At the lowest point in his career, prominent Connecticut attorney James Brewer saw his livelihood disappear.
A flourishing attorney in 2004, Brewer made headlines for all the wrong reasons: He was arrested after a fight with a city attorney, West Hartford corporation counsel Joseph O’Brien, and police Lt. Jack Casey during a videotaped deposition.
That incident led to a trial and ultimately Brewer’s disbarment for five years. It left his reputation in shambles, raised questions about his temperament, and was for years the first result in any Google search of his name.
“It was all part of a pressure cooker,” Brewer said.
Disbarred lawyers have a “rough road to redemption,” according to the American Bar Association’s August 2013 article in the ABA Journal.
“While it’s not impossible for a disbarred lawyer to gain reinstatement, the odds are not in the lawyer’s favor, and few even try,” the ABA Journal reported. It cited data from the ABA Survey on Lawyer Discipline Systems, which showed that only about 10 percent succeeded at re-entering practice. Of 674 petitions, motions or requests for reinstatement or readmission at the time of the survey, only 67 won reinstatement.
What separates those able to fight their way back in?
Trust, according to Quinnipiac University law professor John Thomas.
“It’s harder [being disbarred] than starting over,” Thomas said Monday. “You are starting from a big reputational hole. You must be gracious and contrite and professional at all times, and avoid even a hint of arrogance. Good conduct will pay off, but it takes a while when it followed bad conduct.”
Brewer, 58, beat the odds. He regained admission to the bar in 2012 after an 18-month process that included a hearing in which members of a disciplinary committee and then three Superior Court judges asked about his temper, before the judges reinstated his license without restrictions.
Then came a new challenge: nearly six years spent rebuilding his practice—one client and one act of contrition a time—to rehabilitate not only his revenue, but also his reputation.
“I … learned during that time that people can determine what your trigger is and push it,” Brewer said. “You have to have that awareness and not fall into the trap. I fell into the trap at the time.”
In retrospect, Brewer realized he was “taking on too many cases,” which left him exhausted and vulnerable to the emotional flare-up at the ill-fated deposition.
“It was not worth my career,” he said. ”If you have enough stress, those triggers that can get to you will be a lot easier to set off. I learned from all of this that I needed to take a time out, which I did not do.”
The attorney’s downfall stemmed from his representation of the estate of former West Hartford police union president Todd Smith.
Smith had killed himself. And Brewer had argued the department was negligent for not taking Smith’s gun away from him when the officer was despondent.
But another factor was also at play.
Brewer said police had questioned his son about another student bringing a knife to school in what seemed to be an unrelated event. But the attorney felt officers targeted his son, because the litigation delved into the inner-workings of the West Hartford Police Department.
Set against this backdrop, the atmosphere was tense as Brewer met with O’Brien and Casey, one of Smith’s supervisors.
“I brought up in deposition to Casey what happened to my son and I asked why he did not call me,” said Brewer, who acknowledges that nothing excuses his behavior. “O’Brien interjected and told Casey not to answer the questions. And, they both got up to leave.”
The officer and Brewer argued, and Casey claimed Brewer pushed him into a wall.
Brewer denied this. A jury acquitted him of three charges but found him guilty of breach of peace. He was slapped with a six-month suspended sentence, two years of probation and 200 hours of community service. Later in the year, he lost his law license for five years.
Fighting His Way Back
Sporadic work followed his disbarment, until Brewer began working for IMPAC, an international productivity company for which he consulted on labor and contract disputes. He said that work was so fulfilling, he put off pursing reinstatement to continue serving IMPAC. While he could have reapplied to work as an attorney in 2010, he waited to begin the process in 2011 because of his work with the company.
That positive experience might have helped salvage his reputation.
“Time may not heal all wounds, [but] it erases some of them,” said Thomas, a law professor since 1988. “The public, in general, believes in second chances. … I have seen attorneys come back stronger. Many times they emerge as a better person and better professionally.”
Brewer said that’s what happened in his case. He told the Connecticut Law Tribune years of introspection turned a “pretty miserable” time of his life into a profound understanding of his own anger and vulnerabilities.
“This whole episode made me stronger and happier,” he said.
Today, the Hartford attorney says he enjoys the same level of financial success as in 2004 through disciplined representation of plaintiffs bringing personal injury, employment, civil rights and other claims.
And here’s a bit of irony: An altercation with a police officer almost ended his career, but Brewer had always wanted to work in law enforcement. He had planned on attending the Police Academy, but said his mother convinced him to attend the University of Hartford and get a degree. While in college, Brewer became involved in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, where he was a cadet. He served in West Germany from 1982 to 1984, first as a second lieutenant and then as a first lieutenant in the Third Armored Division.
He graduated with a law degree in 1987 from the University of Bridgeport. He continues to practice in Connecticut, where he relies on referrals to grow his business.
“My practice is 10,000 times better than back in the day,” he said. “I make a great income and I am fortunate to have many cases.”
And when potential clients discover his disciplinary history?
“I tell them it was a lack of judgment and I was impulsive,” Brewer said. “I learned a lot from that episode, and I think we all grow. We all have our weaknesses and we all have to compensate for those weaknesses and not be judged on one event.”