Dennis M. McGrath represented hundreds of clients who could not afford to hire an attorney during the 13 years he worked for an assigned counsel program in Erie County.
The Hamburg attorney was paid nearly $165,000 to represent clients for the Erie County Bar Association Aid to Indigent Prisoners’ Society from 2001 through 2013.
But he was not licensed to practice law in New York’s court system.
Friday, the 57-year-old attorney was sentenced to five years’ probation and 300 hours of community service after he pleaded guilty last December in Erie County Court to unauthorized practice of law and second-degree grand larceny.
Judge Kenneth F. Case said he had received letters from the many people McGrath has helped over the years through his legal work, coaching, fund-raising for charities and public service work.
“I‘ve never seen anything like it before,” he said.
But the judge told McGrath that he had violated the law by practicing in New York State courts without a license, even though he had a law degree from the University of Toledo and was licensed to practice in Ohio and federal courts here and elsewhere.
“You didn’t take the steps necessary to get your license to practice in New York,” Case said, citing his failure to take and pass the state bar exam. “There have to be consequences.”
In sentencing McGrath to probation, the judge rejected recommendations from the assigned counsel program and the Probation Department that he give him a conditional discharge.
“A conditional discharge may send the wrong message,” Case said, adding that the assigned counsel program also recommended a short probationary term as an alternative.
The judge cited other factors he considered in sentencing McGrath: the fact that he will never be allowed to practice law in New York, his likely disbarment in Ohio due to his felony grand larceny conviction, his public humiliation and his financial loss.
Case said he also took into account that McGrath has paid back $50,000 to the assigned counsel program and that the program has accepted that amount as full restitution for the $164,845 he received from the program.
Mark R. Uba, McGrath’s attorney, told the judge that his client used all the money in his retirement account to make the restitution payment and that he is unemployed and has no other financial resources.
Uba also noted that the assigned counsel program had contacted the 400 clients represented by McGrath over the years and that none asked to have their cases reviewed or relitigated.
In addition to McGrath’s legal work for the indigent, Uba cited his work in federal court here seeking fairness in public housing.
“It is clear that Dennis was not in this for the money,” he said. “He simply wanted to continue doing legal work to help others.”
McGrath apologized to his family, colleagues, the assigned counsel program and the court for practicing law without a license in New York.