“I’m not worried about the moral issue here,” said Gordon Caplan, the co-chair of AmLaw 100 law firm Wilkie Farr, according to transcripts of wiretaps in the college admission scandal that you’re already starting to forget about. Mr. Caplan was concerned that if his daughter “was caught …she’d be finished,” and that her faked ACT score should not be set “too high” and therefore not be credible. Beyond that, all we know from the transcripts about Mr. Caplan’s ethical qualms is that “to be honest, it feels a little weird. But.”
That’s the line that stays with me, right through the “But” at the end. I want to tell you why, and I especially want to tell you if you’re a law student or a new lawyer, because it is extraordinarily important that you understand what’s going on here.
Mr. Caplan, who’s been placed on a leave of absence by his tight-lipped firm, was just one of dozens of rich, high-powered individuals now under indictment for bribery and mail fraud and such. I’m less interested in the two actresses who were arrested, however, than I am in the titans of industry who felt not just pressured to cheat their children’s way into prestigious colleges, but also strangely entitled to do so. Here’s a lengthier excerpt from the conversation between Mr. Caplan and the cooperating witness (the owner of the business running the con) who recorded him: [Emphasis added]
CW-1: What happened is, all the wealthy families that figured out that if I get my kid tested and they get extended time, they can do better on the test. So most of these kids don’t even have issues, but they’re getting time. The playing field is not fair.
CAPLAN: No, it’s not. I mean this is, to be honest, it feels a little weird. But.
CW-1: I know it does. I know it does. But when she gets the score and we have choices, you’re gonna be saying, okay, I’ll take all my kids, we’re gonna do the same thing. (laughing)
CAPLAN: Yeah, I will.
What the witness is telling Mr. Caplan here is that most of the rich-kid college applicants with various learning challenges who require extra testing time and accommodation — they don’t really have such challenges. It’s all a scam, you know. Political correctness run amok, everybody gets to have a disability of some kind these days, yada yada. And see, Gordon, all the rich people are taking advantage of this. They’re getting their kids bogus certifications that allow them to cut in line in front of you. Everyone’s doing it, Gordon. Everyone else is already cheating the colleges. All you’re really doing is evening the score.
Let’s set aside for a moment that the co-chair of a firm where the average partner earned $2,969,000 in 2018 can consider himself not one of “the wealthy families,” or the sheer irony that one of the richer and more powerful people in the profession really believes that the playing field is tilted against him. What’s really important to appreciate, I think, is that two things are happening here:
- Person A is telling Person B a series of lies.
- Person B wants to believe they’re not lies.
“It takes two to lie, Marge,” Homer Simpson once told his wife. “One to lie, and one to listen.” It’s a hilarious line, yes, but you know what else? It’s true. The effectiveness of a lie is directly proportional to the credulity of the person who hears it, and most people aren’t credulous because they’re stupid. I guarantee you the co-chair of an AmLaw 100 firm isn’t stupid. They’re credulous because they choose to be.
Most people believe the lies they’re told because they want the lies to be true. They want the world they live in to operate according to a series of principles and practices that make sense to them, confirming their suspicions, fulfilling their deepest wishes, and absolving them of blame for how they feel and what they do.
All the rich and powerful people who allegedly consented to participate in these crimes did so because they wanted to believe the justification that was offered to them. “You’re not really cheating. You’re just fighting back, refusing to be a sucker anymore while everyone else cheats to get ahead of you.” How intoxicating that is. How sweet and reassuring and vindicating. How interesting that it’s invariably people already overstuffed with money and power and privilege who’ll pay anything to buy that lie.
So why does any of this matter to lawyers, especially to young lawyers? Because of that one line I quoted.
“I mean this is, to be honest, it feels a little weird. But.”
Do you recognize that sound? That’s the sound of a person’s conscience, a lawyer’s conscience, struggling to make its voice heard.
This one apparently can’t muster much more than a twinge of doubt, a feeling of discomfort, a nagging sense of this isn’t right and I shouldn’t be doing it. It lasts for only a second, though, because the next word fatally undermines it. But. Yeah, I know, at some fundamental level, this is wrong. But.
It doesn’t matter what rationalization or justification follows the But, because at this point, it’s all over. The battle has been abandoned. If the next word out of his mouth had been So or Therefore, Mr. Caplan’s life would have gone in a very different direction.
You need to be able to recognize the sound of your own conscience. You need to listen to what it’s telling you, and not wave it aside with a But or an Anyway or a Nevertheless. You might be sitting there, fresh out of law school, saying, “No problem, I’m ready for whatever the practice of law wants to throw at me, I’ll stand my ground.” And I’m here to tell you, you have no idea what’s coming. You have no idea of the forces you’re up against. You don’t appreciate just how badly compromised the legal profession and law firm culture already are.
Does the name Ralph Kayser ring a bell with you? Probably not. Back in 2014, Mr. Kayser approached 16 lawyers at the most prestigious law firms in Manhattan as a representative of a government official in a mineral-rich African country who wanted to transfer a large amount of “facilitation money” into the United States without anyone from his country noticing it. You couldn’t have said “money laundering” any more clearly if you’d used a megaphone.
None of the lawyers took Mr. Kayser on as a client, but according to the ABA Journal, 15 of the 16 — including the then-president of the ABA itself — “offered advice on how [Kayser] could buy pricey Manhattan real estate without revealing his identity.” Here are some of their responses:
- “So we have to scrub it at the beginning, if we can, or scrub it at the intermediary location that I mentioned.”
- “We could provide you with the list of countries where the banking systems require less detail on ownership or source of funds.”
- “And you don’t have to declare to bank authorities where the money comes from.”
- “When I get money from my other clients, it always comes in with some strange name on it. I don’t even ask.”
- “They don’t send lawyers to jail, because we run the country … We’re still members of a privileged class in this country.”
I want to pause here and remind you that the people saying these things are legal aristocracy. They are some of the finest lawyers at the most famous law firms in the richest legal profession in the world. Breathless articles are written when they change the firms they work at.
Mr. Kayser, as it turned out, was a plant — an operative from global NGO Global Witness who wanted to show just how easily such an obviously dubious offer could be entertained by the aristocracy of the US legal profession. Mission, as they say, accomplished. And even the one lawyer who rejected Kayser’s advances out of hand, Jeffrey Herrmann, was revealing in his dismissal. “This ain’t for me,” he said, “my standards are higher” — but left unspoken in his reply was the acknowledgement, “But it’ll be for someone else, whose standards aren’t.”
In his feature article for The Atlantic, “How Kleptocracy Came to America,” Franklin Foer made the following cutting observations about what the Kayser incident demonstrated:
“Global Witness conducted its experiment to point out BigLaw’s complicity in the spread of kleptocracy. But the footage also provides primary anthropology of an American elite. A profession like law has highly developed ethical codes, yet those codes appear to have receded in recent years. Even the most prestigious firms find themselves fretful about the survival of their high-priced business model, which was profoundly rattled by the 2008 financial crisis and the corporate cost-cutting that followed. Greedy impulses have surely always existed within the white-shoe world, but the sense of Darwinian struggle and the norms of a global elite have eroded boundaries. The same partners who shed underachieving colleagues more ruthlessly than they used to also seem primed to adopt a more permissive attitude toward clients whom they might once have rejected.”
Rip the privilege away from a privileged person and you create a very dangerous individual. Do the same thing to a profession steeped in rankings and prestige and money, where aspiration to elitism is held to be a virtue, and you create an extremely hazardous moral environment.
If you’re about to enter that environment, or if you’ve recently entered it, then I’m also here to tell you: Hold on to yourself. The ground is sticky and the slopes are slippery. You will be told various lies, and you need to know that they’re lies and not wish they were true. Here are some of them:
- “Everybody’s doing it.” No, they are not. I say to my teenage daughter, “There’s nothing in this world that everyone does. People can’t even agree on what kind of shampoo to use. If somebody tells you that ‘everyone’s doing it,’ that’s because they need the comfort and support of your co-conspiracy in questionable behaviour.” And she rolls her eyes and says, “I know, Dad.” But not everyone does. Not even in the AmLaw 100.
- “That’s how it’s done around here.” You can overestimate your daily billables count, you can order the secretary to work after you leave, you can gossip about a client in the coffeeshop, because that’s what the senior lawyers do all the time. While that last part might be true (frequently it is), the inference — local custom or firm culture supersedes ethical rules or moral dictates — is a lie. But you will find it an unbelievably hard one to resist.
- “The big clients deserve what they get.” I had lawyer friends at the start of our careers tell me sincerely that it was alright to file a false insurance claim because insurers were massive and rich and would never miss the money and probably cheated their policyholders anyway. The same logic fuels rampant overbilling on big corporate files every day. It’s a lie. Cheating a cheater doesn’t make you Robin Hood. It makes you a crook.
- “You work hard and you’ve earned a little something.” You know who works hard? The person who vacuums up the dinner you spilled at your desk, then goes on to work an overnight shift to support her kids while you go home to bed. And if she was ever so much as caught taking office supplies home with her, she’d be fired on the spot. And rightly so. And so should you be, for whatever quiet “perk” you talk yourself into “earning.”
- “It’ll look bad if you don’t go along.” If you don’t go along to the strip joint with the client. Don’t go along with the jokes about the new temp. Don’t go along with the senior partner’s temper tantrums. Don’t go along with the pressure to “review” that client memo for a few extra hours. You’re making the rest of them look bad when you don’t go along. But maybe, just maybe, that’s their problem, not yours.
Nobody is going to push you to soft-pedal potential money-laundering on your first day. That’s not how it works. It works by wearing down your defences on the smallest things, the littlest corners cut, the slightest concessions made. “Indeed, the safest road to Hell is the gradual one,” wrote Screwtape, “the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
You’ll be told to be practical, be realistic, to grow up already. If you listen, if you decide you want the lies to be true, then eventually you won’t need to be pressured to have a polite, informative conversation with a scoundrel about money laundering. You’ll do it yourself, naturally, without a second thought. And one day you’ll find yourself on the phone, saying that a certain proposition makes you, to be honest, feel a little weird, but.
This is not just for people in BigLaw. This is for everyone in every size law firm or law department, anywhere in the world. Your time will come. Your standards will be tested. Your loyalty or pragmatism or intelligence will be questioned. And you will feel such reluctance, such disinclination, to be the glaring exception. You will want to believe all the rationalizations offered to you. You will want the lies to be true because it’s easier that way. You will even find words like I’m not worried about the moral issue here on the tip of your tongue.
When (not if) that day comes, pause and listen for that voice. It’s the one that’s whispering, This isn’t right and I shouldn’t be doing it. Listen to it, consider what it has to say, take it seriously. And if you find, as is usually the case, that the voice has a point, then do not allow the next word out of your mouth to be But. Do not undercut your conscience when it’s come through for you at crunch time. Make the next thing you say be So or Therefore or It’s not for me, my standards are higher.
You’re a lawyer. Even if nobody else around you seems ready to live up to that privilege, make sure you do. Your conscience deserves it. Your profession needs it. And your career might hang on it.