That’s the way her son, Redondo Beach resident Jeffrey Meltzer, sees it. So when she died in 2004, Meltzer and his four siblings were surprised to learn that the legal work on her estate and trust in the mid-1980s was done by an attorney who lost his license for theft and fraud convictions. In the years since, the family has unraveled under the weight of extreme emotional and financial burdens in trying to determine what their mom really wanted. Meltzer, wanting to punish the lawyer who handled his mother’s will and estate and trust issues, filed a complaint with the State Bar against Melvyn Honig, who was reinstated to practice and works in Los Angeles. “He basically decimated the family, and has never once apologized,” Meltzer said. But the State Bar told him couldn’t do anything because any alleged wrongdoing by Honig happened too long ago. Meltzer feels cheated again, this time by the agency he feels should watch out for the consumer and ensure professionalism and ethics for lawyers – but instead seems to have lawyer’s best interests in mind. “They look for reasons to throw these inquiries out,” Meltzer surmised. “They are the protectors of the attorneys.” Meltzer is not alone in his assessment of the State Bar Discipline System, but opinions certainly vary on how effective the group is in policing its own. Those familiar with the system label it everything from “lax” and “fair” to “schizophrenic” and “random.” “I’m actually a very big fan of the State Bar, even though I represent lawyers in the discipline process,” said Ellen Peck, a former State Bar prosecutor and judge who now practices on the other side. Peck acknowledged, however, that “some of my colleagues say the Bar is very aggressive and can be unfair toward lawyers in their zeal to prosecute.” But Greg Keating, a legal ethics professor at USC Gould School of Law, says there is definitely a perception that the Bar is easy on lawyers – except when it comes to allegations of theft. “They have a reputation for traditionally being lax on everything else,” Keating said. He agreed with Meltzer that the rules prohibiting prosecution of alleged wrongdoing that occurred more than five years before a complaint is filed could be perceived as “self-protecting.” “It’s not surprising that, in an estate planning situation, the harm doesn’t materialize until long after the incompetent lawyering takes place,” Keating said. License was suspended Meltzer has taken his grievance to the next level in the complaint process – the state Supreme Court. But only rarely does the high court order the State Bar to proceed with any further investigation and prosecution. “I have never had a challenge like this in my life,” said the 47-year-old hardwood floor contractor. “This is like climbing Mount Everest.” Meltzer and his siblings did get some relief from a lawsuit they filed in civil court. But, he says, the $100,000 settlement they must share doesn’t cover the nearly $500,000 lost in legal fees litigating his mother’s will and the value of property he claims he was bequeathed but gave up in a settlement. Honig, who is still executor of Anna Meltzer’s estate and will get about $20,000 for his work, according to Meltzer, referred a reporter to his attorney, who did not return messages. It appears from the records that Anna Meltzer, a native of Belarus, Poland, who fled to escape the Nazi invasion, first met with Honig in 1971 and executed her will. At the time, Honig, a graduate of Southwestern School of Law, was licensed to practice law. He was admitted to the Bar in 1968. In 1975, he was indicted on nine counts of insurance fraud. He had received kickbacks from a chiropractor for referring his personal injury clients to him. The chiropractor was caught inflating the bills. A year later, Honig was charged with two counts of receiving stolen property for two typewriters he purchased from an acquaintance. A little more than a month after a jury convicted him in October 1979 for the typewriter case, he was placed on interim suspension by the State Bar. In 1980, Honig was convicted by a jury of five counts of grand theft, insurance fraud and conspiracy. He received probation for both convictions. Both were eventually reduced to misdemeanors and dismissed. His license was suspended for nearly six years, State Bar records show, during which he continued to work in the area of investment and tax consultation. It was during that time, at a private meeting in 1983, that Honig last met with Anna Meltzer and revised her will, Meltzer claims records show. Her family members challenged the will because they said certain estate and trust matters were not handled correctly and the will was inconsistent with what they believed their mother wanted. At a hearing in 1985, Honig, who was trying to get his law license back, testified that he provided services to his former clients – all of whom were aware of his legal problems – under the guidance of attorney Mayer Lifschitz, who was Honig’s associate in the practice. Age of case cited In a deposition for the lawsuit brought against Honig and Lifschitz by the Meltzer family, Lifschitz testified he remembered making sure every client involved with Honig knew he wasn’t licensed. However, he didn’t appear to have any independent recollection of the Meltzer case, citing the two decades that had passed. Had Honig simply assisted Anna Meltzer without giving advice, then he didn’t do anything wrong. But, because only two people were in that meeting – one of whom is now deceased and one who claims he didn’t do anything wrong – the State Bar is left without a lot of evidence to prosecute. Nonetheless, a letter to Meltzer from the State Bar’s Audit and Review Department is clear that the law prohibits the organization from prosecuting attorneys for conduct that occurred more than five years before the conduct was discovered, or should have been discovered. “? The time to look into this issue would have been in at least the 1980s,” the letter states. A small percentage of the complaints received by the State Bar are investigated and prosecuted, according to the 2006 Report on the State Bar of California Discipline System. Peck said the system operates like a funnel – just like traditional investigations and prosecutions into criminal behavior. While there are many criminal investigations, there are fewer arrests resulting in even fewer trials and convictions. “The numbers are what they are,” said Robert Hawley, deputy executive director of the State Bar, referring to the Discipline System statistics. “But just because the numbers are the numbers, that doesn’t mean there is something wrong with them.” Hawley and other attorneys say it comes down to evidence. To prove a case in State Bar Court, prosecutors must present “clear and convincing” evidence of wrongdoing – a standard that lies somewhere between the criminal standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” and the civil standard of “a preponderance of the evidence.” He said he understands why the system may seem “schizophrenic” – the Bar regulates, licenses and disciplines lawyers on the one hand and then provides outreach programs, education and professional support on the other. Fox guarding henhouse? Ted Schneyer, a legal ethics professor at the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law, says it’s understandable that the public considers the the State Bar Discipline System akin to the fox guarding the henhouse. “But from the standpoint of lawyers, many of them have reason to want a discipline process that is quite effective in order to help maintain the quality of legal services and the integrity of people who practice law,” Schneyer said. “They would just as soon have the bad apples removed from the barrel,” Schneyer added. Even those who are critical of the system, though, believe that the investigators and attorneys work hard and are diligent. Ellen Pansky, a former State Bar prosecutor who now consults for attorneys in areas of ethics and legal malpractice, said her biggest complaint is that the prosecutors are too harsh and unwilling to plea bargain. “Very rarely am I surprised that the State Bar closes something out that should not be,” Pansky said. “I think they’re very concerned about image. They don’t want the public to perceive them as being lenient.” Tom Dresslar, an attorney who handles malpractice cases against lawyers, called the Discipline System “essentially random.” “Sometimes they will ignore the most outrageous conduct imaginable,” Dresslar said. “Other times, they come down like a ton of bricks.” Dresslar said he advises clients that filing a complaint in the State Bar is merely “an act of vengeance and prosecution.” Dresslar said clients find more reward in the civil courthouse. “My clients tend to concentrate more on getting their money back,” he said. For the Meltzers, justice hasn’t been found anywhere. The sad part, besides the money and frustration, Meltzer said, was the effect on his family. Anna Meltzer went to her grave believing she took care of everything for her children. “My mom didn’t know he was disbarred. She used to call the Contractors State License Board every time she hired a plumber – that’s the type of person my mom was,” Meltzer said. “She was very diligent in making sure she was never taken. She never dreamed an attorney would do what he did.” [email protected] local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! LAW: He wants the agency to punish a Los Angeles attorney for what he believes was a botched job on his mother’s estate. By Denise Nix STAFF WRITER Anna Meltzer was a practical and loving mother. She would have never knowingly allowed an unlicensed attorney to prepare her will – let alone name him executor of her estate.