Rebutting Bill Lerach in Portfolio

by Walter Olson on June 16, 2008

The editors at Conde Nast Portfolio were kind enough to invite me to contribute a rebuttal, which is now online, to William Lerach’s egregious apologia pro crookery sua. The allotted space permits me to address briefly only a couple of Lerach’s worst howlers, in particular his bald assertions that his concealed kickbacks did no harm to class members or to competing lawyers. (It’s true that named class representatives do a very poor job at their intended mission of standing in for other class members’ interests, but secretly aligning their incentives with the size of fee awards, rather than the value of the settlement to the class, is a corruption meant to keep them from ever living up to their theoretical watchdog role.)

For a more extended look at what’s wrong with Lerach’s article, let me recommend Joseph Nocera’s excellent column a week ago in the Times:

In the article, Mr. Lerach expresses zero remorse, positions his crimes as having hurt no one while serving a greater good and makes the absurd claim that he was railroaded by his political opponents.

It is a brazen, shameful piece of work — and it must infuriate the prosecutors who made the plea agreement with him, and the judge who accepted it, especially since Mr. Lerach wrote his own remorseful letter to the judge ahead of his sentencing. It also ought to infuriate anyone who cares about the law. Plenty of criminals head to prison still believing they’re above the law, but Mr. Lerach takes the cake.

Ted Frank has some further thoughts on that point. And note (from Nocera) that Lerach’s “everyone did it” swipes at his colleagues — which many, including we, have read as grounds for an investigation — are by no means passing without contradiction from colleagues:

Mr. Lerach’s statement has infuriated other plaintiffs’ lawyers. “It would just be unthinkable” to give kickbacks to lead plaintiffs, said Max Berger, of the firm Bernstein, Litowitz, Berger & Grossman. Added Sean Coffey, another Bernstein, Litowitz partner: “It is bad enough that this confessed criminal cheated for years to get an unfair advantage over his rival firms. But for this guy, on his way to prison, to say that everyone does it is just beyond the pale.”

(cross-posted from Point of Law; & welcome San Diego Union-Tribune blog readers).

P.S.: For another example of just how slippery Lerach’s careful phrasings can be, check this Roger Parloff post from an earlier point in the scandal. And Stephanie Mencimer, whose writings are nearly always criticized in this space, deserves due credit for seeing through Lerach’s “liberal folk-hero status” to the “pretty sleazy” realities beneath in this February article.

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1 jbd 06.16.08 at 4:35 pm

This stuff is infuriating. But the man is a convicted felon, now and forever. No amount of spin can change that. And who would believe that one of the richest and most powerful lawyers in the country pleaded guilty and took a two-year sentence, if he really didn’t do anything wrong? Let him mutter to himself for the rest of his life.

2 Mary Nicotra 06.24.08 at 4:03 pm

I worked for Bill Lerach for about 3 years when the San Diego office of Milberg Weiss opened up back in 1976 or so. I believe him 100% when he says that “Everybody was paying plaintiffs”. In my opinion, all of the firms, especially the larger ones, just wanted the high profile cases and they didn’t care how they got them. I spent many many hours working side by side with him and I can unequivocally say that he cared about the Plaintiff and winning for them. I am an extremely ethical person and do not condone cheating – but in my opinion, what he did was not cheating – really – who did he hurt – no one – he helped people that were wronged. He gave everything he had to winning a case! I have not kept in touch with him over the years so I am not defending him because of a close personal relationship, I am defending him because in my opinion, he didn’t let the plaintiffs down, the people he was working for and that to me is the most important factor! Why did he take the plea – he’s a brilliant attorney that’s why – the time, trouble, and expense to fight it doesn’t outweigh “the getting it over with” or taking the chance of losing – whether innocent or guilty – you never know what the outcome will be — I’ve seen many people railroaded. Bill Lerach has helped alot of people over the years, and unfortunately he got caught up in the money game — many great people have had that happen to them. I have the same respect for him that I did 30 years ago. He’s a great man and I know that he will continue to help people in the future.

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