AP writer Greg Risling reported today on the sentencing of former Milberg Weiss partners Steven Schulman and David Bershad for their roles in a scheme involving the payment of kickbacks to plaintiffs in securities class actions. Both lawyers were sentenced to six month prison terms. The scandal involved paying class representatives a portion of the oftentimes multi-million dollar legal fee awards obtained as part of large class action settlements. In this way, the conspirators were able to provide a significantly greater incentive for a plaintiff to pursue the case than if he or she were limited to recovering an amount necessary to compensate them for their injury. However, fee-splitting with non-lawyers is considered unethical under long-standing rules of professional conduct. According to the article, available at Newsweek.com:
In a letter submitted to Federal District Court Judge John Walter, Bershad apologized for the deception.
“I now recognize that our behavior grievously injured the judicial process,” he wrote. “I will live out my days with the painful knowledge that our acts tarnished all of the good work we did.”
Co-conspirator William Lerach published an essay in Portfolio.com earlier this year entitled “I am Guilty,” in which he unapologetically blamed his conviction on zealous prosecutors, the bar associations, big business, and just about everyone other than himself. Lerach’s diatribe makes the quote from Bershad’s letter seem downright contrite, until you look more closely at his word choice: ”I now recognize.” Though subtle, either the introductory clause reflects a lingering defiance, being code for “I know I need to say this but I don’t really mean it,” or Bershad was commenting on the difficulty of seeing anything wrong with his behavior in the first place: “how could I possibly have known that what I was doing was illegal?” Either way, his failure to state simply that “Our behavior grievously injured the judicial process” reflects the warped sense of morality that underlies the actions of the lawyers involved in the scandal.
Bershad’s apology fails to recognize that his illegal acts didn’t just tarnish “all the good work” he believes he did, they took the “good” of the work entirely.
Essentially, the argument is that fee-splitting with clients, while concededly unethical and illegal, was a morally necessary tactic to level the playing field in taking on powerful interests. “Whistleblowers” just needed an extra push to convince them to help the white knights seek justice against evil corporations. Lerach’s essay even goes so far as to compare his crusade to that of the lawyers who brought the landmark civil rights decision Brown v. Board of Education, though his essay glosses over the small detail that those lawyers did not need kickbacks to persuade a plaintiff to help them do justice.
The “end justifies the means” argument does not work here. Taking on wrongs in the name of public interest is what attorneys general and other regulators are for. If public prosecution is not enough, and if there is a true problem in incentivizing victims to pursue a civil remedy without having to bribe them, then we should have a debate about how to change the system. The kind of private vigilante justice that Lerach and his counterparts championed, where the rule of law is abandoned in the name of the common good, can only lead to exploitation and greed. It can in no way be considered “good work.”