SUSPENDED ANIMATIONPROHIBITED FROM PRACTICING LAW, CUSTODY ATTORNEY BOB HIRSCHFELD WON'T GO DOWN WITHOUT A FIGHT
Bob Hirschfeld, fathers'-rights custody lawyer, keeps the door of his Phoenix office locked during business hours. Unexpected visitors are vigorously questioned by Hirschfeld's staff, and he seems almost proud of two bullet holes in the windows of the reception area.
Hirschfeld is convinced he is a good lawyer. But now that the Arizona Supreme Court has suspended him from practicing law--pending resolution of disciplinary actions against him by the Arizona State Bar--Hirschfeld intends to try out a new job description: martyr.
In an interview last week, Hirschfeld lashed out at judges, the Arizona State Bar, the Arizona Supreme Court, the media and even some of his former clients. Hirschfeld's a character--cerebral, disheveled, egg-shaped--and prone to theatrics.
"I've been suspended because I'm an unpopular fellow," he says. "Not because I've done something significantly worse than what anyone else has done." He says he's a pariah because he fights vigorously for fathers' custody rights.
Hirschfeld's bar-appointed mentor--a personal friend who resigned his position when Hirschfeld was found in contempt of court in May--disagrees that Hirschfeld has been unfairly targeted. But that doesn't sway Hirschfeld.
"I will not become someone who is blackmailed by the state bar or even by the Supreme Court into letting the other side win because I'm afraid I'm going to be sanctioned or disbarred," Hirschfeld says. "I walked up to the brink, and if I'm going to be pushed over the edge, I'll go down protesting my innocence and the merits of my clients' cases."
Although he intends to fight the bar, he's prepared for defeat. "I believe that there is such a massive campaign against me from several quarters . . . that my chances over the long term of being able to represent clients and practice law are very low, if not zero."
So even though Hirschfeld's fate as a lawyer won't be decided for months, he's switching gears by opening a document preparation business. (Arizona--to the bar's chagrin--does not license or regulate document preparers.) In addition, Hirschfeld intends to teach fathers how to represent themselves in custody disputes. "My enemies who think they've gotten Bob Hirschfeld out of the courthouse--what they're now going to have to start dealing with is hundreds of Bob Hirschfelds."
Trained as an engineer, Hirschfeld became interested in fathers' rights after he won a protracted custody battle over his own kids in the late Seventies. He lobbied successfully on behalf of Arizona's gender-neutral custody law in 1981, then went to law school and set up shop.
Hirschfeld insists judges have always treated him unfairly. But his present troubles began, he says, when New Times profiled him ("May Divorce Be With You," September 15, 1993). The cover story described Hirschfeld's tactics both in and out of the courtroom, particularly how he badgers the wives and ex-wives of his clients.
Hirschfeld says he hated the article until a few hours after its publication--when his phone began to ring. He was overwhelmed with new business. Soon, he says, opposing attorneys were waving the article in the courtroom, using it against him.
"The claim that I'm a no-holds-barred pit bull and whatnot may be true, but what happened as a result of that article was that every single case that I was in became maximally contested," he says. "Only certain attorneys would take cases against me, and those were attorneys who wanted to come in and get a jab in at me."
Arguably, Hirschfeld's problems began not with the New Times profile, but with a 1993 case involving a Hirschfeld client, a father who had tried to commit suicide. Hirschfeld kept the information from the court, and was sanctioned by Judge Albert Rogers when the mother's attorney disclosed it. Hirschfeld was fined $20,000, which he refused to pay; he says the father didn't really want to kill himself, but overdosed on antidepressants to get attention.
In the spring of 1994, with warrants out for his arrest, Hirschfeld went on the lam. He was eventually arrested and now that case is on appeal. The Arizona State Bar brought that case and other complaints to the attention of the Arizona Supreme Court in May 1994, asking the court to suspend Hirschfeld. The court refused, instead calling on Hirschfeld to find a mentor.
The mentor, Valley attorney Herbert "Mac" Bohlman, resigned in May after Hirschfeld was found in contempt of court for harassing the ex-wife of a client in the courthouse.
Hirschfeld was sentenced to five nights in jail and a $300 fine, and when he delivered the verdict, Judge Michael Ryan said of Hirschfeld, "I find that his testimony justifying those actions to be disingenuous at best, incredible, possibly perjurious."
Hirschfeld denies the charge, and that sentence is on appeal, too, but that could not stop Bohlman from resigning.
"I felt personally as if I had failed," Bohlman says. "[As a mentor] I would hope the person would follow my advice and stay out of trouble and, obviously, he did not stay out of trouble."
In addition to the contempt charge, Hirschfeld owes a total of $31,000 to ten former clients, as a result of binding fee arbitration he willingly submitted to but now protests.
The ten disputes involve nonrefundable retainers paid by the former clients. In all of the cases, arbitrators determined that Hirschfeld owed the former clients a portion of the retainers; he refuses to pay, saying he only owes the former clients hours of service. There is no formal means of appealing binding fee arbitration. Hirschfeld must wait until a former client sues in Superior Court, then hope the judge will reconsider the merits of the dispute rather than simply order Hirschfeld to pay. Two such cases are pending.
Since 1990, the Arizona Supreme Court has handed down 26 interim suspensions. The state bar has disbarred 54 attorneys during that span. In September, Hirschfeld goes before a three-member panel of attorneys who will hear the bar's case against him. That case can be appealed to a bar disciplinary commission and then to the Arizona Supreme Court, says state bar counsel Allen Shayo.
Shayo refused to respond to Hirschfeld's charges that Hirschfeld's being unfairly targeted, and wouldn't comment specifically about Hirschfeld's plans to go into the document preparation business. He did say, however, that there are cases where suspended or disbarred attorneys who became document preparers have been held in contempt when the court determined they were actually practicing law.
Hirschfeld says Judge Kenneth Fields, who until recently was the presiding judge in Maricopa County's domestic relations court, is "at the root of much of what is being done to me." He says Fields has told other lawyers to report back to him regarding Hirschfeld's actions, and that Fields speaks disparagingly about him to other judges.
Fields denies telling anyone to report to him, although he says lawyers have complained to him about Hirschfeld. "This is a bar matter," Fields says. "If a judge has a problem with a lawyer . . . we can take action on the spot."
Bohlman believes Hirschfeld's big problem is that he never has learned to lose gracefully. "You lose cases in court, okay?" Bohlman says. "It's not personal. . . . Bob sometimes takes that as a very personal thing.
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