In a way, the story of the guy who called himself Stephen G. Dickerman, lawyer, and took a $10,000 retainer and charged $400 an hour is pretty funny. He managed to convince clients in his Brighton Beach office that he was a lawyer. He managed to get himself admitted to practice in the Eastern District of New York as a lawyer. He managed to glom a profession by usurping the name of a lawyer who ceased practicing in 2008, and nobody knew.
What does that tell you about lawyers? What does that tell you about judges? What does that tell you about the people who hand over money to lawyers?
The New York Times article offers little insight into what gave him away, but lauds his “skill” at impersonation. Until he got caught.
Law enforcement officials say they are not certain who the accused man is; they only know that he is not Mr. Dickerman. The actual Stephen G. Dickerman was a lawyer for more than 40 years, but has not renewed his license since 2008. Court papers say the impostor then used the real Mr. Dickerman’s attorney registration number to set up shop for himself, charging $400 an hour for legal advice.
But he had bigger ambitions. In 2012, the man decided to try his hand in federal court, going to the United States courthouse in Brooklyn where he was sworn in to practice as Stephen G. Dickerman, according to an affidavit.
He has represented clients in at least 12 federal lawsuits, arguing cases in the same federal court where, on Thursday, he was arraigned on charges of identity theft and making fraudulent statements.
According to the story, the scheme began in 2009, and ended when he was marched into arraignment, the government still unclear who they were hauling before the court, except that he wasn’t Stephen G. Dickerman, or Shlomo has he preferred to be called. Or a lawyer.
He handed over his business card; it read “Shlomo G. Dickerman, JD, LLM, Esq.”
Most lawyers will see this and start rolling their eyes. Real lawyers don’t do this, put silly initials after their name as if to impress the clients with their very important degrees. Indeed, anyone who uses “JD” after their name does so to cover up the fact that they aren’t admitted to practice law. It’s kinda the secret hidden sign of failure within the guild.
But then, in the internet age, the normal protocols have gone the way of telephones with cords that provide excellent sound. It’s a free-for-all, with people presenting themselves in all manner, puffing, hyping, adding anything they can to make themselves stand out. Sure, it’s laughably undignified to the dinosaurs, but such old-school concerns as dignity are now the source of much hilarity. If they think it will sell, they’ll do it. Just like Shlomo.
But how, one necessarily wonders, does a non-lawyer pull off being sufficiently lawyerish to get away with it?
Lawyers who had dealt with him — he has several continuing federal cases, the most recent filed on Tuesday — said they were shocked.
“He did not appear, necessarily, to be a good lawyer; he didn’t appear to be a nonlawyer,” said David S. Stone of Stone & Magnanini, who dealt with Shlomo last year.
This raises a sorry and scary reality of the legal profession. It’s just not very hard to appear to be a lawyer. There are forms aplenty out there to copy from, to file suit, to make motions, to do the pedestrian tasks that lawyers do in the ordinary course of their work. Any fool can give the shallow appearance of an admitted attorney, mostly because far too many admitted attorneys provide shallow representation.
While cheerleading for greater effort, competence, skill, and most of all, thinking, may be my way, most just do the least amount possible. On their best day, they’re mediocre and, frankly, just don’t care enough to put in the effort to do good work, no less great work. They’re probably too tired to work hard at law after a long day of selling their greatness to clients to get that check passed across the desk.
But what of the clients? How is it possible that potential clients didn’t realize that the fellow sitting across the desk wasn’t real, was a phony, a liar, a fraud? Surprise! As I’ve tried so many ways to explain, clients don’t have a clue what they’re seeking in a lawyer. Hell, they couldn’t tell a lawyer from a guy named Shlomo, Esq. The guy talks nonsense to them, strokes their hand a few times and tells them how much he cares, and clients pass that check across the desk.
Shlomo, Esq., is hardly the first person to fake being a lawyer. Indeed, I still chuckle at Dan Penofsky, once a major leaguer in Morgenthau’s New York County District Attorney office. But at least Dan went to law school. Maybe Shlomo did, but since nobody even knows who he is at the moment, that’s impossible to say.
With all the hootin’ and hollerin’ going on to market and sell lawyers these days, it’s hard, if not impossible, to offer some hook that will help non-lawyers distinguish real lawyers from phonies. As there are now industries being built to syphon off clients from real lawyers to non-lawyers, and nobody seems terribly concerned about the fact that there are guys taking money to practice law who aren’t lawyers, maybe Shlomo is just cutting edge?
There’s no obvious answer for how to tell Shlomo, Esq. from a real lawyer. In the gutter, everybody looks the same. Except the real lawyers, the ones who work hard, know their stuff, spend their days trying to figure out ways to save their clients’ lives and conduct themselves in a way that preserves their dignity and integrity, can’t be found in the gutter.
Maybe that’s the way for clients to tell the difference. The guys who walk down the boulevard in hot pants to coax you to hire them are the ones you need to stay away from. Maybe it’s the ones who are hardest to find that are the best, the real lawyers, the ones you want to entrust your lives to.