Michael Cohen and Gordon Caplan. Photos: Diego M. Radzinschi/Carmen Natale.

This is one way of making yourself into a brand.

Until that huge college admissions scandal broke just over 24 hours ago, I bet most of you didn’t know Gordon Caplan existed. Sure, he was a muckety-muck at Willkie Farr & Gallagher, where, until just a few hours ago, he was serving as co-chair. And, yeah, he got industry accolades like being named American Lawyer’s “Dealmaker of the Year” in 2018 and getting a public service award from Fordham University School of Law in 2016, but who remembers that stuff?

Well, Caplan is obscure no more! Overnight, he’s giving Michael Cohen a run for the money in the sleazy lawyer category.

As one of 50 people accused by the Justice Department of cheating the college admissions system, Caplan has become a symbol of how wealthy parents use illegal means (versus legal ones—which are egregious in their own right) to buy their kids a spot in competitive colleges. As you probably know, Caplan allegedly shelled out $75,000 to a college counseling company to inflate his daughter’s ACT score. (I reached out to Caplan for comment but have not heard back).

Before I go further, may I just say something positive about the alleged criminals? The press loves to portray them as this monolithic group of overprivileged fat cats, but did anyone notice that they’re actually sort of a diverse bunch? I mean, I detected surnames from a range of ethnic groups on the list: Chinese (a “Chen” no less!), Hispanic (“Henriquez”) and Middle Eastern (“Abdelaziz” and “Zadeh”). Frankly, the list was more diverse than the new partnership class at many firms. So who says there are no people of color among the rich and entitled?

Anyway, let’s get back to Caplan. There’s no way to excuse his alleged actions. What I find particularly low, if prosecutors are right in their allegations, was his willingness to fake a learning disability for his daughter so that she could take the ACT under conditions that would allow her score to be doctored.

As the parent of a grown child with dyslexia, I find this pretty unforgivable. My daughter’s dyslexia didn’t spring up the night before her SAT test (she was diagnosed at age eight), and she’s worked hard her entire life to compensate for it—and still does. Like many people with dyslexia, she’s had to defend herself against charges that it’s a ploy to get advantages. The irony is that she didn’t even try to get double time to take her SAT the way that Caplan’s daughter allegedly did.

But as reprehensible as Caplan’s alleged acts are, I also find him strangely poignant. In recordings described in the FBI complaint, you could tell he felt uncertain about the path he was taking. He constantly asked for reassurance from the owner of the college counseling company (who was cooperating with the FBI) that everything would turn out fine. And he was most concerned about the consequences for his daughter. Though he said, according to prosecutors, “I’m not worried about the moral issue here,” he added, “I’m worried about the, if she’s caught doing that, you know, she’s finished.”

I don’t know if his daughter is finished (though she might want to consider a gap year at this point) but Caplan’s career is unlikely to recover.

“The alleged conduct, if true, can warrant serious discipline,” says NYU Law professor Stephen Gillers. “It doesn’t matter that the alleged dishonesty is not in connection with a client matter.” Disbarment is automatic if the charges leads to a felony conviction, he adds.

Criminal charges, banishment from Big Law, the possibility of disbarment—and all the ignominy that goes with it.

Gordon Caplan is in a big pickle. Sad thing is he deserves it.

 

Contact Vivia Chen at vchen@alm.com. On Twitter: @lawcareerist.