Law Fools: Five Disgraced Former Lawyers

Bitter Staff Columns, Lawyer 12 Comments

One thing the recently-disgraced politicians have in common—other than being horrendous decision makers—is their law degree. So, thanks to men like Blajogevich, John Edwards, and Kwame Kilpatrick, we thought it was time to reflect. We know these guys are sleazeballs, but are they the sleaziest lawyers of all time? Perhaps not. Here’s a look back at some of history’s biggest disgraces.

1John Dean, former White House Counsel to Nixon. He became deeply involved in events leading up to the Watergate burglaries and the subsequent cover up. He was referred to as the “master manipulator of the cover up” by the (FBI). He pleaded guilty to a single felony count in exchange for becoming a key witness for the prosecution. He was disbarred, but later became a respected commentator and author. We could have put many Nixon cronies on this list—Erlichman, Liddy, and even tricky Dick himself—but we put Mr. Dean here because, hilariously enough, he has the gall to currently teach an ethics course! But it’s not just any course. It’s about Watergate and is certified by the Illinois Supreme Court as part of the 24 hours of continuing legal education that Illinois lawyers must take every two years. We imagine it could be summed up by saying “do as I say, not as I did.”

2Clarence Darrow. Actually, considered one of the greatest trial lawyers of all time, but once upon a time, he belonged on this list of scumbags. The great Chicago trial lawyer argued the Scopes Monkey Trial and the Leopold-Loeb murder case while recovering from his indictment on two counts of bribery. He was acquitted in one trial and freed after a hung jury in a second. Broke and scandalized, Darrow rebuilt his reputation by becoming what muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens called “the attorney for the damned,” a champion of cases that others would not touch—including communists, anarchists, labor radicals and black civil rights advocates. So basically the lesson is: become the greatest trial lawyer of all time and people will forgive a little graft.

3Ex-U.S. Attorney Alberto Gonzales. Served under a disgrace in his own right: George W Bush. Here is a short list of reasons he made the list: (1) helped draft the Presidential Order which authorized the use of military tribunals to try terrorist suspects. (2) Drafted Executive Order 13233, making it possible for current and former presidents to assert executive privilege over the release of privileged presidential records. (3) Worked very hard to get around those annoying Geneva conventions on torture. (4) Played a controversial role in dismissal of 9 US attorneys and (5) threatened to charge the New York Times under the Espionage Act after they blew the whistle on the CIA’s illegal wiretaps of US citizens. Basically, just an all-around great guy.

4Joel Steinberg. Just an absolute monster. His name still gives chills to anyone from the Tristate area. A former New York criminal defense attorney, Steinberg attracted international media attention when he was accused of murder and convicted of manslaughter in the November 1, 1987, death of a six-year-old girl, Lisa, who he and his live-in partner and punching bag, Hedda Nussbaum, had illegally adopted. Steinberg was accused of hitting Lisa on the head and then not seeking medical attention for the child, supposedly because he was under the influence of crack cocaine. She was left on the floor for 10 hours. He was denied parole multiple times for never expressing any remorse.

After charges were brought against Steinberg, the New York Bar reviewed its records and found out that Steinberg did not leave law school early to join the Air Force, rather he was kicked out due to his failing grades. The revoked his bar exam exemption and he was immediately disbarred. Probably mostly because he never took the bar, but a little because he was a murderous savage. Steinberg was recently released from prison and still maintains his innocence. Yikes.

5Roy Cohn. Cohn became famous during the investigations by the Senator Joseph McCarthy into alleged Communists in the U.S. government, and also represented a very important figure of prosecution in the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Federal investigations during the 1970s and 1980s charged Cohn three times with professional misconduct, including perjury and witness tampering. In 1986, a five-judge panel of the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court disbarred Cohn for unethical and unprofessional conduct, including misappropriation of clients’ funds, lying on a bar application, and pressuring a client to amend his will!

Get this: in this case in 1975, Cohn entered the hospital room of a dying and comatose Lewis Rosenstiel, the multi-millionaire founder of Schenley Industries, forced a pen to his hand and lifted it to the will in an attempt to make himself and Cathy Frank—Rosenstiel’s granddaughter—beneficiaries. The resulting marks were determined in court to be indecipherable and in no way a valid signature. Sadly, he died of AIDS, but insisted on his deathbed that it was liver cancer. He lost his law license during the last month of his life. At that time, National Review senior editor Jeffrey Hart referred to him as “an ice-cold sleaze.” Clearly, you’re not very well liked if that’s the best eulogy they can come up with. On the plus side: he has been played in movies by both James Woods and Al Pacino, so he can take that to the grave.

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  • Guano Dubango

    I agree that 4 out of the 5 were famous attorney’s at law, but Joel Steinberg? What kind of lawyer was he? We never heard of him in my country.

    In fact, I think I remember him only from the Steinfeld TV series, when Elaine went to the NY Mets game with him. And he was not a barrister, either!

    Elaine was very cute in her day. I would have dated her when she was spongeworthy.

    • Virginia Dentata

      I think you have that backwards…it’s the dude who had to be spongeworthy….

  • FL Lawyer

    I’m sorry, but I think the inclusion of Alberto Gonzalez is a purely political one that doesn’t fit in with this group at all. There are significant legal arguments about whether terrorists should be afforded the same rights of U.S. citizens as well as whether they are subject to the Geneva Convention. Our current brilliant, Constitutional Law Professor, so much smarter than G.W. Bush, president hasn’t figured these issues out yet, and the last I checked, terrorists were still set to be tried in military tribunals.

    As far as I know, Alberto Gonzalez hasn’t been disbarred or charged with a crime. Disagree with him on the law if you want, but including him within a list of felons and murderers is a bit much.

    Personally, I think a much better person to fit number 3’s slot would be John Edwards. Not because of his party affiliation, but because of his confirmed sleaziness. Just my two cents.

    • Strenuous Objector

      It’s obviously political with the statement “served under a disgrace in his own right: George W Bush.” Seeing as Bush did in fact stabilize the country after 9/11, passed the No Child Left Behind act, and formed a continued group to evaluate the status of Puerto Rico among other things, I believe he did many good things for the country, even if he also made some poor choices. If being a mediocre/just ok president is disgraceful then Jimmy Carter should still watch his back. I agree Alberto Gonzalez was not indicted for anything. If upholding the laws and following orders by your president are what make for a disgraced AG then yes he is a disgrace, but at no time did he engage in bribery, forcing someone to change their will, or murder anyone. Why not include Janet Reno instead since she was single-handedly responsible for the Waco, Texas massacre. Or possibly list a lawyer who was actually accused of some wrong doing like Alger Hiss, Bill Clinton, or Eliot Spitzer.

  • TexJudge

    I know Alberto Gonzalez. He came from a poor Hispanic family with 7 or 8 siblings and grew up in Houston. He went to a top law school and served with distinction on the Texas Supreme Court before becoming AG. Your attack on Judge Gonzalez is a political hatchet job unbecoming of you and your usually excellent and informative website. What about the current AG who stifled an inquiry into voter intimidation in Philly by the Black Panthers, who has done everything to stop states from preventing illegal aliens from voting or receiving welfare, etc?

  • miserable associate

    I definitely did not know about Clarence Darrow. Bribery. That’s awesome. Never learned that in school. What about Bill Clinton???? Should he be number 1?

    • Snooder

      I think it’s important to note that Clarence Darrow got indicted for bribing *jurors*. IIRC the case was when he was defending an anarchist in San Francisco. He was always a “champion for the little man”, it’s just that back when he did it, championing included more than a few underhanded tactics.

  • mean partner

    6. mke nifong, the North Carolina DA that railroaded innocent kids and with held exculpatory DNA evidence;

    7. Alger Hiss, former spy for russia during WWII;

    8. the lawyer that represented the board of education in Brown v Board;

  • RHC2

    I am genuinely surprised that anyone has anything positive to say about Alberto Gonzales. When I read this, I thought he fit right into the mix.

  • Ganthet

    @ Strenuous Objector

    Janet Reno single-handedly caused the Waco massacre? There was no one else involved who was, say, heavily-armed, wildly deluded, and prepared for a messianic martyrdom? Please take off the partisan tinfoil hat.

    Gonzales tried to ride roughshod over a seriously ill AG Ashcroft who was still in the hospital and get him to authorize an already-underway domestic surveillance program that a review by the Justice Dept. had already determined was illegal. Gonzales wasn’t just some patsy following orders, he was a legal trailblazer for the notion that the ends justified the means.

    • Strenuous Objector


      Well Janet Reno authorized the use of force and there are continued disputes over it. The FBI admitted to having grenade launchers onsite to shoot the tear gas and the tank that pumped in the gas is also linked to the collapsing of the building which led to many being unable to leave. She also changed her reasoning from stopping child abuse to a lone militia joining the conflict. Even Clinton argued that they could have waited them out instead of the raid. There’s also her response to the Elion Gonzalez situation that should be remembered. Overall, I wouldn’t have selected either of the AGs for the list because though both of them may have made bad choices or stood for what others may disagree with (such has Alberto’s obvious stance for surveillance) that doesn’t make either of them disgraced and thus shouldn’t be in the same list as Cohn or Steinberg. I mean if the writer wanted to be argumentative against Bush they should have put Scooter Libby in his place. I mean he at least was disbarred for outing a classified agent and putting her life in danger.

  • Ballard Law Office

    Omitted – Scooter Libby, John Edwards, Bill Knowles