5 Horrifying Ways Lawyers Keep Screwing Up
There's an old joke that goes "What do you call 100 lawyers at the bottom of the ocean? A good start!" The first time I heard it, I wondered what the deep-sea legal emergency might be that would require so many lawyers. Now I know it has to do with Aquaman's complex drug empire, but the point is that lawyers get a lot of shit in life. And it seems like a lot of them bring it on themselves ...
Drunk Lawyering Appears To Be A Real Problem
You know how you keep a pitcher of mojitos on the nightstand next to the bed so you can wake up the right way? That's how most of us work, but lawyers have to be held to a different standard, dammit. They're the people's avatars of justice! Or something.
Despite that, lawyers like John Wayne Higgins are willing to show up in a courtroom they don't even have business in shitfaced enough to get themselves a contempt charge. That's still a step down from the Topeka attorney who got fully disbarred for having a blood alcohol level 2.5 times the legal limit in the courtroom. With a judge sitting right there! And a client depending on his drunk ass!
Is this an epidemic? A series of isolated incidences? I don't know! But lawyers will show up wasted to court, which can even force judges to drop charges. And those are almost disappointing compared to the remarkable heights of drunken stupidity achieved by Las Vegas defense attorney Joseph Caramagno. How bad were his antics? It's on video!
If you don't have the half hour to invest in watching a grown man spin lies like Rumpelstiltskin turning straw into gold, here are some highlights. The whole event is kicked off by the fact that Caramagno was late for trial, which he blames on a double hit and run (that is, when you get rear-ended into another car, and then both cars take off before you can do anything about it). Did the cops agree? No! Because, as Caramagno explains to the judge, he will never call 911, on principle.
Times and locations change from one statement to the next, and eventually, the judge starts talking to a woman in the gallery who Caramagno said was his girlfriend. Except she was actually just a woman he picked up at the bar literally right before his late trial. Everything comes crashing down when the judge makes him take a breathalyzer test and determines that he's more alcoholic than a Tom Collins. Give Caramagno credit, though, he tries to claim it's simply residual booze from the night before. This did not work. His client got a mistrial, and we got 30 minutes of a drunk dude trying to craft a bucket full of lies. Allegedly.
They're Not Above The Occasional Fistfight
The whole reason we need lawyers is so that we don't have to resolve every dispute by punching the shit out of each other. So it would seem like one of the most important qualities in an attorney is an ability to resist just whaling on somebody who disagrees with them. Not all of them possess this ability.
How else can you explain Toronto attorney Julia Ranieri, who straight up clocked a client and knocked her ass into a potted plant after a dispute about fees? And she stayed in that fuckin' plant until someone rescued her from it. Imagine being trounced into a shrub so badly that you just have to wait for someone to pluck you out. And then you can't even call your lawyer to complain, because your lawyer's the one who shrubbed you. (Ranieri later insisted the client started it, which I'm not going to dispute, because I don't want paramedics to have to fish my ass out of a bush later.)
"The other guy started it" defense is less plausible when the punchee is an other attorney. For example, in 2004, a Seattle defense attorney punched a prosecutor right in the damned courtroom after the two disagreed about a plea deal. This resulted in the puncher getting 60 days of ... not being able to practice law? Plus anger management? Huh, that almost seems worth it.
Not getting off nearly as easy was Michigan attorney Nijad Mehenna, who punched the hell out of a cop -- again, right in the goddamned courtroom. This occurred after said officer repeatedly called Mehenna a "bitch" and tried to block his path through a doorway. Hey kids, you know you never truly leave high school, right?
Then there are all of the mere threats of violence that never come to fruition, like when attorney Donald Franz called his client a "small penis asshole" and challenged him to a duel. Over $400.
Lawyers Keep Falling Asleep In Court (Even During Murder Trials)
I wrote this whole article in the midst of some epic sickness that is making me feel like I died yesterday and my brain is just waiting for that last bit of battery life to fizzle out, so I get the desire to fall asleep at work. Of course, if I fuck my job up, no one goes to prison, usually.
At least one convicted murderer tried to argue that his lawyer being asleep during the trial really ruined his chances of walking free, but it was determined later that he was so guilty that he was going to prison no matter how long his lawyer was napping. That is something of an outlier, in that a dozing attorney does lead to a mistrial more often than not. I just linked to three cases in which a defense attorney nodded off in the middle of a trial, and two of them were defending accused murderers! Even if court is normally unbearably dull, aren't murder cases the good shit that breaks up the monotony?
Apparently not. Even the biggest and most highly publicized trials can push a lawyer to the brink of Snoozetown and beyond. According to witnesses, Bill Cosby's lawyer went slack-jawed for a solid 30 minutes while a judge recounted how Cosby drugged and assaulted women. I can't think of a single reason Bill Cosby's lawyer would be so inexplicably sleepy. Maybe he has a medical condition, I don't know.
They Act Like Bratty Teenagers In Front Of Judges
Lawyering is probably like any other profession, in the sense that some people decide they want to be the loose cannon, in-your-face lawyer who doesn't play by the rules. You know, like the ones on TV! You know who hates that shit? Judges.
Just ask Dennis Hawver, who got disbarred after dressing up like Thomas Jefferson in court. Doesn't that sound fun? Hardly worth a disbarment. In fairness, the rest of what the court referred to as "inexplicable incompetence" probably also contributed to him getting the boot. It turns out referring to your client as a "shooter of people" to the jury isn't good lawyering. He also suggested that his client should get the death penalty, and that he was quitting law to grow vegetables in an hydroponic garden anyway.
Then there was a Canadian murder trial in which a prosecutor sitting in the gallery rolled his eyes and smirked so hard that the jury requested guidance from the judge on how to deal with it. They actually had to stop the case, ditch the jury, and just go ahead with a judge alone, all so this motherfucker would stop making faces at them. You may wonder why he thought he could get away with that kind of bullshit, but apparently, you can when you're on the prosecution side. A guy in Maine asked for a new trial after the prosecutor mockingly pretended to be asleep and mouthed instructions to the jury while his own lawyer was trying to make their closing argument. The appeals court said no.
Then there's the Washington state lawyer who wound up with a one-year suspension after getting more and more out of hand during a two-week trial until she finally made a loud noise in court that the judged compared to an "animal being killed." So, uh, maybe she needed some time off regardless.
They Keep Finding Creative Ways To Steal Money From Clients
When you bill people hundreds of dollars per hour for the work you do, it seems like you're already living a pretty decent life financially, and should be satisfied with it. But I say this as a poor. If I were able to bill someone $200 to read an email, I might think differently.
One Knoxville lawyer managed to bill her clients for $140,000 for less than three months of work, which included watching true crime shows. And she didn't apologize and give the money back when she was caught. She argued in front of a judge that TV was as legitimate a research tool as anything else. Her research show of choice? 48 Hours (the true crime series, not the Eddie Murphy/Nick Nolte movie). Unsurprisingly, she had her license suspended for a year.
It's very likely that the Ohio lawyer who somehow managed to bill clients for a 29-hour workday also watched some TV in that magical five-hour time period outside of normal, linear time, but we may never know. He was a court-appointed attorney, and had to submit paperwork to justify his paycheck. He came up with a couple of 21-hour days, a 23-hour day, and then the marathon 29-hour day, which his own lawyer argued was totally legit. He did the work, they said; he just needed to keep better records. Maybe a clock, too.
Oddly more legal but still unscrupulous is a rule that lets New York law firms bill clients for work done by unpaid interns. So the firms put nothing into it, but still make all that phat cash, which then in no way goes to the person who did the work. Is that more or less brash than a lawyer who, after receiving a complaint from a client over how the work was done, billed the client for having to address the complaint professionally? These people are amazing!
But no case of creative billing will ever be more shameful than the scheme Tomas Lowe came up with. He was representing a client during divorce proceedings, and ended up having an affair with her. That's sketchy already, but the fact he started billing her for the time they spent having sex is the kind of thing that, let's be frank here, probably makes you a legend among other lawyers.
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