Learning the Hard Way
Michael Burke lost his freedom and his license to practice. But along the way, he learned some important truths about himself and the law. He’s not alone.
Posted May 1, 2008 7:00 AM CST
By Stephanie Francis Ward
Before Michael Burke can reverse the revocation of his law license, he must pay back the $1.6 million he stole from clients. Except it’s all gone now—blown on blackjack and slot machines.
Once a Howell, Mich., solo practitioner, Burke pleaded guilty to embezzlement in 2001 and spent almost three years in prison. He’s been on parole since his release in January 2004. As a condition of his release, Burke can’t enter a casino, or have a checking or credit card account. If he wants to leave Michigan, he first must get permission from his parole officer.
The year he surrendered his license, Burke was one of 904 lawyers to be disbarred by state disciplinary groups. Since then, according to ABA surveys, about 4,000 lawyers each year have been publicly sanctioned—disbarred, suspended or censured.
But Burke, now 62, is also among those who view losing their law license as a good thing: a wake-up call to come to grips with bad habits, a chance to refocus on family, an opportunity to reclaim their own life.
The path is rough, even humiliating. Burke’s wife, a schoolteacher, has become the breadwinner now that his primary income is Social Security. He supplements his government income with a couple hundred dollars a month from giving presentations to fellow addicts.
He admits that payback is a lofty goal, especially since he doesn’t intend to pursue bar readmission—at least not anytime soon. “I never want to practice again,” says Burke, the son and grandson of lawyers. “But I would like to be reinstated, solely to die a lawyer.”
Like many lawyers who run into disciplinary difficulties, Burke’s first problems involved alcohol. In his Irish Catholic family, he says, drinking was cultural; and as a young lawyer he celebrated that culture by drinking a pint of vodka a day. In 1977, at his wife’s urging after a bender in Las Vegas, he entered a hospital for treatment and rehabilitation.
Burke excelled at rehabilitation. He became an active voice in Alcoholics Anonymous. He maintained his general solo practice and counseled others with substance abuse problems. But Burke also developed an interest in gambling.
“What I did was trade one addiction for another,” he says. “I’ve found out that’s extremely common.”
Initially Burke’s gambling was limited to the yearly vacations he and his wife took to Las Vegas. A friend advised him on how to get high-roller treatment: Tell the casino host that you want to be rated, gamble a minimum of three evenings in a row for at least four hours each, and bet a minimum of $100 per game.
Burke read books about blackjack strategy. He studied betting systems and learned to count cards by practicing with five decks.
Burke got the rating. His hotel and meals were comped, and he received tickets to various shows.
In hindsight, Burke says, he gambled away far more than he received from the casinos. But lawyers, like other gamblers, are often swayed by the ego gratification of a high-roller ranking, and Burke says he proved no different.
“My thinking was that I have ability, because of my intelligence, that puts me above everybody else.”
The full scale of his new addiction proved slow to develop and easy to camouflage, Burke says. Since he only visited Vegas annually, gambling didn’t disrupt his life much.
But things started to change in 1994, when a casino opened 58 miles from his home. “I’d go a day or two a week,” Burke says, “and that’s when my denial got greater.”
By 1995, he estimates, he was spending $600 a week at the casino. He stopped attending AA meetings.
“I convinced myself that I’d grown out of the meetings; but in reality, I couldn’t go and lie.”
Three years later, Burke’s credit cards were maxed. He mortgaged his house without his wife’s knowledge. He borrowed $75,000 from a client. And when he handled that client’s divorce, his promissory note was turned over to the wife as part of the settlement. She, in turn, loaned him even more money, even though he had paid nothing on the original note.
By the time he was confronted with the unpaid debt, he owed her $300,000. When her new lawyer threatened to report him to the Michigan Attorney Grievance Commission, he settled. But the $100,000 down payment on that settlement was money stolen from another client. And so it went.
“I had clients trying to get their money, and I would keep coming up with excuses,” Burke says. “Then I’d try to get a case, settle it and pay them. It was a matter of robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
When he started taking money, Burke’s game was blackjack. One morning, after losing about $4,000 in a few hours, he stepped away from the table and sat down at a $5 slot machine to drink a cup of coffee. He bought a roll of tokens, slipped two into the machine and instantly won $12,500. He says he took it as a sign from God that slot machines would solve his financial problems. And for a time it seemed just so.
When he moved up to $20 machines, he won a $100,000 jackpot. When he moved to $100 slot machines, he hit the $100,000 jackpot three more times.
“The first time I won, it was one of the greatest highs in my life,” he says. “The last time I did it I wasn’t even waiting to get paid—I was sitting at another table already. It was meaningless to me.”
By then, Burke gambled at the Windsor Casino five days a week. He even tried to find cases that would be heard at courthouses nearby. During the final two months, Burke estimates that he spent $600,000 gambling—none of it his.
“I probably had hundreds of checks from my trust account, my bank account was closed, my secretary left the office. ... Everything was starting to crumble. I’d emptied everything out,” he says.
Incredibly, Burke says he was able to hide his addiction from his family. He’d often wake up in the middle of the night, but if his wife noticed, he’d say he was just worried about a case.
Sometimes, he suffered blackouts, “just like drinking,” he says. Because he was a sole practitioner and set his own schedule, no one thought much of him rarely being in the office.
“The only time I wasn’t afraid was when I was in front of a slot machine,” he says. “There was nothing unknown about this, except how I was going to make it end.”
He contemplated suicide but thought the inevitable revelations would be too onerous for his family. At one point, he began adding extra weight to his trash cans, hoping half-heartedly to provoke a heart attack when he carried them to the curb.
In March 2001, however, he decided to report his actions to the Michigan attorney general’s office and to a prosecutor at the Attorney Grievance Commission. “The pain of turning myself in became less than the pain of continuing on,” he says. “There was no question that somewhere down the road I was going to get picked up. That had to happen—I was stealing people’s money.” Two months later he went to prison.
Today Burke is dedicated to raising awareness of gambling addictions among his colleagues. Gambling, he says, is a more common addiction among lawyers than many realize. Lawyers often think they’re smarter than everyone else. Many can set their own schedules and have access to large amounts of money. Considered together, he says, you have the perfect storm.
Burke says he’s trying to earn money to repay his former clients, and he’s using the only commodity he can: his story. Burke wrote a book about his gambling addiction called Never Enough: A True Story of Trading Addictions. Published by the American Bar Association, it was to be released in April.
“It may turn out that I can’t pay the money back, but if I can talk to enough people, then I can start to get the word out,” says Burke, who also speaks to various bar associations, colleges and church groups about his experience.
• • • • • •
It was 1987, and Florida lawyer Howard L. Finkelstein was living the life.
Photo by Michael Dehoog
A charismatic and successful criminal defense lawyer, he had nice cars and big homes, and he could be seen at all the right restaurants and parties. Finkelstein’s wife was even pregnant with their first child.
Then, on his way home from happy hour one night, he hit a parked car—a police car. Not only was he not sober, but police found cocaine and prescription pills in his Cadillac.
Finkelstein eventually pleaded guilty to driving under the influence and possession, and the Florida Bar suspended his law license. It was a consequence, he says, that saved his life—and made him a better lawyer.
Finkelstein isn’t the only lawyer to have seen the light at state bar court. Those who have been brought before their professional regulatory discipline systems say the experience caused them to face their demons. Admitting the problem behavior, they say, is often the best defense when called before a panel of their peers. And for them, it became crucial to rebuilding both a personal life and a life in the law.
That’s the approach Finkelstein took when his father, brother and a friend who happened to be a bail bondsman picked him up from jail 21 years ago. No sooner had he climbed into the car than they locked him in and drove straight to a rehab facility. Entering treatment, they told him, would help him defend against any discipline charges the Florida Bar brought against him.
It took Finkelstein a few days to realize he was out of control. A therapist promised Finkelstein that he’d get well if he did two things: Never take drugs or alcohol again, and change everything.
It was the last part Finkelstein found most troubling. “It’s not so much about drugs and alcohol; it’s about figuring out who we are—and shedding the skin we’ve been in and figuring out how to lead a new life,” he says. “That’s what I had to learn.”
A self-described flower child, Finkelstein began his legal practice in 1978 at the Broward County, Fla., public defender’s office and developed local fame early in his career.
One of the first male lawyers in Fort Lauderdale to sport a ponytail, he had a good rapport with young reporters covering the courthouse, and they often agreed with his positions.
“I was one of them. I was not one of those three-piece-suit-wearing, martini-swilling lawyers. I was kind of cute, and I stood up for good causes. I made good copy,” Finkelstein says. “If cool people had a party they wanted me there.”
A craving for fame fueled by cocaine led to his downfall. Three years later, Finkelstein wanted to make more money, so he left the agency with two colleagues to start a firm. The money came—along with a rock star lifestyle. “Here I was representing really bad people, doing nothing for the community other than making money and sticking products up my nose, and I got arrested in a big Cadillac. The whole thing is really bizarre,” he recalls.
Then Finkelstein had to face the real music: The Florida court eventually sentenced him to five years’ probation—adjudication was withheld, enabling him to avoid a felony conviction—and the Florida Bar suspended his law license for one year, with three years of probation. After completing a 28-day rehabilitation program, he entered a local halfway house sponsored by the Mission of St. Francis. And he went back to work at the public defender’s office, as a humble investigator rather than an attorney.
“I was carrying the briefcases of lawyers who had read about me in junior high,” Finkelstein says. “It was humiliating, but I knew I was in the right place and the penance was appropriate. I also knew I was going to succeed.”
At the end of his suspension, Finkelstein decided to wait an additional year before petitioning the court for reinstatement. “I had the opportunity to go to the ‘college of self’ and make myself the person I wanted to be,” he says. “I could be as good of or as not so good of a person as I wanted to be, as long as I was willing to make the effort.”
When he did petition the court for reinstatement, judges and lawyers testified on his behalf. “It was kind of like hearing a wonderful eulogy about yourself and not having to die,” he says. The petition was granted, and Finkelstein was reinstated to the bar in 1992.
He resumed work as an assistant public defender; he admits to a concern over how he’d litigate sober. “Most people would say that I am an extraordinary lawyer. I’m very theatrical, and like most good trial lawyers I was an egomaniac fueled by an inferiority complex,” Finkelstein says. “The answer was that I could be a far better lawyer without drugs than I ever was with drugs.”
Instead, he says, he learned to draw power from what he experienced in jail, in rehab and at the halfway house. “I can see the worth in some humans that others might overlook—not because they’re bad people but because I have seen so many transformations by people who have been as low as they could be. What I have to remember is that we all get lost at some point in our lives.”
Finkelstein stayed at the public defender’s office and was elected the agency’s chief in 2005. In that role, one of the first things he did was remove a daiquiri machine from the office. He also facilitated Alcoholics Anonymous meetings at the facility and weekly yoga classes.
“Our profession churns out addicts like no other profession,” Finkelstein says. “If I can give them things that will support them, I do.”
Today, Finkelstein says, the thought of doing cocaine makes him queasy. But the fame from his life hasn’t disappeared entirely. He still sports a ponytail, and he makes twice-weekly appearances on “Help Me Howard,” a legal segment that airs on the Florida Fox News affiliate WSVN. Finkelstein offers advice to viewers who call in with personal legal problems.
In 2000, the story of his life was told in the nonfiction book Snow Blind by journalist Douglas Kalajian.
“I hate the book,” Finkelstein says. “It’s a very painful analysis of me because it’s true. My wife and I believed that if we told our deepest, darkest secrets, that would show hope for others and convince others to give someone a second chance.”
• • • • • •
A California lawyer says he received his second chance after a six-month suspension by the State Bar of California. It didn’t amount to the kind of hard time that Finkelstein and Burke endured—he had some cosmetic surgery and an extended vacation—but he says he also used the hiatus to re-evaluate the kind of aggressiveness and flamboyance he came to believe propelled him into trouble in the first place.
The veteran Los Angeles litigator, who agreed to speak about his experience anonymously, says he learned to take a step back before reacting.
“The one thing the suspension did was give me a chance to re-evaluate if that flamboyance was necessary,” he says.
In June 2006 the State Bar Court of California found that the lawyer failed to promptly notify clients of his receipt of funds, and that he represented clients with adverse interests. The situation arose out of a misunderstanding over money in a business matter he was handling.
It wasn’t the first time he’d gotten into trouble with the state bar. In 2001, he was disciplined for suing a client for fees—unjustly, it was determined—after they entered a settlement agreement on the matter. That brought a stayed suspension, and he was able to keep working. That meant he was able to continue on, business and behavior as usual.
Until the 2006 incident, that is. Although the lawyer minimizes the issues involved, he decided to take the time and think about his sometimes abrasive approach to his practice.
“It wasn’t like I was putting the clients’ money up my nose or gambling it away in Vegas,” he says. “But there’s a point where you say, ‘It’s only six months.’ I tell people I got a six-month time-out.”
He says he used the time to replay some of the behaviors that may have pushed him toward bad decision-making. “It’s calmed me down a lot,” he says.
Previously, judges had chastised his behavior in court, mostly for offhand remarks. Like the time he and an opposing counsel were dickering over a deed of trust. “If you want, I’ll send Vito and Luigi over to enforce the judgment,” he told opposing counsel, who didn’t find humor in the remark. Neither did the judge. “That’s the kind of stuff I’ve said I need to cut out,” he says today.
During his suspension, he also took time to enjoy life away from law. He made a trip to Hawaii and traveled to other states to watch some car races. He also had eyelid surgery during his suspension, knowing that recovery for the cosmetic procedure would require at least four days spent in bed. He got a colonoscopy—something he says his wife had asked him to do but he’d put off, using work as an excuse.
Meanwhile, an associate ran his practice. “I went to a hearing she was appearing at to listen, and that was extremely hard to do,” he says. “It’s like sitting in the batter’s box.” The hearing involved a sanctions motion against opposing counsel, and he was called as a witness. When the matter of his suspension came up, he says, “I owned it.”
“There is a time when you want to go sit in your office and cry, feeling sorry for yourself. But you’ve got to say to yourself that it happened and move on.”
He went back to work in December 2006, a few pounds lighter and with a clean bill of health, more youthful eyelids and a somewhat better attitude. “I’ve had a lot of time to think and say, ‘Is this behavior really necessary?’ ” For the most part, he’s decided that it isn’t.
“Now, every time I write a letter, I ask myself how it will look if presented to a court,” he says. “I think that’s why it’s made me a better lawyer.”
Click here for resources for lawyers who want help with addiction or mental health problems.
Chapter 1 (PDF) of Never Enough: A True Story of Trading Addictions by Michael Burke.
Photo by Ken Weingart
Most Saturday nights, Diane L. Karpman peruses the lawyer discipline section of the Los Angeles Daily Journal to see if any of her clients are mentioned.
The list usually runs in the Monday edition of the legal newspaper, which is available by Saturday. If Karpman sees one of her lawyer clients mentioned, she calls them on Sunday.
“I like to give them a heads-up,” Karpman says. “Sometimes they may wish to avoid being in public.”
Karpman is a sole practitioner in Los Angeles who defends lawyers charged with professional responsibility breaches. She says that if lawyers are prone to depression, it will likely hit them during suspension or disbarment. “It’s a shame-based system,” she says. “The worst day of my clients’ lives is the day that information is printed in the paper.”
But owning up to what is printed can be a great way to conquer whatever behavior caused problems for the lawyer, say many involved with attorney regulation agencies.
“Sometimes it’s difficult because people, especially attorneys, have a way of digging in their heels,” says David Carr, a San Diego solo and former prosecutor with the State Bar of California.
He recalls a State Bar Court hearing where an expert witness for the defense testified that the defendant had a mental health problem. After the expert testimony, Carr recalls, the defendant got up and cross-examined her, arguing that he did not have the problem she described.
“Unfortunately, there are a number of people who do not get help, so you see a certain amount of recidivism in the discipline system,” says Carr, who estimates that 20 percent of the lawyers who get into trouble are repeat offenders.
Lawyers who represent themselves in discipline court, he adds, are also unlikely to change.
“Sometimes it’s an ego thing—‘The state bar can’t do this to me. I’m right and they’re wrong,’ ” Carr says. “But generally, if people are willing to step up and admit they have a problem, that’s usually a good sign.”
Often they need some prodding. For example, one of Carr’s clients was arrested for shoplifting at Home Depot. The client had no criminal record or prior state bar discipline, and the merchandise taken was worth less than $20. But if convicted, he could face state bar discipline.
The client had a long history of anxiety and depression. His wife had been recently diagnosed with breast cancer and his daughter with an eating disorder; he was also having problems with his managing partner.
The client was taking medicine for anxiety and depression, but it wasn’t working well. Carr says he urged the client to get his prescription changed and begin talk therapy, which he’d been avoiding. The man took Carr’s advice, and Carr says he’s doing much better, with a new job at a state agency.
“Part of what I’m doing is trying to make sure he’s able to keep that job because it’s a much better environment for his stress level,” Carr says.
“As defense counsel, we’re not only trying to defend the person in the discipline proceeding; we’re trying to get their life back on track.”
Donald R. Lundberg, an Indianapolis lawyer, is president of the National Organization of Bar Counsel. He estimates that 50 percent of the lawyers disciplined in Indiana manage to avoid repeat offenses.
“If the reinstatement process is working right, there are red flags for future problems and they shouldn’t succeed,” says Lundberg, executive secretary of the Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission. “I think the whole attitude toward their previous conduct is an important one.”
During the reinstatement process, Lundberg usually asks defendants whether they are sorry about the harm they caused. They almost always say yes. Lundberg then asks the defendants if they’ve located the clients they allegedly harmed to personally apologize.
“It’s almost a trick question,” he says, adding that when he asks it, defendants are usually surprised.
“It’s a little more concrete than just sitting in the witness chair and saying you’re really sorry,” Lundberg explains.
“I think when lawyers come to the process with a real insight into the fact that they’ve harmed people, and they owe something to them, that’s a good sign of their future success.”