The State Bar of California received 205 complaints against Los Angeles legal legend Tom Girardi alleging he misappropriated settlement money, abandoned clients and committed other serious ethical violations over the course of his four-decade career, the agency disclosed Thursday in response to a lawsuit brought by The Times.
Despite the drumbeat of concerns that began in 1982, the State Bar took no public action against Girardi until after his Wilshire Boulevard firm collapsed two years ago.
As his stature as a trial attorney and political powerbroker grew, officials closed scores of complaints against him without doing any investigation and rejected dozens of others for “insufficient evidence,” the records show. In 13 cases where the agency did act against Girardi, it used “non-public measures,” such as a warning letter, that left his law license and reputation in the legal community unblemished.
Girardi was suspended from the practice of law in March 2021 and finally disbarred by the state Supreme Court in July. Now 83, he has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and is in a court-ordered conservatorship.
In a letter accompanying the record release, the chair of the bar’s governing board, Ruben Duran, acknowledged “serious failures” by the agency and wrote: “There is no excuse being offered here; Girardi caused irreparable harm to hundreds of his clients, and the State Bar could have done more to protect the public. We can never allow something like this to happen again.”
Complaints to the State Bar are confidential under the law, but The Times petitioned the state Supreme Court for access to agency records about Girardi under an exception that allows disclosure of information if doing so is “warranted for the protection of the public.”
Reporting by The Times has shown how the politically powerful Girardi cultivated State Bar officials, including executives, investigators, prosecutors and judges, with free legal representation, boozy lunches, private plane rides and invitations to glitzy parties.
The agency initially fought the newspaper’s access to Girardi’s records in court but announced last month that it had reversed course after concluding that disclosing the records was “more consistent with its current understanding of its public protection mission and policy of transparency.”
The records released by the State Bar describe the date of each of the 205 complaints, the general violation alleged and its disposition. Of the total complaints, some 155 arrived before the bar took action against Girardi’s law license in March 2021. After the headline-grabbing development, an additional 50 complaints flowed into the agency.
Kelli Sager, an attorney for The Times, said the newspaper would press for additional information from the State Bar because the records released “noticeably fail to include any specifics — including the identities of the individuals at the State Bar who were responsible for handling them — or details about the complaints themselves.”
“This information must be disclosed for the public to evaluate its performance and the steps needed to ensure that this kind of ‘serious failure’ does not happen again,” Sager said in a statement.
The State Bar’s protracted failure to rein in Girardi allowed him to expand his national reputation as a courtroom champion for the little guy, sign up thousands of new clients each year, and become a force in politics and eventually pop culture. A major Democratic Party donor, he socialized with politicians and judges, and was regarded as a gatekeeper for would-be judges across Southern California. One of his greatest courtroom victories became the inspiration for the Oscar-winning film “Erin Brockovich,” and he married an aspiring actress, Erika Jayne, and starred alongside her on the reality series “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.”
The cozy relationships have drawn concern over whether his influence allowed him to elude discipline for cheating clients and colleagues. Earlier this year, the State Bar revealed that it was conducting an investigation by an outside law firm into whether former employees helped Girardi evade discipline. That inquiry is ongoing.
Girardi’s downfall came after a Chicago law firm, Edelson PC, working with him to represent airline crash victims alerted a federal judge there to millions in missing settlement money. Jay Edelson, the firm’s founder, called the State Bar’s revelations “stunning.”
“What we know now — for the first time — is that the Bar was receiving a constant drumbeat of complaints that Tom and his firm were stealing money for nearly 40 years,” Edelson said. “The Bar spent that time, not protecting the public as it was established to do, but shielding the Girardi Keese firm.”