unlike other high-profile lawyers in the county- most members of the bar just shook their heads when he got another significant case as they knew he did not have the legal acumen to back it up and just enjoyed the grandstanding. He was simply fortunate that a Massapequa secretary named Jessica Hahn sashayed into his office one day and told him about her and Rev.  Jim Baker.  He parlayed that into national recognition and the trash train never stopped rolling. He was most famous (infamous I should say) for his representation of Joey Buttafuoco but if you look at his cases he never took on the highly complicated or difficult cases that other well-known lawyers became famous for.  The exception to that was his recent hiring in the case of the LI Mom who drove the wrong way on the Thruway. He was retained by the wife’s husband and he frankly embarrassed himself and his client by making outlandish and unsupportable allegations. Before the autopsy was complete he theorized (I’m paraphrasing): “She probably had a stroke” “A bump on her leg caused an embolism” “Her ailments including the leg bump and several abscesses in her mouth” were factors.  And then when the autopsy revealed a blood alcohol level of 0.19 (nearly two and a half times the legal limit) and THC (which comes from marijuana) in her system he had this to say on National television(I’m paraphrasing) : “The alcohol probably came form Anbesol that she was taking for the abscesses.” and that the THC was from her “self-medicating because of her pain.”  He did not bother to check that Anbesol does not contain the same type of alcohol found in liquor and that you would probably have to drink a vat of it to have it show up as .19% in your blood stream.  Never mind that “self-medication” is not a legal defense to driving under the influence of marijuana nor is it a moral defense to getting high with a van load of kids in your car.  It was a debacle and it went nowhere and did nothing for his client except get DB on TV and in the press.

I have had clients who have come to me after a foray into his firm’s office that when they complained about the non-stop pouring of money into legal fees, that he would offer to stay on the case if he allowed them to hold a press conference about the case. If that was true, and I had no reason to disbelieve it as I heard that twice from two separate clients,  that is inexcusable.  Most people charged with crimes or involved in business disputes do not want their dirty laundry aired publicly.  They should not have to be put in the hard place of making a decision between getting free representation if they are willing to wear a scarlet letter or going out and getting new counsel with new money.

I decided to write this post not to kick a man when he’s down, but as a cautionary tale to lawyers and those seeking to hire lawyers.  Lawyers, let your reputation for success and excellence be what elevates your status in the profession; once your reputation builds other lawyers will send you work and you will start to attract a client base  that will include the occasional “big” client. Don’t try to manufacture a reputation by calling yourself  “highly experienced” when you are only 5 years out of law school; “aggressive advocate” when you don’t know your way around a courtroom.  Clients – look beyond the flash and ask for some proof of substance. A “highly experienced” “successful” “aggressive” litigator should have reported decisions (with results) that you can look to. Seek a variety of opinions and choose your lawyer based on whether they have the right background and experience for the case you want to retain them on.  Make sure you’re not just putting your money where there mouth is.

2 comments

  1. Samantha

    I’m an attorney who used to do divorce work in Nassau county years ago. I had cases against Dominic Barbara, and I remember how I’d have to explain to my own clients on these cases that there was no hope of settlement till Dominic’s $10,000 to $15,000 retainer was exhausted, regardless of the issues, or even the other spouse’s apparent willingness to settle. The strategy with cases I had against his office was always to try to get Barbara’s retainer exhausted as soon as possible in order to make settlement an option for all parties. I felt so terrible for my clients in these cases, because I knew that they were going through hell with the divorce, emotionally and financially, and even if it was in the best interests of everyone involved to come to an amicable resolution, it was just never going to happen till that retainer was exhausted.

    1. Oscar Michelen

      One of the things that the Appellate Division did not report on, was the high incidence of motions to be relieved in DB’s cases, which is a result of what you are commenting on Samantha. The initial retainer would be wiped out and his clients would have to either settle or get new counsel after Dominic lost interest.

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