Lawyer Disbarred Over Impersonation : Court Rejects Pleas of Woman Who Took Exam for Her Husband
Rejecting pleas for leniency, the California Supreme Court on Monday ordered the disbarment of a Los Angeles attorney who disguised herself as a man to fraudulently pass the State Bar exam for her husband.
The lawyer, Laura Beth Lamb, had asked for lesser punishment, contending that she acted as the result of severe emotional stress, a life-endangering pregnancy and fear of retribution from an abusive spouse had she not gone through with the plot. Her husband, she said, threatened to kill her, their unborn child and himself.
But the court, in a 6-1 ruling, upheld the Bar’s recommendation that Lamb be forbidden to practice law, saying her offense was of “exceptional gravity.” Had the scheme been successful, countless of her husband’s clients could have been victimized by an unqualified practitioner, the justices said.
“Her deceitful crime was exceptionally serious,” the court majority said in an unsigned opinion. “Despite our sympathetic feelings, our paramount duty is to protect the public, the courts and the profession.”
In a vigorous dissent, Justice Marcus M. Kaufman said the court should have imposed only a “substantial” suspension for what he called Lamb’s “one-time, aberrational conduct.” The lawyer, he said, had been under “nightmarish” pressures from physical problems and a “violent and unpredictable” husband.
“While disbarment in this case will doubtlessly be applauded in some circles, it is wholly unwarranted,” Kaufman wrote. “It serves only to punish an apparently talented lawyer whose misconduct resulted from the most desperate, life-threatening circumstances.”
Kaufman observed pointedly that in other cases, the court had imposed the lesser penalty of suspension on a lawyer convicted of soliciting the assault of a former client and on another attorney convicted of intent to distribute LSD.
Under the court’s ruling, Lamb ordinarily would not be able to apply for reinstatement to the Bar until April, 1993--five years after she voluntarily ceased practice while her case was under review. However, her attorney, Tom Low of San Francisco, said he would urge Lamb to seek special permission from the Bar to apply for readmission two years earlier, as permitted under law.
Low attributed the order for disbarment to what he said was “tremendous pressure” on the Bar to strengthen its professional discipline system, which has been subject to widespread criticism for laxity.
“The Bar knows which way the political winds are blowing,” said Low, a former prosecutor for the Bar. “But this is an awful case to do this. I’ve never been so disappointed in a decision in 11 years of practicing lawyer-disciplinary law.”
Attorneys for the State Bar were not immediately available for comment.
According to the Bar, the scheme evolved in early 1985 after Lamb’s husband, Morgan Lamb, failed his first attempt to pass the exam.
To carry out the plot, Laura Lamb, then working as an attorney for the federal Securities and Exchange Commission in Los Angeles, cut her hair, wore a man’s shirt and penciled on thick eyebrows to pose as her husband in a photograph submitted for identification purposes for the July, 1985, Bar exam. To avoid detection, she deliberately smeared her thumbprint and forged her husband’s signature on a Bar admission card.
Later, officials said, she took the exam, signing his name on the test booklets. Despite being seriously ill and seven months pregnant, she finished ninth among more than 4,000 applicants. An anonymous call to the Bar in November implicating the woman triggered an investigation.
In separate criminal proceedings, Laura Lamb pleaded no contest to two felony counts of false impersonation that were later reduced to misdemeanors. She was fined $2,500, placed on probation and ordered to perform community service. Morgan Lamb was found guilty of three felony counts of forgery and false impersonation and was placed on probation and ordered to perform community service. The couple were divorced in 1986.
Laura Lamb was dismissed by the SEC and voluntarily stopped practicing law, taking a job as a legal secretary and raising the couple’s baby daughter, who, despite fears to the contrary, was born healthy shortly after Lamb took the exam for her husband.
Meanwhile, her attorneys asked the justices to reject the Bar’s subsequent recommendation of disbarment, citing a host of emotional and physical pressures--including diabetes, high blood pressure and a complicated pregnancy--as mitigating circumstances that led Lamb to agree to pose as her husband.
However, in Monday’s 16-page decision, the court found that even such admittedly unusual circumstances could not outweigh what it called the “exceptionally serious” nature of the offense. And despite Lamb’s “intellectual promise,” the psychological problems that led her to commit the act “cast doubt upon her fitness to practice law,” the court said.
The justices noted that despite her predicament, she could have refused to participate in the scheme and, if necessary, sought protection from her husband from relatives or a battered women’s shelter.