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For Mel Lifshitz, Trust Is a Two-Way Street

For high-powered securities lawyer Mel Lifshitz, giving takes many forms, some more noble than others.

Since 2003, a charitable trust funded and administered by Lifshitz's family has donated money to various causes, most of them orthodox Jewish organizations. Another recipient of the charity's money, however, has been a limited partnership that was a plaintiff in more than a dozen class-action lawsuits filed by Lifshitz's firm over the past four years, a review of documents shows.

TheStreet.com found that the Melly & Rochelle Lifshitz Charitable Trust has invested at least $227,655 in the Delaware limited partnership, Colbart Birnet. In addition, a charitable trust set up by Lifshitz's law firm, Bernstein Liebhard & Lifshitz, one of the nation's top securities class-action firms, has invested at least $225,000 in the same partnership.

Moreover, in five filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Lifshitz is listed as a "beneficial owner" of the Colbart Birnet partnership -- a circumstance Lifshitz says is plain wrong and attributes to "human error." Clouding the picture further are two alternate spellings for Colbart Birnet that appear in court filings and a federal tax return for the law firm charity. Lifshitz says there's nothing to the discrepancies and ascribes them to "typographical" mistakes.

Financial connections between lawyers and clients in class-action litigation are frowned upon and can violate a federal law designed to preserve the autonomy of plaintiffs in such suits, legal experts say. According to the theory, a lawyer should not be beholden to any single plaintiff, especially the lead plaintiff, when he is negotiating on behalf of a larger group.

"The potential is the conflict between a lawyer's obligation to the class and his personal interest,'' says Milton C. Regan Jr., a professor of legal ethics at Georgetown University School of Law. "The potentially aggrieved parties would be the other members of the class.''

Lifshitz, in an email exchange, says he has no financial interest in the Colbart partnership, and does not benefit from the trust that invested in it. He does acknowledge that he is a trustee of the two charities.

"This sounds potentially troublesome,'' says Michael Perino, a professor at St. John's University Law School and an expert on securities class actions. "It strikes one as an odd form of charity. Is this a disguised way of kicking some money back to this entity to get it to serve as lead plaintiff?''

Regan, the Georgetown professor, says one way for a lawyer to eliminate possible conflicts is to disclose his financial ties to a client to the court and let the judge resolve the matter. It's not clear that Bernstein Liebhard has done this as a matter of course in the lawsuits in which Colbart Birnet appears as a plaintiff.

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