Shockingly those words were actually uttered by a New York lawyer during a meeting with who he thought was a potential client. The lawyer boasted that “they don’t send the lawyers to jail because we run the country,” that lawyers are “members of a privileged class in this country,” and that lawyers “make the laws and when we do so, we do it in a way that is advantageous to the lawyers.”
This past Sunday, 60 Minutes reported on Global Witness’ investigation of certain New York lawyers’ willingness to engage a potential client seeking to launder illegal foreign funds in the U.S. The client was really an undercover member of Global Witness, a U.K. based non-profit that “fights for [global] justice” by exposing “environmental and human rights abuses . . . driven by the exploitation of natural resources and corruption.” In a two-part series, Anonymous I and Anonymous II, 60 Minutes’ Steve Kroft gives viewers a front row seat in these consultations via the undercover Global Witness representative’s body camera.
Of the 13 law firms approached, only one lawyer refused to get involved. Fifteen lawyers from 12 law firms engaged in the conversation and offered potential strategies. One was the president of the American Bar Association.
While the exposure of a series of lawyers that appeared willing to undertake the requested representation was alarming, we also found the attitude expressed in the quotes above troubling. To the extent any lawyer thinks of themselves as a “member of a privileged class,” who won’t get sent to jail because lawyers “run this country,” we find that incredibly disturbing. Lawyers are bound by ethical rules, which if followed would prohibit this type of thinking and behavior.
We applaud Global Witness for all of its work and especially for its investigation and exposure of these U.S. lawyers. We hope that lawyers across this country view the 60 Minutes broadcast, and that it sends chills down their spines.