I always thought the white collar guys were a more gentlemanly cast of lawyers. They certainly look the part: Expensive suits, fancy shoes, and brief cases that all but announce: "Power, power, power." Most of my legal career has been spent in the tweedy trenches defending more obvious crimes, such as murder, rape and narcotics offenses. Hell, I used to consider bank robbery a white collar crime.
But I've been defending folks accused of white collar crimes increasingly in recent years. I even bought a couple of new suits and a new pair of shoes not long ago. And I've learned, to my surprise, that the lawyers aren't more gentlemanly at the white collar bar. Indeed, I've come to expect they are less so.
In the past month I've been approached by a people in a great deal of trouble with the United States Government. The clients are looking down the barrel of mail fraud, wire fraud and false statement charges. These aren't the eye-popping sorts of offenses that typically make headlines. Rarely does DNA evidence matter in such case; and almost always there are no guns. But the clients are every bit as terrified as those facing other criminal charges. Laws that are written in so broad and vague a manner as to make almost everything a crime transform confident leaders into cowering defendants.
The other day, I sat with someone discussing their situation. The matter of a fee arose. I quoted a fee sufficient to do the work. The client was impassive, and then recited the fees proposed by some of the brand-name players in the white collar bar. To my relief, I was competitive.
I was curious in both cases about how the clients had gone about finding a lawyer. Why had they come to see me? They mentioned other lawyers who sent them to me. I made a silent note to thank the referring lawyers next time I saw them.
And how did you come to see the other lawyers?, I asked. Their answers surprised me: These lawyers had called the clients directly to offer their services. In another case, a lawyer had sent promotional material to a business partner of a potential client. Wow, I thought, the well-heeled really do live different lives. The murder bar has far more class.
The ethics of lawyering recognize that clients are vulnerable people. Needing a lawyer is almost never a good thing. The relationship between lawyer and client should be one of trust and respect. Because the client places his or her liberty in the hands of a criminal defense lawyer, the lawyer's hands should be as clean as possible. The law frowns on lawyers who use runners who drum up business; it also frowns on soliciting clients by making cold calls. Yet, I am told, the practice of soliciting work in such a manner is routine. I was stunned to learn this.
I know the economy is tough just now. Everyone is having a hard time paying their bills. Still, folks keep getting arrested and are in need of counsel. It is understandable that lawyers will compete for a fee. But when the leaders of the white collar bar start diving for dollars, something is wrong. When it comes to lawyering, my sense has always been that good lawyers wait for their phone to ring; you simply do not initiate contact with a prospective client, ever. If that means you don't get invited to some dances, so be it. Better to sit watching than be accused of being a gate-crasher at a wake.