Federal Judge William H. Pauley’s sentencing of Michael Cohen to serve three years imprisonment and pay $1.5 million in restitution to the I.R.S., $500,000 in criminal forfeitures, and $100,000 in fines, was a sad road marker on a plunge from heady client meetings at Trump Tower to a federal jail cell. It is reminiscent of Law Journal stories on “hubris” authored by the late Milton Gould and the novels of Louis Auchincloss.
In an age of a 24/7 news cycle, emails and Twitter accounts, these observers of the New York legal scene would likely have had pertinent commentary to explain the public and tragic destruction of a lawyer who crossed a line between serving a client’s legal needs and becoming a co-conspirator in criminal conduct.
Auchincloss and Gould well knew the emotionally intoxicating and ethically dissolving temptations all too familiar in “Legal New York.” Like a drug, the rush of power, influence and wealth can quickly eat away at those whose ethical compass malfunctions (or doesn’t exist), and the fall from feeling like a “master of the universe” to convicted felon can be both personally unexpected and tragic.
Lawyers striving if not to emulate Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” can soon find themselves closer in type to the role George Clooney played in the film “Michael Clayton”—the “lawyer as fixer.” At what point does shrewd legal advice cross the line, and place counsel at risk of sharing a seat in the dock at the defendant’s table?
Truth be told, there are clients who can, by virtue of power and/or wealth, blind counsel to the need to sometimes just say no. That is, however, sometimes easier said than done.
The legal road is littered with the carcasses of lawyers who “craved the action,” and found enabling clients life’s ultimate elixir. We frequently render advice behind closed doors, too quickly in response to emails and tweets, and worship the legal “golden calf”—the billable hour.
For Michael Cohen, as Shakespeare would have noted, he loved neither wisely nor too well. We all must recognize that the respected and adored client can lead us unthinkingly down a dark pathway, and to a bad outcome.
As in Auchincloss’ “I Come as a Thief,” the day of reckoning is a not unexpected consequence. For the rest of us, it is a jarring “cautionary tale” of a lack of ethical discipline, and loving a client too much. The line separating Clark Clifford and Edward Bennett Williams from Michael Cohen can often be murky, and stylistic in nature. Denominating oneself a “fixer” is unhelpful and sounds like an overt act
At the proverbial end of the day, the admonition from late, crusty Brooklyn County Court Judge Samuel Liebowitz resonates—lawyers need to firmly recall which door they entered the courthouse from, and strive not to engage in conduct which will cause them to follow their clients out of the courthouse.
Teflon frequently encases clients—we at the bar pay the ethical retail “rack rate,” and live with the consequences. At the end of the day, payback’s a bitch. This saga has the hallmark of a movie in progress. Only time will reveal how it will end.
Roger B. Adler is a solo practitioner in New York City, specializing in appeals and white collar crime law.