Two Pulitzer Prize–winning journalists explore the world of a lawyer who became wealthy by representing plaintiffs against multinational corporations committing fraud, but who simultaneously defraded the legal system.
California Monthly executive editor Dillon (Lost at Sea, 1998) and politicsdaily.com deputy editor Cannon (co-author: Reagan’s Disciple: George W. Bush’s Troubled Quest for a Presidential Legacy, 2008, etc.) delve into the career of William S. Lerach, a San Diego–based lawyer in the New York City law firm of Milberg Weiss. Specializing in class-action lawsuits, Lerach sued Fortune 500 companies—including Enron, Tyco and WorldCom—on behalf of shareholders who believed they deserved recompense for the misdeeds of corporate officers. The plaintiffs would each normally receive relatively small monetary awards combined with the satisfaction of seeing corporate managers admit wrongdoing. Lerach and his law partners, meanwhile, would each win fees reaching into the millions of dollars. Lerach, born in Pittsburgh in 1946, tended to portray his upbringing as deprived, partly because his family had allegedly been taken advantage of by heartless drones from corporate America. In fact, the authors disclose, Lerach grew up in a stable, middle-class family. Nonetheless, his sense of perceived injustice drove him to the plaintiff’s bar, with lucrative private-sector institutions as his targets. The lawyer’s eventual celebrity grew not only because of his skilled lawyering but also his aggressive behavior—including highly publicized verbal challenges—toward nearly everybody who crossed his path, sometimes including his mentor Melvyn Weiss. Although the authors portray a hidden humanitarian streak in Lerach, for the most part he comes across as deeply unpleasant. His final downfall, which led to a prison term and the termination of his law practice, centers on a scheme to recruit plaintiffs with cash. He is scheduled to complete his prison term during 2010.
A well-reported, densely written saga with a gigantic cast of characters that becomes difficult to track through the ever-shifting narrative.