As many young lawyers settled in for a summer or their first year at a large law firm, global legal giant Dentons recently cut ties with one of its Los Angeles-based associates under unusual circumstances.
The former associate, Michael Potere, 32, was arrested on June 22 and accused of trying to extort $210,000 and a piece of artwork from Dentons, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles and a criminal complaint filed in federal court. Potere allegedly downloaded sensitive documents, then threatened to leak the information to the legal blog Above The Law unless his demands for the money and artwork were met, according to the government’s complaint.
Potere is represented in the criminal case by Asal Akondzadeh, a deputy federal public defender in Los Angeles, who did not respond to an email requesting comment. A Dentons representative on Monday said in a statement that Potere is no longer a firm employee.
“Dentons understands that Michael Potere, formerly an associate in our Los Angeles office, is the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation,” the statement said. ”We are cooperating with law enforcement and, as we do at all times, we have taken appropriate and necessary steps to protect the safety of our employees, the confidentiality of our clients, and the property of our firm.”
As unusual as Potere’s departure from Dentons may be, the government’s initial filing in Los Angeles federal court could hold a few lessons for law firms to deal with, or prevent, a similar situation.
Credentials Don’t Guarantee Model Behavior
Before joining Dentons, Potere had a well-developed resume, according to his profile on the professional networking site LinkedIn. Among other achievements, Potere’s profile lists a Fulbright Scholarship and a master’s degree in public policy and administration from the London School of Economics. He also spent about a year as a Kirkland & Ellis associate.
With all that in his background, it’s not surprising that Potere’s resume helped land him at a major international law firm such as Dentons. But his professional and academic experience seem to stand in contrast to the allegations against Potere in the criminal case. That may serve to remind law firms that credentials don’t necessarily tell the whole story when it comes to figuring out how a lawyer will act as a colleague.
Cyber Breaches Can Be Inside Jobs
Law firm cybersecurity has been a hot topic in recent years, as companies in other sectors have faced fallout from massive data breaches and hacking attempts. Despite concerns about sophisticated hackers, however, the allegations against Potere show that cyber threats might also come from within a firm.
The former Dentons associate is accused of gaining access to quarterly financial reports, a list of clients and how much they owed in legal fees, confidential employment reviews and a “detailed analysis” related to lateral attorney recruitment, according to the complaint. And he accessed those documents in a relatively simple way, the complaint said.
While working a case in 2015, a Dentons partner gave Potere his email login information so the associate could access documents related to discovery requests in the case. Potere then allegedly used that login this year to search through the partner’s emails and take the sensitive documents.
Contacting Authorities Early May Ease the Pain
As Dentons said on Monday, it has cooperated with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and federal prosecutors in Potere’s case. An affidavit from FBI special agent Sean Sterle details some aspects of that cooperation, and it appears the firm’s efforts helped the agency further its extortion investigation.
Specifically, Sterle wrote in the affidavit about a series of interviews with partners who knew Potere. Those interviews started on May 22, a few days after the FBI first heard that an associate was threatening to send confidential documents to Above The Law, and gave the FBI agent an overall view of Potere’s alleged scheme, according to the affidavit.
But Dentons’ cooperation went further, and later involved two unnamed firm partners working with the FBI to obtain video and audio recordings of a May 25 meeting with Potere. The recording from that meeting “confirmed what had been reported to the FBI during the interviews of [firm] employees,” Sterle wrote in the affidavit.
Then, on June 8, those same partners called Potere and told him Dentons had agreed to meet his demands. One of the partners also set up a meeting in which Dentons would purportedly provide the money Potere requested, while Potere would return all the documents and let the firm’s IT department review his laptop to ensure everything was deleted, according to the FBI agent’s affidavit.
It’s unclear from the court filings whether such a meeting ever took place, but it was initially scheduled for June 19 and later “continue[d]” to June 22, the day of Potere’s arrest.
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Scott Flaherty covers the business of law with a special focus on plaintiffs firms. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @sflaherty18.