We all hear or read about some wild scheme or criminal plot. It might be interesting. It might be shocking or appalling. But it is typically completely disconnected from our lives. We don’t know the players. Not in this case, however. Two Virginia lawyers have plead guilty to trying to extort $200,000,000 from an herbicide maker. I happen to know both lawyers, one of them for a good while. We crossed paths a several times when we were both defense lawyers. The other lawyer I encountered only once, about a year ago, when both lawyers met with me to talk about possible case referrals. That’s not disconnected at all. It’s very close to home.
Being a lawyer, I am sometimes a little bit cynical about indictments and government prosecutions, but when I read the related material I concluded much, if not all of it, was likely true. Hence, the guilty pleas seem appropriate. Officially and otherwise, they will get plenty of judgment and consequences.
To me, the bigger question is how two intelligent and seemingly reasonable lawyers could even consider such a scheme. These guys are not hardened criminals. They certainly never appeared to be some “personification of evil” - and I truly doubt they are. But neither are they just struggling individuals who got caught in a jam, like some desperate lawyer “borrowing” from the trust account to pay his employees. The grandiosity of their plan is like something out of a movie. What were they thinking?
When the news media tells us about criminals who commit heinous crimes, outrage and condemnation is easy. “Lock em up and throw away the key” is sometimes a reaction on the mild side. When it is someone you know, however, one is hit with a distinctly uneasy confusion. These two lawyers certainly did not seem so different from me. How did they go so far astray and am I capable of doing so? I certainly hope not, but I am reminded of a sermon I heard a long time ago. One Sunday we were told that in the eyes of God, the difference between the very best of us and the very worst of us is not that great. That priest was not particularly well loved in our parish and with sermons like that it is not hard to understand why. No one likes being told that they are no better than all the various evil and low-life characters populating our world. But the theme of that sermon has stuck with me for well over 20 years because, in fact, it’s true. All of us have a capacity for evil that is likely far bigger than we want to admit or even know. You don’t have to believe in God to believe in original sin.
As a trial lawyer representing plaintiffs, the story of my acquaintances makes me cringe because it plays into every bad stereotype of our profession. Nefarious lawyers out to cheat the system, disregarding clients and injured people, is the stuff of so many jokes that everyone has heard about this profession. Of course, there is sadly truth in such humor, but at the same time I remain unconvinced that lawyers are somehow far worse than other professions. We are all capable of doing wrong, sometimes grievous wrong.
Perhaps the bigger lesson for all of us is that we should temper our righteousness and indignation. Actions have consequences and sometimes those consequences must be severe ones. Society does not function without checks on abhorrent behavior. That seems obvious to me. At the same time, we need to acknowledge that those bad actors probably have more in common with us than we would ever care to admit. That should give us humility, Out of that humility, hopefully, we find some compassion.
Both in civil and criminal matters, our legal system is adversarial. We attack and challenge the other side. The theory is that truth and justice emerges out of this controlled conflict. But as lawyers – and as members of society – that does not mean that those adverse to us are any less human than we are. Their actions may be wrong or even evil. Severe punishment may well be appropriate. But even in those instances they are human, just like us, and they deserve the same dignity that all of us deserve.
The two lawyers with their incredible plot did wrong – no doubt about it. We can and should condemn their conduct. But let’s also extend some compassion for them and everyone else who has gone astray. After all, we are probably not so superior as we would like to think.