- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 4, 2010


Broadway, $28, 532 pages

Reviewed by Claude R. Marx

Business executives, along with their attorneys and political allies, have helped make the phrase “trial lawyer” an expletive in many contexts. Few attorneys have done more to give their profession a bad name than William S. Lerach, the one-time king of class-action shareholder litigation. Though some have argued that the lawsuits he brought forced businesses to be more accountable and protected shareholders, his illegal and at times immoral methodology proved his downfall. He paid people to become plaintiffs and then hid these actions from judges and opposing lawyers. These were instances in which the ends did not justify the means.

In “Circle of Greed: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of the Lawyer Who Brought Corporate America to Its Knees,” Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Patrick Dillon and Carl M. Cannon give readers a revelatory yarn about Lerach, who ultimately was imprisoned and disbarred. Their book is an exhaustive account of Lerach’s colorful personal and professional lives. It is a tale that chronicles his rise from a middle-class childhood in Pittsburgh to the heights of the legal profession and a friendship with President Clinton.

Mr. Dillon and Mr. Cannon go into painstaking detail about how Lerach found his clients and then often devised schemes to hide the money trail that flowed to other lawyers (in the form of finders’ fees) and plaintiffs. Lerach, his family and friends cooperated with the authors, but the book is anything but a puff piece. The authors generally are balanced in their approach, but it is clear throughout most of the text that they don’t like or admire the famed litigator.

Parts of the book read like a print version of Court TV and are a little slow going. That’s because, by necessity, the narrative gets bogged down by explanations of arcane aspects of corporate law. The authors also have the tendency to tell the stories of certain cases in sections, and the reader has to read about another case before learning about the outcome of the earlier one. Fortunately, the authors give readers plenty of literary sugar to help the medicine go down.

When describing the techniques Lerach used to deal with other lawyers before filing a case, the authors write: “He would later be characterized as a ‘Godfather, or Mafia-like character,’ who either blackmailed other firms into referring their cases and clients or was capable of muscling out the competition. He would not argue with at least part of that assessment.”

For many years, this approach paid off. He won $7 billion for Enron investors after proving that executives of the firm lied about its financial condition. He also won a multibillion-dollar verdict against disgraced savings-and-loan magnate Charles Keating. Those were just some of the jury verdicts Lerach won. He became so successful that, more often than not, companies would settle cases shortly after a suit was filed - even if the firm had done nothing wrong - just to make the case go away.

Mr. Dillon and Mr. Cannon note that one of the strongest weapons in the Lerach arsenal was his single-minded, no-holds-barred approach to preparing a case. They describe his body language and his intensity of purpose during preparation sessions.

“One of the signs of his nervous delight was his compulsive licking of the lenses of his oversize glasses, a source of amusement and reassurance for acolytes. It meant that the master was feeling his groove,” they write. Ultimately, Lerach’s reputation and career were destroyed following a lengthy federal investigation that was aided by testimony from a former law partner and attorneys whom he had paid to find plaintiffs.

Lerach negotiated a plea bargain before he was ever indicted. He pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy, agreed to forfeit $8 million and served two years in jail. It was one of the most staggering reversals of fortune in recent times. In “Circle of Greed: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of the Lawyer Who Brought Corporate America to Its Knees,” the authors do justice to their subject and have produced a book that proves the adage that truth can be stranger than fiction.

Claude R. Marx is an award-winning journalist who has written extensively on politics and history.

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