By most accounts, John Martin Klein is a careful, detail-oriented lawyer who performed admirably for his clients. Since arriving in Baltimore a few years ago, the stout, Texas-born attorney had become a well-known lawyer in bankruptcy matters.
There was just one problem: According to the Court of Appeals, he isn't licensed to practice law in Maryland.
That revelation apparently cost Klein his job last month at a prominent Baltimore law firm, Gordon, Feinblatt, Rothman, Hoffberger & Hollander. Twelve days ago, Klein resigned from the firm, citing personal reasons.
Klein's departure is the buzz among lawyers who make up Baltimore's tightly knit bankruptcy bar.
"I'm dumbfounded, I really am," said Shapiro and Olander's Joel I. Sher, who has worked on several matters with Klein.
"It's very strange," said Alan M. Grochal of Tydings & Rosenberg. "Here's a guy who came
from Texas quite recently, handled some very sophisticated matters and got good results."
Deepening the mystery, Klein apparently cleared the major hurdle to bar admission by passing the Maryland Bar Exam.
Cases of lawyers being turned down for admission to the bar by the Court of Appeals after passing the exam are rare. Cases of lawyers failing to show up for the swearing-in ceremony also are unusual.
Klein's explanation remains unknown to all but a few. Repeated attempts to reach him this week were unsuccessful. And Barry Rosen, chairman of Gordon, Feinblatt, declined to say how the lawyer explains his unusual circumstances.
"I think Martin needs to work this out with the powers that be -- and that's certainly not me," Rosen said.
Rosen was willing to talk about events at the firm that led to suspicions about Klein's credentials.
He said Klein, 36, joined the firm several years ago, coming from Texas, where he is licensed to practice law. After that, Klein took the Maryland Bar Exam, scoring a passing grade, Rosen said.
Doubts about Klein arose several weeks ago, Rosen said, after the law firm was notified that it had overpaid to the Clients' Security Trust Fund, an account into which each Maryland lawyer must pay annual dues.
"We've been paying for Martin for some time," Rosen said. "This year, it appeared there was a glitch -- we were overpaying and didn't understand."
After investigating, the law firm learned that the excess payment was the dues it believed it owed for Klein. The money came back because the trust fund had no record of Klein. At that point, Rosen said, the firm contacted the Court of Appeals and learned that Klein wasn't on the list of lawyers admitted to practice.
"Until a few weeks ago, as far as we were aware, Martin was a member of the Maryland Bar," Rosen said.
Other than the bar exam, requirements for bar admission in Maryland are attending a "professionalism" course and a swearing-in ceremony. Lawyers also must pass a character test, for which they submit recommendations and information about employment history and criminal records.
Practicing law without a license carries heavy risks. In the state in which the unauthorized practice occurs, lawyers can be barred from practicing. If the attorney who practiced without bar admission is licensed in another state, he or she may face sanctions there, too.
Klein's situation may be complicated. As a bankruptcy attorney, he appeared often in federal court. He was licensed to practice before that court as a member of the Texas bar and federal bars.
But Klein also appeared in state court, where not having a Maryland license is a breach of the rules of professional conduct. During Klein's years at Gordon, Feinblatt, Rosen said, he believes that Klein handled "a few" matters in state court. Klein is listed as an attorney of record in two cases filed in Baltimore City Circuit Court, both in November 1994. Both matters are closed.
The effect on such cases is uncertain. Sometimes, cases handled by lawyers later discovered to be unlicensed are reopened. Other times, courts decide that the role of the unlicensed lawyer was not a factor in the outcome.
Pub Date: 8/03/96