When playing a lawyer on TV is no substitute for an actual JD

6 minute read
Register now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.com

(Reuters) - The central conceit of the television series “Suits” is that Mike Ross, a brilliant guy with a photographic memory but no law degree, can pass as an associate at an elite Manhattan firm.

What makes the premise of the show at least somewhat plausible is that he’s supervised by superstar name partner Harvey Specter -- basically a mish-mash of John Quinn and Marty Lipton -- plus an ace paralegal played by Meghan Markle (pre-royal marriage), who are both in on the secret.

Also, no one really expects first-year associates to know anything anyway.

Register now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.com

But perhaps the character wasn’t the best role model for Students for Trump co-founder John Lambert, a.k.a. fake lawyer “Eric Pope,” who said his own fraudulent scheme was inspired by the show, which ended in 2019.

Earlier this week, Lambert, 25, was sentenced to 13 months in federal prison for claiming to be a graduate of New York University School of Law who (per his fake law firm bio) was “sought after for his experience with financial and corporate matters due to his ability to mitigate legal scenarios while keeping the growth of his clients' business a focal point.”

Which let’s admit, does sound a lot like something a legit law firm biography might say.

Lambert’s lawyer Gary Peters of Howard & Howard in Michigan in a sentencing memorandum tried to explain his client’s conduct as “youthful exuberance” that “led him to believe that he could create a fake persona and act like a TV character.”

Peters, who did not respond to a request for comment, added that “Suits” made Lambert think he could pose as a lawyer “without significant risk, just as the character ‘Mike Ross’ in ‘Suits’ practiced law without a law degree or license and kept that secret without penalty.”

Um, no. In season five, Mike got sentenced to two years behind bars for fraudulently impersonating an attorney.

So maybe he was a fitting inspiration after all.

Lambert pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud, admitting to a scheme that began in 2016, when he was 20 years old and a student at Campbell University in North Carolina.

The year before, he and fellow student Ryan Fournier founded Students for Trump, grabbing attention by tweeting photos of co-eds in bikinis wearing MAGA hats. According to Politico, the group opened chapters on hundreds of campuses, though it was not formally affiliated with the Trump campaign.

Lambert and an unnamed co-conspirator went on to create a fake law firm, Pope & Dunn, using platforms such as Upwork and Fiverr to attract clients.

The online marketplaces allow freelancers to offer a range of services, including legal. Browsing the listings, I found people purporting to be lawyers offering to work for as little as $15.

One such lawyer, for example, promised “accurate and reliable review or drafting of complex agreements, policies or any other legal documents your business needs” for about the same rate that you’d pay a teenage babysitter.

Caveat emptor anyone?

An Upwork spokeswoman in an email said that the "trust and safety of our customers is our top priority," and that misrepresentations violate the site's terms of services agreement. A Fiverr representative did not respond to a request for comment.

The sites don't make it easy to check credentials. On Upwork, freelance lawyers are identified by their first name and last initial (i.e. “Jenna G.”), while those on Fiverr have vague user names like dess21.

Lambert’s lawyer took a stab at blaming the people who used the platforms to hire a lawyer, noting that it is “well known that such websites do not vouch for their advertisers, nor represent that any of their site users actually are qualified to perform any of the services they offer,” Peters wrote, adding that “buyers clearly understood they must beware of entities they retained.”

Maybe. But Pope & Dunn also had a website that I, as a person who has viewed many, many law firm websites, found fairly convincing.

“Our diligent approach provides clients with efficiency and cross-disciplinary support where necessary to ensure that their needs and objectives are fully supported and met in a cost-effective manner,” it stated in an impressive imitation of legal marketing gibberish.

Pope & Dunn managed to attract several dozen clients, raking in about $50,000 in fees.

One client, for example, said in court papers that he paid Lambert $480 to draft a letter in a convoluted fight over capital contributions to a private equity fund. “The letter was not up to par, accurate, nor was it clear. However, the defendant, with conviction I might add, exuded confidence to me and my affirming peers.”

Among them, he said, were lawyers from Boies Schiller Flexner.

A Boies Schiller representative declined comment.

In other instances, prosecutors alleged Lambert simply took money from people and provided no services in return, not even fake ones.

In the summer of 2017, for example, the feds said a man hired Lambert for help with correcting errors in his credit report that were preventing him from getting a job.

Lambert allegedly “strung along Credit Victim-1 for months,” claiming that he was negotiating with the credit reporting agency and might even get an out-of-court settlement.

The man tapped his 401(k) to pay Lambert more than $10,000 and got nothing in return.

Actually, worse than nothing.

Prosecutors in their sentencing memorandum make an excellent point. Not only did Lambert rip off his clients, but by pretending he was zealously representing them, he stopped them from hiring real lawyers to fix their problems.

U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni in Manhattan was appropriately stern in rejecting Lambert’s plea for a non-custodial sentence.

“Mr. Lambert did not even have the common decency to make up an excuse and tell the victim to hire another attorney,” she said, calling him “a cold-blooded fraudster who cared not a whit about the victims of his fraud.”

(By Jenna Greene)

Opinions expressed here are those of the author. Reuters News, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence and freedom from bias.

Register now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.com

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias.

Thomson Reuters

Jenna Greene writes about legal business and culture, taking a broad look at trends in the profession, faces behind the cases, and quirky courtroom dramas. A longtime chronicler of the legal industry and high-profile litigation, she lives in Northern California. Reach Greene at jenna.greene@thomsonreuters.com