Bloomberg Law
June 21, 2021, 8:52 PM

Michigan Attorney Overturns Disbarment Tied to Use of Client Fee

Maeve Allsup
Maeve Allsup
Legal Reporter

A criminal defense attorney who allegedly misspent a client’s advance fee and failed to repay it deserves to have his license suspended but not revoked altogether, the Michigan Supreme Court said in reversing a decision from a state discipline board.

James Sterling Lawrence, who has argued litigation before the U.S. Supreme Court, was ordered disbarred by the Michigan Attorney Discipline Board in September over allegations he misused client fees.

Lawrence, a criminal defense attorney, allegedly requested an advance fee to conduct preliminary research and file a motion seeking reversal of a 1981 first-degree murder case. Lawrence deposited the fee into his business checking account, which had a negative balance at the time of deposit, and made withdrawals from that account for personal expenses.

The client, who was serving life in prison for the murder charge, later decided not to proceed with the motion to reverse the judgment and requested the return of his advance. Lawrence, who said most of the personal debits to the account were made by his wife, was unable to pay back the advance in full and set up a payment plan to the client. But he didn’t reimburse according to the plan.

Lawrence told the state discipline board he “forgot” to make payments until reminded to do so by the client.

A hearing panel of the board found Lawrence didn’t act with fraudulent or larcenous intent and concluded his misconduct occurred as a result of gross mismanagement and ignorance. The panel suspended him for 100 days, but the board increased the penalty to disbarment in September of last year.

The Michigan Supreme Court reversed that decision June 18, finding disbarment too extreme given the facts and circumstances of Lawrence’s conduct.

Reasonable minds could disagree over whether Lawrence moved quickly enough to make his client whole, but the presence of several mitigating factors makes suspension a more appropriate sanction, the court said.

And while the board was rightly concerned by the “mere” 100-day suspension, Lawrence has now effectively been suspended for over a year, the court said.

Lawrence’s career has included a case that went to the nation’s top court. In 2010, Lawrence failed to convince the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a Michigan top court’s rejection of his argument that Black jurors were systematically excluded from jury pools in Grand Rapids.

Justices Bridget Mary McCormack, Brian K. Zahra, David F. Viviano, Richard Bernstein, Elizabeth T. Clement, and Elizabeth M. Welch joined the opinion. Justice Megan K. Cavanagh didn’t participate because of her prior service as a member of the Attorney Grievance Commission.

The case is Grievance Admin. v. Lawrence, 2021 BL 228982, Mich., No. 162155, 6/18/21.

To contact the reporter on this story: Maeve Allsup in San Francisco at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at; Steven Patrick at