Large corporations have long argued that class action lawyers are nothing more than extortionists who shake down big companies every time their stocks fall, forcing them to settle or risk fiscal ruin from a big jury verdict. Given what’s known now about how Lerach operated his law firm, it’s hard to say that the perception is only spin.
Mencimer, though, gives too much credit to Lerach’s self-serving “corporate crime fighter” identity. Lerach sued indiscriminately. To the extent that a small proportion of the defendants in Milberg Weiss cases were actual wrongdoers, it was a function of a stopped clock being right twice a day. It was because Lerach sued so often without actual evidence of wrongdoing that his early suit against Enron was dismissed: when faced with the biggest corporate scandal in history, Lerach couldn’t actually make the case until after the fact. Given that the decades of jail time Enron and WorldCom executives are facing, and the fact that a Lerach suit was at least as likely to be against the innocent as the guilty, it’s hard to say that the Lerachs of the world added much in the way of deterrence of corporate wrongdoing, as opposed to the deterrence of corporate investment. All Milberg Weiss and its successors accomplished was to transfer wealth from investors to their own pockets, with a taste for the politicians like Bill Clinton and other Democrats who helped weaken or block efforts to reform the securities laws. Ken Lay raised a fraction as much money for Republicans without any sort of quid pro quo, yet his relationship to Bush has gotten far more attention than Lerach’s relationship to the Democrats and the favors they did for him at the expense of everyday investors.