Tuesday, July 10, 2007
Woodland Hills Lawyer Resigns as State Bar Seeks Firm Takeover
By TINA BAY, Staff Writer
The managing partner and sole shareholder of a Woodland Hills-based criminal defense practice surrendered his law license last week after consenting to the State Bar’s takeover of his insolvent business, bar officials said yesterday.
Fifty-nine-year-old Robert Michael Nudelman, whose offer of resignation awaits the state high court’s approval, agreed last Monday that the State Bar could proceed with efforts to shut down the now-insolvent Criminal Defense Associates, Inc. to protect the firm’s clients.
Nudelman allegedly lost complete financial control of CDA as a result of spending advanced retainer fee deposits—typically in the amount of $50,000 each—instead of using them to pay the firm’s business expenses, such as attorney salaries. Under Business and Professions Code Sec. 6190, state courts may assume jurisdiction over an attorney’s law practice if he or she is found to have become incapable of operating the practice in a way that protects the interests of clients.
The State Bar has obtained and executed an interim order bringing CDA under the Los Angeles Superior Court’s jurisdiction. A hearing regarding the takeover of CDA is set to take place on Aug. 20 before Judge David P. Yaffe.
In the meantime, State Bar Deputy Trial Counsel Kimberly Anderson told the METNEWS, the organization is inventorying the nearly 700 client files seized from CDA, and acting to ensure that court dates in approximately 162 active criminal matters are not missed.
She explained what is being done to protect CDA’s clients:
“We’re making sure that they understand what happened with CDA, and that they understand that Mr. Nudelman and CDA have spent their attorney’s fees and do not have that money. We’re telling them that they should get new counsel and if they can’t afford counsel, that they should have counsel appointed. We’re also informing them of the existence of the State Bar client security fund.”
In addition, the lawyer said, the State Bar has frozen two client trust accounts containing moneys for items such as criminal restitution payments and expert witness fees, and is in the process of returning the funds to the appropriate clients.
CDA was founded in 2003 and marketed heavily on the Internet as a nationwide law firm specializing in sexual and drug offenses. According to a recent version of CDA’s Web site, the firm is the brainchild of Nudelman and his business partner and non-attorney cousin, Richard R. Nudelman, a former executive with the Los Angeles County Department of Children & Family Services.
In his own words, Nudelman, admitted to practice in 1975, has “no experience handling criminal matters.” He allegedly shared legal fees with his non-lawyer cousin and relied on non-attorney staff in deciding to accept new clients.
CDA employed about 10 experienced criminal defense attorneys, and accepted cases from all over the country. While licensed in California, some of the lawyers gave legal advice in states where they were not admitted to practice law, the State Bar claims.
Attorneys once employed by CDA include Christopher D. Johnson, a former assistant U.S. attorney for the Central District of California; Kristine M. Burk, who has served in the Public Defender Office of Santa Cruz County; Alan Baum, a State Bar-certified criminal law specialist; and Marie F. Alex, previously a member of San Diego County’s public defender department.
Anderson would not comment on whether any of the former CDA attorneys was the subject of a disciplinary investigation, but remarked:
“Many of those attorneys are experienced criminal defense attorneys who appear to be very dedicated to their clients, and they were actually present at the office when we took over and helped us sort through the files.”
In fact, she added, it was attorneys associated with CDA who brought Nudelman to the State Bar’s attention.
Johnson, for example, said in a court document that he contacted the State Bar after discovering last month that Nudelman was continuing to take new cases despite the fact that the firm was, he claimed, $1 million in debt.
That discovery allegedly came less than a week after Nudelman invited Johnson into his Woodland Hills residence and showed him recently completed remodeling work, including a kitchen with freshly installed granite countertops and a living room enhanced by extensive and costly improvements.
Johnson claimed that after Nudelman fired numerous staff attorneys, and knew CDA could not adequately render legal services, he allegedly instructed office staff to do their best to bring in new cases as quickly as possible.
State Bar Chief Trial Counsel Scott J. Drexel said in a statement that CDA’s operations apparently violated a number of ethical rules, including failing to promptly refund unearned fees and failing to maintain client funds in a client trust account.
The CDA business model was “fraught with problems,” Drexel said, adding:
“The problems created by Criminal Defense Associates, Inc. graphically demonstrate the inherent danger to potential clients and the public in the operation of a nationwide law firm based largely upon Internet advertising and without adequate administrative controls or supervision.”
Nudelman, whom Anderson said is currently not represented by counsel, could not be reached for comment.
The State Bar recently shut down Crime Attorneys, another Woodland Hills criminal defense firm that used a business model similar to CDA’s, and was headed by non-attorney Edward D. Lerner.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company