Trust Accounting Compliance For Law Firms

The Issues with Trust Accounts for Law Firms: A Deep Dive into Plaintiff Attorneys and Client Settlements

In the legal industry, trust accounts are essential tools for managing clients’ funds. Particularly for plaintiff attorneys who win settlements for their clients, these accounts serve a critical function. The money deposited into these accounts is designated for paying attorney fees and disbursing the client’s financial settlement. While the concept seems straightforward, numerous issues can arise, complicating the management of trust accounts and posing risks for both attorneys and clients.

A Higher Level of Scrutiny on Trust Accounts

There have been several cases recently that have shown a light on abuses of law firm trust accounts.  One of the most prominent was of Tom Girardi, plaintiffs attorney and “cast member” of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.

Tom Girardi and his firm, Girardi Keese, faced serious allegations of trust account violations, including misappropriating millions of dollars meant for clients. Girardi was accused of embezzling settlement funds intended for clients, including victims of a plane crash, and using the money to support his lavish lifestyle and business expenses. Investigations revealed that Girardi failed to distribute settlement funds promptly and misled clients about the status of their money. These actions led to multiple lawsuits, disciplinary actions, and ultimately, the disbarment of Tom Girardi, highlighting significant breaches of fiduciary duty and ethical obligations.

Understanding Trust Accounts

Trust accounts, often referred to as Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA), are designed to hold clients’ funds separately from the law firm’s operating funds. The primary purpose of these accounts is to ensure that the clients’ money is used only for its intended purposes, providing a transparent and accountable system for managing client funds.

The Flow of Funds

When a plaintiff attorney wins a settlement, the awarded money is deposited into a trust account. From this pool, the attorney’s fees are deducted as per the agreement between the client and the attorney, and the remainder is disbursed to the client. This process, while theoretically simple, can encounter several issues.

Common Issues with Trust Accounts

1. Mismanagement of Funds

Mismanagement of trust accounts can occur due to several factors, including poor accounting practices, lack of oversight, or even intentional misconduct. Mismanagement can lead to commingling of client funds with the attorney’s personal or business funds, which is strictly prohibited and can result in severe disciplinary actions.

2. Delayed Disbursements

Once a settlement is received, the expectation is that the funds will be promptly distributed to cover attorney fees and provide the client with their settlement. However, delays can occur due to administrative inefficiencies, disputes over the amount owed, or the attorney’s failure to promptly act. Such delays can erode the trust between the attorney and the client and may lead to complaints or legal actions against the attorney.

3. Accounting Errors

Errors in accounting can lead to significant issues in trust account management. Inaccurate record-keeping can result in overdrafts, missed payments, or the misallocation of funds. Given the fiduciary responsibility attorneys have over these accounts, even minor accounting errors can have major repercussions.

4. Ethical Violations

Attorneys have a strict ethical obligation to handle trust accounts with integrity. Violations can include unauthorized withdrawals, failing to keep detailed records, or using the funds for purposes other than what was intended. Such actions can lead to disciplinary measures, including suspension or disbarment.

5. Fraud and Embezzlement

In some unfortunate cases, attorneys might engage in fraudulent activities, such as embezzling funds from the trust account. This not only breaches the attorney-client trust but also constitutes a criminal offense. Such cases, while rare, underscore the importance of robust oversight and stringent regulatory mechanisms.

Regulatory Framework and Oversight

To mitigate these issues, various regulatory frameworks and oversight mechanisms are in place. These include:

1. Bar Association Rules

Most jurisdictions have rules established by the state bar association governing the management of trust accounts. These rules stipulate how funds should be handled, the records that must be kept, and the penalties for non-compliance. Attorneys are required to undergo training and demonstrate knowledge of these rules to maintain their license to practice.

2. Audits and Inspections

Periodic audits and inspections by regulatory bodies ensure that attorneys are complying with the required standards. These audits can identify discrepancies and ensure that any issues are addressed promptly. Regular audits serve as a deterrent against potential misconduct and help maintain the integrity of trust account management.

3. Mandatory Record-Keeping

Attorneys are mandated to keep detailed records of all transactions involving trust accounts. This includes maintaining ledgers for each client, documenting every deposit and withdrawal, and reconciling the account regularly. Proper record-keeping is crucial for transparency and accountability.

4. Client Notifications

Clients must be promptly informed about the receipt of settlement funds and the disbursement process. Clear communication helps manage client expectations and reduces the risk of disputes. Clients should also receive periodic statements detailing the status of their funds.

Best Practices for Managing Trust Accounts

1. Implement Robust Accounting Systems

Utilizing specialized legal accounting software can help manage trust accounts more effectively. These systems offer features tailored to the needs of law firms, such as client-specific ledgers, automated reconciliation, and compliance reporting. Investing in such technology can significantly reduce the risk of errors and streamline account management.

2. Regular Training and Education

Continuous education on trust account management is vital for attorneys and their staff. Regular training sessions can help keep everyone updated on the latest regulations and best practices. Bar associations and legal organizations often offer courses and seminars focused on trust account management.

3. Engage Professional Accountants

Hiring professional accountants or bookkeepers with experience in legal accounting can provide an added layer of oversight. These professionals can ensure that all transactions are accurately recorded and that the trust account complies with all regulatory requirements.

4. Conduct Internal Audits

Law firms should implement regular internal audits of their trust accounts. Internal audits help identify potential issues early and ensure that corrective measures are taken promptly. These audits should be thorough and cover all aspects of trust account management.

5. Establish Clear Policies and Procedures

Having clear, written policies and procedures for managing trust accounts is essential. These should outline the steps for handling client funds, maintaining records, and addressing any discrepancies. All staff members should be trained on these procedures and understand their importance.

Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA) Takeaways


Trust accounts are a fundamental aspect of managing client settlements for plaintiff attorneys. While they provide a structured way to handle client funds, they also present several challenges. Mismanagement, delays, accounting errors, ethical violations, and fraud are all issues that can arise, posing risks to both attorneys and clients.

Regulatory frameworks, oversight mechanisms, and best practices play a crucial role in mitigating these risks. By adhering to these guidelines and continuously striving for transparency and accountability, attorneys can manage trust accounts effectively, ensuring that clients’ funds are protected and used as intended.

The legal profession’s commitment to maintaining high ethical standards and robust financial management practices is essential for preserving client trust and upholding the integrity of the legal system.

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