F. Lee Bailey appears this week before the State of Maine Board of Bar Examiners to request permission to once again practice law. I am rooting for Bailey. He’s been disbarred now for more than a decade. If he wants to return to the trenches, we should welcome him back. At 79, he’s still sharp as a tack.
Francis Lee Bailey, Jr., is a name known to all lawyers, and to most of the American public. He hit the ground running after his admission to the bar in 1960. He served as a jet fighter pilot in the United States Marine Corp., and, endearingly enough, walking out of Harvard to join the Marines in 1952. He graduated first in his law school class from Boston University in 1960.
He did not climb to the top of the nation’s criminal-defense bar; he leapt there, arriving with his brash and unapologetic defense of Sam Sheppard, his role as supervising defense attorney in the My Lai Massacre court martial, his representation of Patty Hearst, and a star role in dismantling Mark Furman in the O.J. Simpson trial. He walked tall, charged big fees, and was in demand from one coast to another.
Bailey has always been, and he remains, a proponent of polygraph exams. He briefly had his own television show, on which he would administer exams to folks before the camera. He credits his familiarity with polygraphy, a skill he learned in the military as a legal investigator, with his rapid ascent in the law.
It all came tumbling down when he crossed paths in 1994 with a marijuana magnate named Claude Duboc. The government indicted Duboc, charging him with crimes and seeking to seize millions of dollars in assets. Among those assets were approximately $6 million worth of stock in a company called Biochem Pharma.
Bailey was offered a $3.5 million fee, which the government acknowledged. But if the government took possession of Biochem Pharma stock, the stocks would have to be sold immediately. A creative prosecutor asked Bailey to hold the stock, rather than take a fee outright. The government then asked Bailey to manage a couple of Duboc’s French estates and to prepare them for sale, with proceeds of the sales reverting to the U.S. Government as part of a plea deal for Duboc. It was an audacious gamble on Bailey’s part. There was no guarantee that the stock’s value would increase; if the stock decreased, Bailey’s fee would be nothing.
When Duboc got cold feet and tried to back out of the deal, new lawyers appeared to replace Bailey. By this time, the Biochem Pharma stock had increased to some $20 million in value. Bailey took the position that some of those monies, a couple of million dollars to be exact, were due him as his fee, both for his representation of Duboc and for his stewardship of assets that had tripled in value.
Soon enough, this dispute became blood sport. The government charged that Bailey had diverted Duboc’s client’s funds to his own personal use. Bailey responded that both the government and the court knew better. There were conversations in chambers before the federal judge presiding over Duboc’s case that made clear Bailey had done no such thing. It did not matter. Bailey was ordered to return money he no longer had. When he could not do so, the judge tossed him in jail, holding him in contempt of a federal court order. Bailey spent 44 days behind bars before his brother could raise the funds necessary to win his freedom.
In 2001, the State of Florida disbarred Bailey. He was thereafter disbarred in Massachusetts, where he also had a license to practice law. He’s not been permitted to appear in court on behalf of a client for more than a decade.
I’ve heard folks say that Bailey raided a client’s trust fund, and suffered the lawyer’s version of the death penalty as a result. Things are far more complex than that. Bailey is no thief.
I met the man by chance not long after he was tossed from the bar. He interviewed me to represent a businessman in a jam in North America. Thereafter, he asked me to represent a family friend charged with manslaughter. I spent several weeks with Bailey, both as a guest in his home and in Florida, where we interviewed witnesses in a piece of commercial litigation. In recent years, I’ve consulted him about complex cases, visiting him at his office in Maine, and at his home. He is a lawyer’s lawyer.
F. Lee Bailey once stumbled and fell amid circumstances that he should have been smart enough to avoid. Just how this lion of the bar found himself at the government’s mercy, relying on a prosecutor’s memory of verbal discussions, is a mystery to me. He ought to have known better. The mistake cost him his license for a decade.
He never lost interest in the law during his decade in exile. I am amazed still when I speak to him about a case: He always asks questions about issues I had overlooked. He has an unfailing memory, and a keen mind still honed to a razor’s sharpness. I am hoping that Maine permits him to return to the bar. Sure, the man has made his enemies. That is to be expected. Trial lawyers don’t worry about popularity. That is a weaker man’s game. In the high-stakes arena Bailey calls home, there are winners and losers. Losers almost always carry a grudge.
What makes Bailey a winner is that he carries no grudge. He’s been disbarred. He’s served his time. Now he simply wants to return to the courtroom. Let him.
Reprinted courtesy of the Journal Register Co.