Top Litigator Faces Potential Prison Term Bill Lerach, perhaps the nation's most influential class-action lawyer, is expected to plead guilty Tuesday to a conspiracy charge. He faces a year or more in prison. Lerach allegedly took part in a scheme that involved illegal payoffs to clients.


Top Litigator Faces Potential Prison Term

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As NPR's Scott Horsley reports, it's a grim comeuppance for a man who has made his living pursuing corporate wrongdoing.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Law professor James Cox of Duke University says Lerach's reputation tended to rise when stocks were falling and vice versa.

P: He is a saint in the post-Enron era and a demon in the market-boom era, when he was suing high-tech companies left and right.

HORSLEY: Cox says the truth about Lerach lies somewhere in between.

P: He is the classic illustration of the entrepreneurial plaintiff's lawyer, pushing the envelope, using the press to his full advantage, to wrest a settlement for what he genuinely believed were abusive practices.

HORSLEY: Professor Cox says it was during that era that Lerach brashly claimed to have the best job a lawyer could hope for, since he didn't have to worry about clients.

P: Clients are supposed to come to the lawyer, lawyers are not supposed to come to the client. When you have clients on retainer, you're essentially buying the lawsuits. And that's unprofessional.

HORSLEY: In a 2002 interview with NPR, he said he was increasingly working for big pension funds who'd come to see lawsuits as one way to combat accounting fraud, the likes of Enron and WorldCom.

BLOCK: At first, there was no activity, then a trickle, then a stream, then a river - now, a flood. I think institutional investors have simply come to realize the government can't protect them. They can't really vote with their feet. They're going to have to stand up and fight for what's right.

HORSLEY: Financial commentator Ben Stein says he's disappointed for his friend. Stein says Lerach was one of the few people that corporate power players really feared.

BLOCK: People conceived him as being a big bully. But to my - I would think, he was not a big bully at all. He was just a guy trying to help the little shareholder. And I don't have any doubt that he was a force for good in the world of corporate finance.

HORSLEY: Scott Horsley, NPR News, San Diego.

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