Learned in the Law; An Alternative Route

Howard O. Kieffer did some federal time between 1989 and 1992 for theft and filing false tax returns.  By my calculations, that’s three years, say about the same amount of time some of us spent in law school.  From the Duluth News Tribune :

Howard O. Kieffer never attended law school, a federal prosecutor says. But three attorneys testified Tuesday that they thought Kieffer was a lawyer because of his expertise in federal court matters and because they saw him at attorney training seminars.

Kieffer, 54, of Duluth is charged with mail fraud and making false statements in impersonating a lawyer. Authorities say he worked on federal cases in at least 10 states, but North Dakota is the first state to prosecute him.

Not only did Kieffer practice law in the federal courts, but he managed to get some interesting clients and make himself available for speaking engagements.

Authorities said Kieffer lied on his application to practice law in federal court and worked on federal cases in at least 10 states. His clients include a former St. Louis Blues hockey player who pleaded guilty to plotting to kill his agent and a Colorado woman who was convicted of soliciting the killing of her former husband.

Kieffer also led an Internet discussion group on federal prison issues and appeared at seminars throughout the U.S. to speak about federal sentencing, authorities said.

Now I really hate to draw any overbroad comparisons (just because that’s the kinda guy I am), but do any of you see an issue with the many kind and pleasant folks who are busily promoting themselves over the internet, in blawgs and websites, and as consultants available for speaking engagements, who just may not be all they claim to be?

Here’s the rub: It’s not all that hard for someone of reasonable intelligence, who has spent a bit of time carefully observing life in and around the trenches, to demonstrate sufficient proficiency to lay claim to professional qualifications.  If a scammer like Kieffer can do it to federal judges in no less than 10 states, what makes you think they can’t do it under the controlled and easily manipulated environment of the internet?

There’s really nothing funny about what Kieffer did, considering that real people’s lives were on the line when he impersonated a lawyer before a wide swathe of courts.  Who knows what he screwed up, while putting on a sufficiently good show to get away with it.  Of course, there are many real lawyers who don’t do much, so the bar isn’t set particularly high.  But still…

The point remains that everyone online needs to remove the rose-colored glasses, parse the sweet-sounding vagaries that so many pass off as substance, and start looking skeptically at the magical mystery claims of many self-annointed saviors of the law.  Are you sure you know who you are listening to?  Are you sure it’s not a pile of dog poop wrapped up in a pretty bow?  Are you sure?

And if there was ever a secondary means of learning how to be a lawyer in federal court, a few years in federal custody would be it.  So it would behoove you to consider, if the online Svengalis aren’t who they say they are, did they at least do something meaningful and verifiable, like federal time?

2 comments on “Learned in the Law; An Alternative Route

  1. Friend of Ben

    Here is one example of how federal prison can educate a person in the law: Benjamin Franklin Rayborn.

    Ben was a takeover bank robber after WWII. Made the FBI’s ten most wanted. Served time on Alcatraz and in other fancy federal joints.

    Ben learned the law and became a “jailhouse lawyer.” A good one. Wrote himself out on a writ.

    Ben was then hired by the Federal Defenders office in San Diego, where he worked for over 30 years. He passed away in 2004. You can find a remembrance of Ben and his story here.

    I remember Ben’s line. When asked why he decided to study law. He’s said, “They threw the book at me. I picked it up and read it.”

  2. Michael O'Connor

    Of course, there are some very important differences between Kieffer and Ben Rayborn. Ben never claimed to be a lawyer, though he was smarter than most. And, Ben used his legal acumen to help others, not to promote himself. I am proud to count myself among the many lawyers who learned something new every time I spoke to Ben. I saw Ben in the company of many, many smart lawyers and judges, but every time I saw Ben I was convinced that he was the smartest one in the room. And, when I knew him, the kindest and best of the lot. He is missed greatly.

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