Verdicts Rendered, a Beat Surrendered

It's been a hoot.

This is a farewell column, a wave goodbye, a been-swell-to-know-you tip of the hat. Starting in February, the reins of Hearsay will be handed off, no doubt to someone brighter and waaaaay better looking. This reporter will exit the world of Washington lawyers and head to the Style section to write about pop music.

Before leaving, let's field some questions that might arise in the minds of you, the readers who made this biweekly experience such a delight for Hearsay. Okay, maybe interviewing oneself is utterly inappropriate, under any circumstance. But would it kill you to humor Hearsay for few minutes? Goodbyes aren't easy. And it's time to blab.

How has the practice of law changed in Washington since Hearsay began covering lawyers three years ago?

Do you really care?

Not really.

Okay, let's move on.

Do lawyers dish on each other?

Not often enough! Before starting this column in 1997, Hearsay had heard that lawyers are born backstabbers, but this is mostly myth. The majority are circumspect, even in those background conversations that reporters relish. To you attorneys who broke the mold and dished--you know who you are--Hearsay would like to say, "Thanks."

Are lawyers good people?

If Hearsay had a nickel for each time this question was asked, Hearsay would have, like, 37 nickels. Here's the definitive answer: In Hearsay's experience, lawyers are evil, horrible, nasty, vindictive people who eat their young.

That last sentence, alas, was totally false, yet far more scintillating than the bland truth, which is that lawyers, generally speaking, are bright, engaging and--as far can be discerned--upstanding and straight-shooting. There are exceptions of course, but Hearsay has come across very few of them. If anything, Hearsay's principal gripe about covering Washington lawyers is that they rarely produce scoundrels or colorful characters. (And colorful scoundrels, well, they're basically impossible to find.) What passes for offbeat in this town is Jack Olender, the medical malpractice meister who showed up a few years ago at his annual Olender awards shindig in a maroon suit made of velvet. Hearsay could have hugged him!

Any other favorites?

Yes, and Hearsay would now like them to shuffle out and take a bow.

There's Robert Bennett, President Clinton's lawyer and a guy who is charmingly incapable of holding a grudge and apparently adores the frisson of spotting his name in print. When Hearsay profiled Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, where Bennett is a partner, he was initially reluctant to submit to an interview.

"You've taken a lot of cheap shots at me," Bennett said on the telephone.

What are you talking about? Hearsay sheepishly asked, figuring that Bennett was referring to a Style story that quoted some of his critics.

"I don't want to go into it, but you've taken a lot of cheap shots," he said.

Well, could we discuss what exactly you mean?

"No, I don't want to go into it . . ." Pause. "Want to come by?"

In a flash, all was forgiven and five minutes later, Hearsay was sipping a Pepsi in Bennett's office.

Then there is Lewis Rivlin, a made-for-TV-movie waiting to be filmed. Rivlin, once a highly regarded corporate lawyer and former law partner to Al Gore Sr., is embroiled in a lawsuit that sounds like a script pitch: He is accused of helping a bishop in Cyprus rob a charity in Ecuador of $1 million, something he denies. Foiling the charity's efforts to have him tossed in jail for civil contempt seems to be a part-time job for Rivlin, now very much a solo practitioner.

Finally, there's Larry Klayman, a "one-man litigation explosion," as the online magazine Slate once tagged the conservative leader of Judicial Watch, a nonprofit firm. While Hearsay covered the legal beat, Judicial Watch filed about a dozen lawsuits, and Klayman sued his mother. (They settled out of court when she agreed to pay him $15,000.) Klayman also sued Hearsay for libel. (The case is pending.)

Even Hollywood has taken note. The NBC series "West Wing" has created a Klayman-clone named "Harry Klaypool," the head of a litigious watchdog group called "Freedom Watch." Klayman referred to the character in a press release on Wednesday, and also helpfully pointed out that the show would air at 9 that night.

Hearsay only wishes that Washington were filled with a dozen other lawyers as kinetic and fascinating as all of these gentlemen.

Are there any law firms that refused to speak to Hearsay?

Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld. The relationship started out cool when Hearsay debuted, with a lighthearted item about the 6-by-4-foot oil painting of former super-partner Vernon Jordan that once hung right outside Jordan's door. Things later chilled to a freeze when Hearsay wrote an article about named partner Robert Strauss, detailing how this famed Democratic fixer got tangled in the story of alleged insurance fraudster Martin Frankel. (Through Strauss, Akin came to represent a trust Frankel used to bilk millions from a handful of insurance companies.)

After the story ran, an Akin spokesman promised the firm would never speak to Hearsay again, and by God, those lawyers kept their promise.

What was the most memorable moment on the legal beat?

A few days before the start of the Microsoft case, the government's lawyer, David Boies, shared some thoughts with Hearsay at the Capitol Grill. Exhausted from days of trial preparation and having just devoured some prime rib, Boies got up from the table, walked to a nearby booth, curled up on the upholstery--and fell asleep. He roused himself after a 15-minute nap, returned to Justice and went on to a now-storied performance in court.

Any regrets?

Hearsay regrets never taking a hard look at the disciplinary process for D.C. lawyers. Lore has it that Washington's is actually among the most efficient, but some cases take forever. Consider the tale of Mark Hager, the American University Law professor and sometime plaintiffs lawyer.

He represented a pair of Virginia mothers who wanted to sue Warner Lambert, makers of a lice shampoo, for creating an environmental hazard and for failing to rid critters from their children's heads. In an out-of-court deal, Warner Lambert offered refunds to the moms and some 90 other buyers of Nix shampoo, a sum that totaled less than $10,000. Hager and a partner, meanwhile, ended up splitting the $225,000 that Warner Lambert paid on condition that the lawyers not bring another, similar suit and--here's the kicker--not tell their clients about the bargain. (Hager countered that the deal was legit, in part because it doesn't prevent his clients from suing Warner Lambert in the future. He also said the moms' demand for a toxic tort-style suit was unreasonable.)

The moms filed an ethics grievance and a hearing before a committee of the D.C. Board of Professional Responsibility--which recommends disciplinary action--occurred in January. Not a peep has been heard from that committee since, even though it's supposed to cough up a recommendation within 60 days.

That's an outrage. If Washington lawyers want the trust of their clients and abiding respect from the rest of us, devising a more efficient policing mechanism might be a good start.

Is there anyone else you'd like to thank?

Yes, my editors over the years, including Jodi Schneider, Tracy Grant and the guy now running this section, Terence O'Hara. Here's to art director Bill Webster, who brought some visual spark to the page. And special thanks to Mike Stuntz, who scrupulously weeded out logical errors that Hearsay couldn't spot, even after they'd been pointed out.

And a thousand thanks to readers. It has been a pleasure.