The Life

June 9, 2010 4:11 PM

Masters of What Game?

Posted by Ed Shanahan

By Michael Stern

Masters-game-inside-worlds-most-powerful-law-firm-kim-eisler-hardcover-cover-art Not to keep you in suspense any longer than necessary: Williams & Connolly, the fabled white-collar defense boutique, is the firm that Masters of the Game portrays. But the real spoiler is that Masters is a prose version of the famous New Yorker cover that relegates all of the U.S. west of the Hudson to oblivion--in this case, for Kim Eisler, "the world" means just "Washington, D.C." and "powerful" means "represents both Democrats and Republicans in trouble, and then does their book deals."

Eisler, a former reporter for The American Lawyer and Legal Times and longtime national editor of Washingtonian Magazine, should know better. This is a surprisingly bad book--rambling, disjointed, often dull, repetitively hyperbolic without much to back up its claim that W&C is "the firm that runs the world," or "is the most powerful legal institution on the planet." It's classic inside-the-Beltway myopia to confuse political scandals and high-profile white-collar criminal defense cases with the sort of dealmaking that determines legislative outcomes, the allocation of private benefits and social costs, and commercial success (my definition of "power" or "influence").

Eisler's examples of W&C's purported power range from the silly to the unsubstantiated. On the silly side: He wildly overpraises W&C partner Gregory Craig's achievement in obtaining a not guilty by reason of insanity verdict for John Hinckley, the would-be assassin of Ronald Reagan: "It's safe to assume that if Hinckley had been a black student from Texas Tech, no one would have bought Craig's story of his being crazy...In no other country in the world, probably not even France...could a person brazenly step before the television cameras and shoot the president...and be found not guilty. Then again, no other country had a law firm like Williams & Connolly operating in it." This farrago of irrelevant detail (what does France have to do with anything?) and corkscrew logic (what did Hinckley's race have to do with a verdict that even Reagan himself said was just, and what's unique about insanity defenses in common law countries?) is all too typical of Eisler's style.

As for unsubstantiated claims, Eisler insinuates that the reach of W&C's influence is not just sleazy, but unethical--but with no proof. He estimates that Bill and Hillary Clinton ran up $9-10 million in unpaid legal fees for W&C's services defending them in the Whitewater, Paula Jones, and impeachment debacles. He then recounts the controversial pardons President Clinton gave to W&C clients in the waning hours of his administration (fugitive financier Marc Rich; Weather Underground armed robbers Linda Sue Evans and Susan Rosenberg; Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros, who lied to the FBI about his extracurricular sex life; and former CIA director John Deutch, who breached agency security procedures), and then accuses via innuendo, not evidence: "Of course, it could have been a coincidence that so many Williams & Connolly clients got pardons. At the time, though, there was no certainty that Bill Clinton would ever be able to pay Williams & Connolly in dollars....Still, even if he never paid a dime of his monumental legal fees, he had pretty much cleared the decks of their key cases. He could leave the White House believing what they had gotten was more than fair...." So Clinton wanted to pay in pardons? Eisler's implications are unmistakable, but there’s nothing to back them up, and he then acknowledges that Clinton eventually paid his legal bills in cash. Someone who lambastes Whitewater special prosecutor Kenneth Starr for conducting an evidence-free witch hunt should be more careful himself.

Masters has a few redeeming aspects. Eisler focuses on the big cases, clients, and deals handled by W&C partners Brendan Sullivan, David Kendall, Gregory Craig, and Robert Barnett: Oliver North (in the Iran-contra hearings); Leona Helmsley; former Alaska senator Ted Stevens; various corporate CEOs; and, of course, the ever-besieged Clintons. The firm’s media clients range from the ultra-respectable Washington Post to the ultra-tabloid National Enquirer. (When comedian Eddie Murphy threatened to sue the Enquirer for its story about his arrest for soliciting a male transvestite prostitute, the W&C team demolished Murphy's claim that he had just been out to buy a paper. Kendall documented just how many newspaper kiosks there were between Murphy’s house and where he was arrested; Murphy not only dropped the suit, but paid the Enquirer's legal fees.) And Bennett's bipartisan roster of authors is truly impressive: both Clintons, Tony Blair, John Edwards, John Dean, Alan Greenspan, Robert Bork, Madeleine Albright, Bill Richardson, Joe Lieberman, Lynne and Dick Cheney, Laura Bush and her daughters, Karl Rove, and Sarah Palin, among many other celebrity politicians.

Eisler vividly illustrates W&C's notorious "scorpion" style of hardball defense: "A prospective adversary knows that if you attack them, you are the one who is going to get stung.” Or, as one former colleague puts it: "First they go over the ground with a fine-tooth comb. Then they scorch it." A splendid example:  Omni International, a firm that leased private jets to jet-setting celebrities, was indicted for tax evasion in 1984. Enter W&C for the defense. Sullivan proved that a key document produced by the Justice Department could not have been created when alleged, since the watermark proved that it was printed on paper not manufactured until a year after it was purportedly written. Sullivan followed this lead to uncover how the government had "recreated" missing documents essential to its case. The indictment was dismissed for prosecutorial misconduct, and the career of the assistant U.S. attorney running the investigation dead-ended in the chief counsel’s office for the Maryland Office of Cemetery Oversight.

But there are far more digressions and rhetorical excesses than compelling stories here, unfortunately. My advance copy of Masters didn't have an index, so I can't tell how easily you could do a "Washington read" (checking how often your name, or your firm's, is mentioned and in what context) on or in the bookstore aisle. Alas, that’s as much effort as I recommend expending on this flawed book.

Masters of the Game: Inside the World's Most Powerful Law Firm
By Kim Eisler
Macmillan; 352 pages; $26.99

Michael Stern, a former reporter and English professor, is a partner in Cooley Godward's technology transactions group.

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The book cannot be as bad as Stern claims. It should be an interesting read if one does not already know about W&C and its history. I believe that I'll wait and buy the book in the used section through Amazon in late June based on the review.

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