TRUMP TEACHES BIG LAW A LESSON

Sometimes, a client isn’t worth the billable hours it brings to the firm. But long ago, Upton Sinclair revealed why some big law firm partners don’t accept that truism: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Except when a court appoints an attorney for a defendant who can’t afford one, lawyers choose their clients. In most firms, partners “eat-what-they-kill.” The resulting culture creates short-term incentives that cause business development efforts to focus on a single question: How much revenue will the prospective client generate?

Sheri Dillon, William Nelson, and their firm, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, are teaching the profession an important lesson: such myopia is a mistake.

Sliding Down Trump’s Slippery Slope

In 2016, candidate Trump was pushing a flimsy “under audit” excuse for not releasing tax his returns. On March 7, 2016, Dillon and Nelson signed a letter confirming that, in fact, Trump’s tax returns for 2002 through 2008 were no longer under audit. However, the letter explained, his returns for 2009 forward “are continuations of prior, closed examinations.” Needless to say, Americans will never see those returns—at least, not because Trump releases them voluntarily. But Trump used Morgan Lewis to suit his immediate public relations needs.

In a Jan. 11, 2017 press conference, Dillon, Nelson and their firm took a more prominent role in Trump’s circus. They unveiled a plan to deal with Trump’s business conflicts of interest made a mockery of American presidential ethics. Attorneys were quick to condemn it. Subsequent events have demonstrated that the plan remains useless in preserving the integrity of the presidency.

By April, even reliable stalwart Trump defender Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) wanted to know what Trump was doing to implement his attorneys’ earlier public promises. On May 24, The New York Times reported the Trump Organization’s response: a slick brochure explaining why it was impractical to comply “fully and completely” with Sheri Dillon’s earlier assurance that Trump would donate to the US Treasury all profits from Trump hotels and similar businesses derived from foreign governments.

Recently, The Washington Post summarized just one of small slice of the ongoing scandal: “This is nothing Washington has ever seen. For the first time in presidential history, a profit-making venture [the Trump International Hotel in DC] touts the name of a U.S. president in its gold signage. And every cup of coffee served, every fundraiser scheduled, every filet mignon ordered feeds the revenue of the Trump family’s private business.”

“I Put Out a Letter”… (from somebody)

The most recent hit to the reputations of Sheri Dillon, William Nelson, and their firm came during Trump’s now infamous July 19, 2017 interview with The New York Times. Reporters asked him what would happen if special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation included Trump and Trump family finances unrelated to Russia. Would that be would a breach of Mueller’s charge?

“I would say yeah,” Trump answered. “I would say yes. By the way, I would say, I don’t — I don’t — I mean, it’s possible there’s a condo or something, so, you know, I sell a lot of condo units, and somebody from Russia buys a condo, who knows? I don’t make money from Russia. In fact, I put out a letter saying that I don’t make — from one of the most highly respected law firms, accounting firms.”

Trump’s last remark referred to the March 8, 2017 letter that Dillon and Nelson had signed. But he couldn’t even remember whether Morgan Lewis was a firm of attorneys or accountants.

Substantively, the March 8 letter had actually raised far more questions than it answered. It even seemed to rebut Trump’s prior denials of income from Russia. Dillon and Nelson stated that “with a few exceptions”—totaling about $100 million—Trump’s tax returns for the past 10 years “do not reflect” any “income from Russian sources,” “debt owed by you or [The Trump Organization] to Russian lenders,” “equity investments by Russian persons or entities,” or “equity or debt investments by you or [The Trump Organization] in Russian entities.”

Among notable omissions were: the definition of “Russian”; whether Russian funds flowed into Trump projects more than 10 years ago; whether money from other former Soviet-bloc countries made its way into Trump projects; and what, if anything, Morgan Lewis had done to determine whether individuals or entities from Russia, Ukraine, or other former Soviet-bloc countries used shell corporations for transactions involving Trump businesses.

And Then There’s This

Investigative reporters—who aren’t Trump’s lawyers—have discovered that, since the 1990’s, tens of millions of dollars from former Soviet-bloc countries have found their way into Trump projects as investments, construction financing, and condominium purchases. No one outside Trump’s immediate orbit—except, perhaps, Vladimir Putin—knows the full extent to which that money contributed to his current fortune.

But there are clues. In September 2008, Donald Trump Jr. told a real estate conference: “In terms of high-end product influx into the US, Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets; say in Dubai, and certainly with our project in SoHo and anywhere in New York. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia. There’s indeed a lot of money coming for new-builds and resale reflecting a trend in the Russian economy and, of course, the weak dollar versus the ruble.”

Trump’s Reward

The fact that Trump couldn’t recall whether Sheri Dillon, William Nelson, and their firm practiced law or accounting is the least of their problems now. Trump has elevated the Dillon/Nelson/Morgan Lewis letter to a new status: evidence that the Russia investigation is a hoax. Depending on how special counsel Robert Mueller proceeds, those involved in preparing and signing that letter may need lawyers, too.

Other prominent law firms appear to have learned from the Morgan Lewis experience. In June 2017, Michael Isikoff reported that when Trump sought to bolster his legal team, four of the nation’s leading firms refused:

“The concerns were, ‘The guy won’t pay and he won’t listen,’ said one lawyer close to the White House who is familiar with some of the discussions between the firms and the administration, as well as deliberations within the firms themselves.”

Even if Dillon, Nelson, and Morgan Lewis have hedged the “won’t pay” problem by requiring a big retainer from their famous client, it won’t compensate for the potential impact on their professional reputations. And like all nightmare clients, Trump couldn’t care less about that.

TRUMP AND THE MORGAN LEWIS MESS — CONTINUED

On March 7, 2016, Sheri Dillon and William Nelson put their firm, Morgan, Lewis & Bcckius, on a slippery slope with their letter purporting to justify Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns. It’s been downhill ever since. Confirming that the IRS had closed its audits through 2008, they reinforced Trump’s “under audit” excuse for not releasing any returns at all. His returns for 2009 forward, they said, “are continuations of prior, closed examinations.” On January 22, Kellyanne Conway confirmed that Trump was never going to produce those returns. Period.

As I wrote on April 12, 2017, the descent continued with the Trump/Dillon press conference on January 11. “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. Why the esteemed Fred Fielding lent his name to the cause is a mystery. Substantively, attorneys knew immediately that the Dillon/Nelson/Fielding/Morgan Lewis plan was a joke.

Farce Turns to Tragedy

To recap the failures of the plan itself, Dillon said that Trump would put his business holdings in a revocable trust—meaningless window dressing. He would continue to own and benefit from every Trump asset in his portfolio. And he wasn’t selling any of the most valuable ones involving the family business. Still, she explained, no one should worry because his sons, Eric and Donald Jr., would run the company.

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.’”

Meanwhile, Donald Jr. has been campaigning for Montana GOP congressional candidate Greg Gianforte—who stands accused of assaulting a reporter.

Fallout

Shortly after Dillon’s press conference, H. Scott Wallace, co-chair of the Wallace Global Fund, sent a blistering termination letter to Morgan Lewis chair Jami Wintz McKeon. My previous post reviewed it in detail. Suffice it to say that Wallace was not pleased with Morgan Lewis’ willingness to help Trump sell democracy in return for billable hours.

“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,” Wallace wrote, “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.”

“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.”

From Mar-a-Lago initiation fees to the travel ban to China trademarks, Wallace observed that “the ethical carnage is mounting.” It still is.

Meanwhile, the Kushner family was trading on Trump ties to woo Chinese investors “into wealthy luxury developments” with $500,000 “investor visas.” So it’s not just the presidency that’s for sale, it’s America itself.

Bottoming Out

On May 12, the White House released another Dillon/Nelson letter that was supposed to take the heat off Trump’s financial connections to Russia. But it became fodder for another round of jokes—just as Dillon’s January 11 press conference had.

Then on May 20, the Associated Press reported that Dillon “initially wanted [Trump] to submit an updated financial disclosure without certifying the information as true” because he was filing voluntarily this year. After discussions with the director of the Office of Government Ethics, Walter Shaub, Dillon evidently agreed that Trump would sign and file by mid-June. Let’s see if that happens.

On May 24, The New York Times reported on another January 11 promise that Dillon made and Trump isn’t keeping: to give the U.S. Treasury all profits from Trump hotels and similar businesses derived from foreign governments. In response to a House Oversight Committee request, the Trump Organization produced a slick brochure explaining why it was impractical to comply “fully and completely” with that promise.

Here is my next prediction: In corporate boardrooms and law school campuses, the damage to the Morgan Lewis brand will continue. Business leaders will act on the 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 and the related disasters that have followed constitute embarrassingly bad lawyering.

One more note of interest to leaders of big law firms obsessed with growth for the sake of growth: Sheri Dillon and William Nelson are recent lateral hires. Both were at Bingham McCutchen until a few months before it collapsed in 2014.