Servants of the Damned: Giant Law Firms, Donald Trump, and the Corruption of Justice
“A duo of enabling events opened the door to the descent into legal unprofessionalism, starting with a Supreme Court decision that permitted lawyers to advertise, at least on a limited basis at first. But that decision opened the floodgates to broader advertising. You merely have to turn on daytime television to see the scourge that has become.”
Lawyers are the professionals people love to hate. Of course, as the saying goes, everyone hates lawyers . . . except their own. In Servants of the Damned: Giant Law Firms, Donald Trump, and the Corruption of Justice, author David Enrich dissects one major law firm and illustrates justifications for the disrespect with which the legal profession is so often treated.
Or at least the legal profession as practiced in giant law firms.
Or at least the legal profession as practiced in one giant law firm: Jones Day.
While it might not be fair to paint all big law firms with the same brush, one thing is certainly true. As Servants of the Damned aptly points out, mega-firms in general have long since blurred the lines between lawyering as a profession and lawyering as a business, with Jones Day as the poster child of obliterated lines. The author writes, “Jones Day and many of its peers have become enablers of the business world’s worst misbehavior.”
Erasing those lines wasn’t accomplished in one fell swoop, but rather was a gradual transition. Enrich traces Jones Day from its roots as a regional law firm in Cleveland under the name Blandin & Rice, which then grew and expanded nationally under several name changes to include offices in other U.S. cities. From there, the expansion went international as Jones Day opened offices around the globe.
Expansion is one thing, but Enrich describes how Jones Day got caught up in the race to be the biggest and richest among the big and rich, as the profession of law seemed to transform itself into the business of money-making.
In the race to be bigger and richer, particularly in the world of litigation, Jones Day utilized the win-at-all-costs tactics sometimes referred to as Rambo litigation: flooding opponents with paper and court filings and abusive discovery tactics, all aimed at bludgeoning them into submission, often in pursuit of victory for clients who, themselves, might be deemed sketchy at best and whose conduct often bordered on, or actually was, illegal.
As Jones Day perfected those tactics in cases ranging from products liability to financial fraud, legal ethics somehow got lost in the process. “There were no good guys or bad guys in this type of litigation, the attorneys assured themselves. It was more like a game, and everyone was doing whatever they could to win.” Justice be damned!
On the transactional, or non-litigation side, Jones Day advanced the interests of clients in exploiting loopholes, evading laws, and avoiding legal responsibility for reprehensible or illegal corporate conduct. The principle involved seemed to be that the way to satisfy and keep clients—and keep getting paid—was to never say “no” to those clients. As Enrich writes, Jones Day prided itself on “taking on toxic clients and going to great lengths to keep them happy.” It wasn’t their job to make moral judgments about their clients’ conduct.
Enrich argues, though, that while Jones Day is emblematic of the “worst behavior,” as quoted above, “it is not even the worst.” In the chapter titled “Dirty, Dirty, Dirty,” he examines other firms that fit the same mold. “Name a top law firm. Scratch beneath the surface, and you will find evidence of years of exposure to corrosive elements, of the relentless pressure to grow bigger and more profitable.” It’s enough to make you shudder.
Of course, those other firms are not the target of the author’s attack; they are mentioned only in passing. It is Jones Day that Enrich identifies as the boogeyman of his thesis.
A duo of enabling events opened the door to the descent into legal unprofessionalism, starting with a Supreme Court decision that permitted lawyers to advertise, at least on a limited basis at first. But that decision opened the floodgates to broader advertising. You merely have to turn on daytime television to see the scourge that has become.
The second event was the advent of publications that were to become to the legal profession what the The Hollywood Reporter and Variety were to the movie business. The worst culprit of those publications, Enrich argues, was American Lawyer, published by Steve Brill.
Arguably irrelevant at first, the publication earned relevance, and grew into a monster, by publishing such things as law firm rankings and law firm earnings, the first dominoes to fall in creating fierce competition for higher profits. The more money a firm could make, the more it could pay its attorneys, attracting the best and the brightest, and the bigger the clients it could attract. Enrich quotes Brill as conceding, “It’s all my fault.”
Enrich saves his fiercest attacks for Jones Day’s devolution into a political powerhouse, concentrating its efforts in Washington, D.C., and its representation of Donald Trump. The firm had already been heavily involved in hiring former Supreme Court law clerks prior to the 2016 election, working somewhat backward from the prior transition of one former lawyer from the firm to the Court: Antonin Scalia.
But it was taking on the role of advocate for Trump that Enrich seems to find the most disagreeable of Jones Day’s legal work. While he acknowledges that Jones Day was not to blame for the events of January 6 and the attempt to overturn the 2020 election, he says “it wasn’t not to blame either.”
Perhaps the most recognizable Jones Day attorney in the Trump administration was White House counsel Don McGahn, who was crucial in remaking the federal judiciary with a slant to the right. When McGahn joined the administration, “[he] was poised to wield immense power, and his law firm was positioned to reap the spoils.”
But Jones Day’s influence was about more than just McGahn. According to Enrich, there was “an unparalleled concentration of a single firm’s lawyers inside a new administration, and it would advance Jones Day to aid its corporate clients and advance the political agenda of men like [managing partner Steve] Brogan.”
Servants of the Damned is more a morality tale than anything. In some detail, Enrich identifies the major problem associated with mega-law firms and the power and influence they command. At its core, the problem is that the “law had long ago ceased to serve as a vehicle for achieving justice, for assuring fairness. It had become something to exploit.” Jones Day, he adds, “had become really good at doing exactly that.”
Identifying a problem is usually the first step toward achieving a solution to such a problem. But Enrich stops far short of offering any solutions. Sadly, it may simply be that there are no viable solutions other than to somehow require a return to the gentlemanly or ladylike practice of law as a profession rather than as a win-at-all-costs-and-get-rich-in-the-process business.
It’s hard to see that ever happening.