Like many other defendants in the recent wave of corporate crime trials, Canadian press baron Conrad Black was convicted Friday despite assembling a dream team of legal talent costing millions of dollars.
The boom in white-collar prosecutions in the past decade has produced a bonanza for attorneys sparing no expense to mount defenses on behalf of their executive clients. Yet for all the massive efforts, they mostly lose.
The legal team of Enron’s Jeffrey Skilling, for instance, spent $70 million, according to court documents. The Rigas family of Adelphia spent $25 million, and Dennis Kozlowski of Tyco spent $26 million in two trials.
Though his expenditures have yet to be tallied, Black employed the trial teams of not one but two of the most sought-after criminal lawyers, Chicago’s Edward Genson and Toronto’s Edward Greenspan.
In part, the spending surge stems from the increasing willingness of federal prosecutors to bring complex, document-intensive cases that require months to try.
At the same time, top corporate executives more than ever can afford a megabucks defense. Besides vast increases in their personal wealth over the past decade, many routinely obtain employment contracts obliging their companies to pay for open-ended representation. Black had 75 percent of his trial expenses covered.
While some legal sources say the scope of white-collar cases these days all but demands a multimillion-dollar war chest to fund a credible challenge, others see waste and overbilling that at best makes no difference in the outcome and at worst might hinder justice.
So is an eight-figure defense worth the money for the privileged few who can pay? “I seriously doubt it,” said John Toothman, founder of the Devil’s Advocate legal-fee consultancy. “I’m sure it makes them feel better to have that security blanket of people around them, but they’re probably not well-served. There’s too many people and not enough thought.”