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A License to Steal


There are good lawyers and there are bad lawyers. As an advocate and freedom fighter, I have run into plenty of cases where legal representation was questionable. But once in a while I run into a story that is just downright disgraceful and makes the legal profession look bad.

My friend, Pasquale, is a chef from Italy who sought out the American dream when he came to this country in 1993. Pasquale opened a restaurant working 16 hours a day, seven days a week, making it very successful. Married with a beautiful four year-old son, life was going well until Pasquale ran into minor legal troubles that escalated when he met several unscrupulous lawyers. He explained to me that he did not speak English very well and could not understand what the lawyers were telling him. That’s when his life started to unravel because of financial ruin.

His first lawyer charged him a whopping $58,000, and at the same time tried to convince him to settle his civil dispute. Pasquale refused. So Pasquale found a second lawyer who then took a $30,000 retainer which his lawyer claimed was quickly exhausted on consultations via phone calls. When Pasquale wanted receipts of the calls the lawyer said his phone company did not have any records. To add insult to injury, the lawyer quit.

His third lawyer, not to be topped, charged Pasquale $61,000 to represent him. But, like a shark that smelled blood in the water the lawyer told Pasquale he could not defend him if he didn’t pay him even more money. When he told him he didn’t have the money, the lawyer asked Pasquale’s manager if Pasquale had any money hidden under his mattress. The manager, taken aback by such a comical question said no. The attorney replied that, in his view, Pasquale changed his clothes daily so he must have had more money. When Pasquale refused to pay more, the lawyer eventually dropped the case.

Sadly, Pasquale was on the verge of losing his
restaurant and was about to give up. But then his luck changed when he finally found another lawyer who spoke Italian and was willing to help him. After the lawyer reviewed his case, he told Pasquale that the prior three attorneys did nothing to earn them the $149,000 that they were paid.

I know all too well the story of getting railroaded by questionable attorneys. It happened to me with my first brush with the law. I put my life in my hands of an attorney when I was arrested for a nonviolent drug crime. I soon found out that the attorney had more of an interest in his fee than serving my best interest. Although I was guilty my attorney advised me not to take a plea deal of three years to life. He told me that if I took it maybe five or six years later while I was rotting away in prison I would be banging my head against the cell bars wishing I would have gone to trial. I listened to the advice of my attorney and went to trial which resulted in a 15-to-life-sentence. Bottom line was that my inept attorney got his $10,000 fee and I got hard time.

I came to find out that my lawyer wasn’t unknown to other prisoners. In fact, he was known to be famously unscrupulous. A fellow prisoner named Ray was represented by him too. He only had bad things to say about him. “You know he drives a Rolls Royce?” Ray asked me. “A brand new Royce and you know who paid for it? We did, with our blood.” Ray bit his hand to illustrate. The bastard ripped us off and bought himself a fancy car while we wasted away in prison.

While in prison I had heard of many horror stories while working as a jailhouse attorney in Sing Sing prison. For most prisoners serving time, lawyers are their last hope of regaining their freedom. It’s all too easy for unscrupulous attorneys to take advantage of them. Most prisoners even lack a high school diploma, have no legal knowledge, and few financial resources. And even if they can afford counsel, as long as the lawyers continue to get paid, all is well. But when the money runs out, the client is no longer a priority. It’s put on the back burner to be forgotten.


Another case that blew my mind was that of a guy named Culiata, who we called “Pork Chops.” He was an old guy that had been in prison for 17 years and was desperate to return to the free world. He met an attorney through another prisoner who convinced him he could secure his freedom. We told him he had no chance of winning. But Pork Chops did not listen. He was not the brightest and agreed to let the attorney file a magic motion that would convince a judge to let him go home. Unknowingly, Culiata had signed his house over to the lawyer for his $25,000 fee. He lost the motion and the house was sold, evicting Pork Chops’ 80 year-old mother.

Cases like Pasquale’s, Culiata’s and mine are examples that give the profession of lawyering a black eye. Individuals need to be careful when choosing a lawyer. There are organizations that exist like the American Bar Association that can help you find the right lawyer.  I know there are many good lawyers out there that do make a difference in the world and strive to make the legal profession a solid one that represents the best interest of their clients, instead of their own pockets.


ANTHONY PAPA is the author of 15 Years to Life: How I Painted My Way to Freedom and manager of media relation for the Drug Policy Alliance. He can be reached at: 

Anthony Papa is the Manager of Media and Artist Relations for the Drug Policy Alliance and the author of This Side of Freedom: Life After Lockdown.

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