The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How chasing fees leads the biggest law firms to distort justice

The offices of Jones Day in Washington. (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA/AP)

My late father-in-law, a senior Eisenhower-era Justice Department official, complained four decades ago that commercial values infecting the practice of law would ruin America. That’s because lawyers make and interpret the rules. “We’re learned professionals with duties to society and the rule of law, not businessmen out to make a buck,” George S. Leonard often said.

I never fully appreciated how right he was until I read David Enrich’s engrossing new book, “Servants of the Damned: Giant Law Firms, Donald Trump, and the Corruption of Justice.”

Enrich, the business investigations editor at the New York Times, takes a very deep and disturbing dive into one law firm, Jones Day, which spawned the megafirms BakerHostetler and Squire Patton Boggs. Other giant law firms make walk-on appearances. The author shows how partner profits and political power easily overwhelmed legal ethics and even basic morality to the detriment of equity, fairness and justice.

In this compelling and well-paced narrative, Enrich recounts how Jones Day, a local Cleveland firm representing John D. Rockefeller’s burgeoning 19th-century petroleum monopoly, grew and pioneered the rise of national and then global legal powerhouses able to crush deserving plaintiffs under mountains of court filings.

Until a half-century ago, Jones Day partners turned away some unsavory business clients. In the 1960s, they approved absorbing another law firm because “these gentlemen were honest, had integrity and had respect for the law as a profession, not simply as a business.” In 1973, Jones Day declined, out of concern for its reputation, to represent Richard Nixon as he fought to keep the Watergate tapes secret.

Things began to change in 1974. Enrich traces the rise of giant law firms to a small ad placed in an Arizona newspaper by two reform-minded lawyers offering low-cost legal services. That ad and a second case prompted the U.S. Supreme Court to allow lawyers to advertise for clients while barring fixed prices. But more than consumer benefits, the high court ruling created an unintended path to riches for those who saw law as a profit-maximizing business.

Enrich shows, in anecdotes and revealing court filings, how Jones Day took on unsavory clients such as tobacco companies because they paid millions in retainers to perpetuate the sale of their deadly products. He notes that the right to counsel applies to criminal matters, but Jones Day conveniently applied it to business clients.

Four decades ago, soliciting Charles Keating of Lincoln Savings & Loan, “their pitch was that Jones Day could scrub Lincoln’s books” ahead of government audits. Jones Day also hired away regulators, who helped Keating and his like fend off law enforcement. It also aided and abetted frauds by concealing and backdating documents and faking the signatures of company directors. Jones Day paid huge civil settlements but was never criminally charged.

Investors ultimately lost $1 billion, and taxpayers spent three times that much. Keating, whose history of frauds dated to the 1950s, eventually went to prison.

Not everyone at Jones Day went along with chasing fees. Those who spoke up were consistently told to “stop whining.” Those most vocal about collapsing ethical standards were shown the door, Enrich reports, naming names. In this corrupt atmosphere, some lawyers billed 4,000 hours in a year. That’s 11 hours a day, every day. Jones Day had no qualms about helping clients like football team owner Art Modell scoop up hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies, a subtle form of welfare for the rich, provided they paid fat legal fees.

For all his impressive research, Enrich ignores some revealing aspects of the stories he tells. He pays no heed to William K. Black, the banking regulator who figured out what Keating and his ilk were up to, taught detectives and prosecutors how to bring thousands of cases, and became a pariah in legal circles because he stood for integrity and wrote “The Best Way to Rob a Bank Is to Own One: How Corporate Executives and Politicians Looted the S&L Industry.”

Enrich makes a persuasive case that “year by year,” Jones Day turned into an ideological powerhouse. It paid $400,000 signing bonuses to scoop up many more Supreme Court clerks than any other big firm; 70 percent of them had worked under conservative justices such as Antonin Scalia — once a Jones Day lawyer — an investment in attracting clients while shaping a pro-business, rightist future.

The firm hit the jackpot with current and future clients when it signed Donald Trump before the 2016 election. Donald McGahn, a Jones Day partner, became White House counsel on the promise that he would pick Trump’s federal court nominees. Another partner became solicitor general, controlling which cases the Justice Department appealed and how, and which it abandoned.

Like other big firms, Jones Day sends top lawyers on roadshows to solicit clients when administrations change; it accurately boasted that the Trump administration was salted with its once and future partners, a valuable sales tool.

Jones Day, both inside the government and out, played a major role in fulfilling Trump’s 2016 campaign promise to reduce the federal government’s effectiveness at regulating corporate conduct. The firm’s partners “helped reshape a smorgasbord of federal bodies” and helped turn the Justice Department into “a political appendage of the White House,” Enrich writes. The author shows that Jones Day wielded more power inside the government during Trump’s tenure than probably any other outside organization in any administration — ensuring even more billable hours.

Enrich weaves an astonishing array of facts into a powerful and important picture of how mega law firms distort justice: A system where you get only as much legal protection as you can afford favors the rich and the big companies they control over people who suffer wrongs.

Like many books with a sprawling cast of characters, this one would have benefited from photos of key players, or at least a page of mini-biographies to refresh readers’ memories. Readers also deserve endnotes with more than the sparse details Enrich provides.

Enrich quotes a law professor who says lawyers should ask themselves two questions. Am I proud of the work I’m doing? Am I the person I want to be? Imagine how attorneys at Jones Day and other big firms answer, given the soul-eating atmospheres in which they labor.

Enrich ends with a telling anecdote about Jones Day representing Trump & Co. after the failed Jan. 6, 2021, coup. A descendant of a Jones Day founder, fearing that the firm is “playing Russian roulette with American democracy,” angrily imagines that if her grandfather were still around, he “would have said they got too big for their britches.”

She was so mad she couldn’t complete her thought, so I will: If the law becomes just another business, then our democracy and our liberties cannot endure, because the richest and worst offenders will get away with cheating, polluting and stealing — until the bar and the courts remember that the law is a respectable profession.

Servants of the Damned

Giant Law Firms, Donald Trump, and the Corruption of Justice

By David Enrich

Mariner. 367 pp. $32.50

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