[NOTE: On Friday, April 11 at 9:00 am (PDT), I’ll be delivering the plenary address at the Annual NALP Education Conference in Seattle.
On Wednesday, April 16 at 5:00 pm (CDT), I’ll be discussing The Lawyer Bubble — A Profession in Crisis as part of the Chicago Bar Association Young Lawyers Section year-long focus on “The Future of the Legal Profession.”]
The trip from victim to perpetrator can be surprisingly short. Just ask some former Dewey & LeBoeuf employees who pled guilty for their roles in what the Manhattan District Attorney calls a massive financial fraud. Anyone as puzzled as I was by 29-year-old Zachary Warren’s perp walk last month will find recently unsealed guilty plea agreements in the case positively mind-boggling. In some ways, those agreements are also deeply disturbing, but not for the reasons you might think.
Warren, you may recall, was a 24-year-old former Dewey staffer when he allegedly had the misfortune of attending a New Year’s Eve day meeting in 2008 with two of his superiors. According to the grand jury indictment, they were among the “schemers” who developed a “Master Plan” of accounting fraud that persisted for years.
When Warren left Dewey in 2009 to attend law school, the firm was making hundreds of millions of dollars in profits, many individual partners enjoyed seven-figure paychecks, and no one foresaw the firm’s total collapse three years later. Nevertheless, last month Warren was indicted with three others who had held positions of responsibility right up to the firm’s ignominious end: former chairman Steven H. Davis, former executive director Stephen DiCarmine, and former chief financial officer Joel Sanders.
A fateful New Year’s Eve meeting
The indictment alleges that CFO Sanders was one of two people with Warren at their December 31 meeting. Now we’ve learned the identity of the other: Frank Canellas.
Canellas’ ascent in the firm had been meteoric. While finishing his bachelor’s degree at Pace University, he joined LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae in 2000 as a part-time accounting intern. Only seven years later, he became — at the tender age of 28 — director of finance for the newly formed Dewey & LeBoeuf. Thereafter, his compensation increased dramatically, rising to more than $600,000 annually by 2011.
In February 2014, Canellas copped a plea. He agreed to cooperate with prosecutors and plead guilty to a felony charge of grand larceny for his role in allegedly cooking Dewey’s books. In exchange, the DA will recommend a light sentence – only two-to-six years of jail time compared to the 15-year maximum penalty for the offense.
Using the boss to get underlings?
Presumably, one reason that the Manhattan DA squeezed Canellas was to help prove culpability at higher levels of the defunct firm, particularly CFO Sanders. But there is something more troubling here than the use of that standard prosecutorial tactic to get at the higher-ups. In his plea agreement statement, Canellas also implicates downstream employees who, he says, implemented the accounting adjustments that he and his bosses developed.
Ironically, in 2012, the people whom Canellas now fingers were among the hundreds of non-lawyers who suffered the most in the wake of Dewey & LeBoeuf’s spectacular implosion. When that was happening, observers properly regarded the firm’s low-level staffers generally as helpless victims. Now, for some of them, guilty pleas in exchange for recommendations of leniency give new meaning to the phrase “adding insult to injury.”
What’s the point?
Why go after the underlings at all? Does it really take a criminal prosecution coupled with the promise of a plea deal to assure the truthful testimony of pawns in a much larger game? With Canellas on the hook, wouldn’t a trial subpoena do the trick for those working under him?
The policy ramifications are even more profound. What message does the Manhattan DA send by flipping a cooperating superior to nail underlings for doing what the superior asked them to do? What does this approach mean for employees far down the food chain in a big law firm or any other organization? Even if you don’t have an accounting degree, should you now second-guess the bookkeeping directives that you receive from people who do? Then what? Complain to your local district attorney that you have concerns about your instructions? And why draw the line at accounting issues?
For any employee now worried about becoming the target of a subsequent criminal proceeding, other options make even less practical sense. As the economy crashed in 2008 and 2009, was it the low-level staffer’s duty to refuse a directive relating to the firm’s accounting procedures or any other issue that caused the staffer concern? To quit or get fired from a decent job and enter a collapsing labor market? To apply for work elsewhere, only to have a prospective new employer solicit a prior job reference and learn that the would-be hire is not a “team player”?
Losing sight of the mission
Unlike many senior partners at Dewey & LeBoeuf, the six relatively low-level staffers who did as Canellas directed (and have now pled guilty to resulting crimes) did not walk away with millions of dollars. Other than the jobs they held until the firm disintegrated, none benefitted financially from the alleged financial fraud.
The situation brings to mind a November 2012 court filing on behalf of Dewey’s former chairman, Steven H. Davis. Responding to the motion of the Dewey & LeBoeuf Official Committee of Unsecured Creditors for permission to sue Davis personally, Davis’s brief concluded: “While ‘greed’ is a theme of the Committee’s Motion, the litigation that eventually ensues will address the question of whose greed.” (Docket #654; emphasis in original)
The Manhattan DA’s investigative efforts could center on that question, too. So far, as indictments and plea deals get unsealed, the situation looks more like an unrestrained effort to secure notches on a conviction belt.
Perhaps it’s just too early to tell where the prosecution is headed. Then again, maybe vulnerable scapegoats make easier targets than the wealthy, high-powered lawyers who created and benefitted from the culture in which those scapegoats did their jobs.