TRUMP AND THE MORGAN LEWIS MESS

On January 11, 2017, Sheri Dillon and Fred Fielding sullied themselves and imperiled the reputation of their firm, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius. They shilled for a plainly insufficient plan to deal with Donald Trump’s massive business conflicts of interest. In doing so, they traversed far beyond the principle that an attorney should advocate zealously on a client’s behalf. I predicted that Dillon, Fielding, and the firm would regret their roles in the charade. If they haven’t seen the light by now, they never will.

Lawyers Without Boundaries; Clients Without Shame

When it comes to dealing with Trump, ignorance of his tendencies affords his attorneys no excuse. Throughout his life, he has destroyed reputations whenever it helped him fulfill an agenda item of the moment. Once his allies outlive their usefulness — or whenever Trump needs a scapegoat — they become expendable. Remember the rumors about cabinet positions for Chris Christie, Rudy Giuliani, and Newt Gingrich? And how quickly Mike Flynn went from loyal patriot to dishonest traitor!

Trump’s January 11, 2017 press conference made for great theater as he claimed yet another victim. “President-elect Trump wants there to be no doubt in the minds of the American public that he is completely isolating himself from his business interests,” Dillon explained amid a mountain of paper. Some of the documents appeared to be blank and some of the folders lacked labels. Substantively, attorneys knew immediately that the Dillon/Fielding/Morgan Lewis plan was a joke. Every day, it becomes less humorous.

Trump Still Owns Everything

Dillon assured the public that Trump would put his business holdings in a revocable trust — meaningless window dressing. She didn’t mention he still owned and benefited from every Trump asset in his portfolio. And he wasn’t selling any of his most valuable ones involving the family business. Still, she explained, no one should worry because his sons, Eric and Don Jr., would run the company. Trump even joked that he’d return to management in eight years, hoping that they’d done a good job and saying that he’d fire them if they didn’t.

Har-dee-har-har-har.

Six weeks later, Eric Trump told Forbes that he would continue to update his father on the family business: “’Yeah, on the bottom line, profitability reports and stuff like that, but you know, that’s about it.’ How often will those reports be, every quarter? ‘Depending, yeah, depending.’ Could be more, could be less? ‘Yeah, probably quarterly.’ One thing is clear: ‘My father and I are very close. I talk to him a lot. We’re pretty inseparable.’”

It Gets Worse

On April 4, ProPublica reported — and Trump Organization attorney Alan Garten confirmed — that a February 10 version of the revocable trust agreement states: “The Trustees shall distribute net income or principal to Donald J. Trump at his request, as the Trustees deem necessary for his maintenance, support or uninsured medical expenses, or as the Trustees otherwise deem appropriate.”

The Trustees are Don Jr. and Allen Weisselberg, who started his career working for Donald Trump’s father Fred in the 1970s. In other words, Trump can watch his wealth grow and get at his money whenever he wants.

Fallout

At the time of the press conference, self-proclaimed law firm public relations experts urged that mere proximity to Trump would make Morgan Lewis a client magnet. At least one prominent client went the other way. The co-chair of the Wallace Global Fund expressed outrage over the firm’s willingness to aid and abet Trump’s undermining of democracy.

On March 28, H. Scott Wallace sent a blistering termination letter to Morgan Lewis chair Jami Wintz McKeon: “We believe that the legal advice given to [Trump] by your partner Sheri Dillon, in the January 11 press conference and background ‘white paper,’ is not just simplistic and ill-founded, but that it empowers and even encourages impeachable offenses and undetectable conflicts of interest by America’s highest official, and thus is an unprecedented invitation to corruption and an assault on our democracy.”

Wallace, a Villanova Law grad, walked McKeon through the patent defects in the Dillon/Fielding/Morgan Lewis conflicts plan. In great detail, he covered issues that I outlined in my three-part series on the plan’s inadequacies. And he added a few zingers:

  • “Ms. Dillon has legitimized a complete non-solution to Trump’s manifold conflicts of interest….”
  • “She adds a few window-dressing safeguards….”
  • “She absolutely denied the existence of any Emoluments Clause problems….”
  • “The result is an illusion of protection against the President using his office for personal gain. Trump’s entire life has been devoted to personal gain, not a moment to public service.”

Presidential corruption matters, and the Dillon/Fielding/Morgan Lewis plan facilitates it. As Wallace observed, “the ethical carnage is mounting”:

  • Just days after Trump reaffirmed the “one China” policy, it granted 38 new Trump trademarks.
  • Trump’s newly hired director of diplomatic sales at his DC hotel has enjoyed tremendous success in foreign bookings, including Azerbaijan, Bahrain, and Kuwait.
  • Trump’s bans on Muslin-majority nations excluded countries where Trump has business interests.
  • China’s government-owned bank is the single largest tenant in Trump Tower and the lease will come up for renewal during Trump’s presidency.
  • Since Trump’s election, initiation fees at Mar-a-Lago have doubled to $200,000.

Wallace could have added that Trump has yet to make good on Dillon’s promise to donate all Trump hotel profits from foreign governments to the U.S. Treasury. And his organization’s post-election success in registering Trump trademarks around the world has been phenomenal.

“It is painfully obvious that Trump is using his office for personal gain,” Wallace continued. “And Morgan Lewis is enabling and legitimizing this… Americans deserve a president of undivided loyalty. Your firm has denied them that.”

What’s Next? Nothing Good for Morgan Lewis

Here is my next prediction: more clients will fire Morgan Lewis. Corporate boards and CEOs will shun a firm willing to tolerate Dillon’s unprofessional performance on January 11. They’ll act on their belief that preserving critical norms of democracy should outweigh a firm’s desire to do almost anything for a client’s billable hour.

But the most discerning of general counsels will leave Morgan Lewis for an entirely different reason that has nothing to do with Trump, politics, the appropriate limits of a lawyer’s role as client advocate, or every attorney’s sworn duty to protect the U.S. Constitution. Substantively, the Trump conflicts plan is embarrassingly bad lawyering.

IT’S THE MODEL

[Thanks, readers. My big law novel — The Partnership — has been on the Amazon e-book “Legal Thrillers Best-Seller List” for more than a month. Last weekend, it was #7. Also available for iPadNook, and in paperback.]

Returning from vacation means tackling a pile of accumulated newspapers in a single sitting. That sounds like a chore, but it allows the mind to connect news items that otherwise might seem completely unrelated.

Consider these three from the Wall Street Journal on August 1, 2, and 3.

In “With Oracle and Dodgers Waiting, Boies Not Ready to Retire,” the Journal  interviewed David Boies — 70-year-old former Cravath partner who started his own firm. He represented Al Gore in the 2000 election fight, plaintiffs challenging California’s law banning gay marriage, the NFL in its litigation with players, and a long string of high-profile litigants. Boies explains why more than half of his firm’s cases have a potential success fee:

“Hourly rate billing is bad for the client and I believe bad for the firm. It sets up a conflict between what’s good for the lawyer and what’s good for the client.”

Enter the client with the will to resist the hourly billing regime. On August 2, the WSJ‘s “Pricing Tactic Spooks Lawyers” describes clients countering high big law fees with on line reverse auctions that pit firms against each other in bidding for business. The result: cost reduction.

But economizing can be dangerous. An article in the next day’s WSJ should make every big firm attorney squirm. “Objection! Lawsuit Slams Temp Lawyers” reports that J-M Manufacturing is suing its former law firm, McDermott, Will & Emery LLP, claiming that the firm didn’t supervise adequately the work of contract attorneys from a third-party vendor. McDermott denies wrongdoing:

“J-M…keeps changing its story. Now [it]…claims that McDermott failed to supervise the contract lawyers that J-M retained….”

According to the article, J-M alleges that it paid McDermott attorneys rates as high as $925 an hour, compared to $61 an hour to the firm supplying the temps. In other words and regardless of who retained them, using contract lawyers helped shave J-M’s outside legal bills.

Here’s the common thread. In the first article, Boies just says what everyone knows: the billable hour regime is a nightmare. The second reflects ongoing client efforts to reduce resulting legal costs. The third identifies a potential peril for law firms that attempt to oblige: a malpractice suit — the ultimate conflict with a client.

I don’t know if McDermott did anything wrong, but clients should realize that putting the squeeze on outside lawyers is tricky. For example, cutting fees is one thing; expecting large firm equity partners to do the obvious — reduce their own stunning income levels to help the cause — is something else, and it isn’t happening.

Amid corporate belt-tightening that targeted outside legal costs, average equity partner profits for the Am Law 100 actually rose during the last two years. They’re now back to pre-Great Recession levels of $1.4 million a year and it’s a safe bet that next year’s profits will be even higher. If I were a client, I’d ask, “How did that happen?”

“It’s the successful model at work,” most firm leaders would say without reflection or hesitation. “Growing equity partner earnings are essential to retain and attract top talent. Firms have become more efficient, so it’s a win-win for clients and partners.”

Clients should consider the untoward implications of austerity measures that don’t dent equity partners’ pocketbooks. Increased efficiency? Operating with fewer secretaries and putting locks on supply room cabinets don’t account for the extraordinary profits wave that big law continues to ride.

Here’s another explanation. The prevailing model requires increases in billable hours — big law’s distorted definition of productivity — to offset fee reductions that clients demand. Concerned about attorney fatigue that compromises morale and work product? Too bad; the model ignores it.

Clients can and should seek lower big law fees, but they should be careful what they wish for, scrutinize what they get, and wonder why equity partners’ eye-popping profits keep growing along the way. The prevailing model rewards big law equity partners handsomely, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s working for their clients or anyone else.