Case Studies

Law Firm Embezzlement

A paralegal in Florida was arrested in July 2011 for allegedly embezzling over $138,000 from her employer, a small Fort Lauderdale law firm.  The paralegal was charged with over 80 felonies including grand theft and forging documents.

Brenda Wolcott-Kelly, 53 is alleged to have embezzled over $80,000 in 2008 and 2009 to pay off her husband’s credit cards, and over $56,000 from accounts belonging to an attorney who leased space from the law firm, who incidentally was hospitalized with a terminal illness when Wolcott-Kelly was arrested.

An attorney with the firm was quoted in the Sun-Sentinel: “She was a valued member of the firm. She was treated like family. We attended her wedding.”

Wolcott-Kelly is registered as an attorney in New York but is not licensed to practice law in Florida, which probably explains why she was working as a paralegal.

I wonder why an attorney registered in New York would work as a paralegal in Florida for several years. I can understand being underemployed for as long as it took to become licensed in Florida, but after three years shouldn’t this have raised some questions in the minds of her employers? And why did a paralegal have access to firm credit cards and attorney bank accounts?

I wish I knew the answer, but I can only guess. This is a small law firm. Everyone knows everyone else and everyone is treated “like family.”

One characteristic of embezzlers is they try to avoid being caught with their hands in the till. They make excuses for the “little extras” they suddenly flaunt — like jewelry, new clothes and vacations. They rely on our human tendency to believe the best of friends and co-workers, especially if they are “like family”.

Lessons:

Living beyond means and financial problems are the top indicators that someone may be stealing. Don’t ignore these signs or explain them away. Ask questions. If you hear excuses that seem plausible: pause, look and listen. Then take a look at your books.

Treating employees like trusted family members is laudable — to a point. Developing transparency and holding employees accountable protects the business, the owner, and all the employees.

Trust. But verify.

 

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