Ebbers, Rigas, and Swartz all received lengthy prison sentences — 25 years, 20 years, and 81/3 to 25 years, respectively. (All have appealed their convictions.) With criminal prosecution now a common feature of financial investigations, attorneys recognize that the stakes have changed. “If the worst that’s going to happen is the guy gets 2 to 3 years in jail, that’s tough — it’s tough on his family and it’s a disgrace,” says Keker. “But now, it could be life. It’s a lot of pressure.”
Billing at rates as high as $700 per hour and taking home paychecks that can run to seven figures, top white-collar defenders are well compensated for handling such pressure. But many say they are in it for more than the money. Keker, for example, relishes the complex legal questions that arise in white-collar defense. “There is always a mental element to a white-collar case,” he says. “A lot of these people didn’t really think they were committing a crime. They don’t think, ‘I’m committing a felony,’ in the way that someone who sticks a gun in your face and takes your purse knows he’s committing a felony.”
Such ambiguities keep white-collar practice interesting, agrees Richard Janis. “There’s a tendency when you’re a prosecutor to think someone is either good or bad,” he says. “But in the real world, you can have very good people make a really bad mistake, or you can have people who are unfairly accused.”
In the end, the top white-collar defense lawyers take unpopular and seemingly unwinnable cases like those of the Enron and WorldCom executives simply because somebody has to. “An important part of our criminal justice system is having defense attorneys who will zealously defend their clients. If that wasn’t there, the government would run roughshod over people who are innocent,” says David Schertler. “That is just as true in white-collar as in traditional street crime.”
Kate O’Sullivan is staff writer at CFO.
Cream of the Crop
In a 2003 poll of white-collar criminal defense attorneys by newsletter Corporate Crime Reporter, the following attorneys were selected as those the respondents themselves would hire.
1. Dan Webb;
Winston & Strawn; Chicago
2. John Keker;
Keker & Van Nest; San Francisco
3. (tie) Reid Weingarten;
Steptoe & Johnson; Washington, D.C.
3. (tie) Brendan Sullivan Jr.;
Williams & Connolly; Washington, D.C.
4. Robert Bennett;
Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom; Washington, D.C.
5. Thomas Green;
Sidley Austin; Washington, D.C.
6. Earl Silbert;
DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary; Washington, D.C.
7. Daniel Reidy;
Jones Day; Chicago
8. Robert Fiske Jr.;
Davis Polk & Wardwell; New York
9. (tie) Theodore Wells Jr.;
Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison; New York