People are always fascinated by high profile defendants, and assume that criminal defense lawyers who represent these defendants must be making bank. They want us to tell them the inside story, the titillating tale of how the famous have fallen. They always promise to keep it between “us,” as if we have some burning desire to reveal secrets for their amusement.
But the one assumption that never seems to go away is that the lawyers must be making a fortune representing a high profile defendant, especially when that person was fabulously wealthy. Elizabeth Holmes’ lawyers can explain why it just doesn’t work that way.
It’s been a minute since Elizabeth Holmes dropped out of Stanford to found her so-called revolutionary blood-testing company, Theranos. Remember how she was supposed to be able to diagnose thousands of diseases and conditions with one drop of blood? It turned out it was all a fraud, her method didn’t work, and she was sending blood out to traditional labs for testing and not telling patients. That all imploded and her downfall was as swift as her ascension to the billion-dollar company valuation. Once the toast of Silicon Valley, these days she’s mired in lawsuits in multiple states and if reports are to be believed, cannot afford her attorneys.
At her peak, she was said to be worth $4.5 billion. But that doesn’t mean she was walking about with a Birkin bursting at the seams. Her wealth was in Theranos stock, and when the company went belly up, her worth went belly down.
Before the downfall of Theranos, Holmes’ net worth was about $4.5 billion – on paper of course. Today, we estimate her net worth to be $0.
More likely, her net worth is a negative number with more than a few zeroes. She likely still has some cash on hand, but beyond eating, she’s got some serious obligations to deal with, not the least of which are the lawyers representing her in criminal prosecutions. And they want out.
Holmes and her ex-boyfriend and former president of Theranos face 11 counts of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Holmes pleaded not guilty in federal court in San Jose to the charges of conspiracy and fraud. She’s facing up to 20 years in prison and a fine of $250,000.
Aside: What “she’s facing” is the least useful information possible, as it has no bearing on what she’s actually facing under the United States Sentencing Guidelines but only the maximum possible punishment which is entirely irrelevant. Journos really need to stop doing this.
In Arizona, she is facing charges from an October 2019 complaint that claims she didn’t pay her attorney fees. Holmes owes her Palo Alto-based law firm a year’s worth of work on her behalf. Her attorneys have expressed a desire to quit the case because they don’t ever expect to be paid.
What is a year’s worth of work worth? Who knows, as lawyers don’t charge by the year. To the extent they’re out whatever amount that may be, it’s their own fault. There’s a reason why we get a retainer up front, why it’s replenished when it runs out, why we phase in fees in anticipation of how cases progress, and why we don’t let big name clients suck up our every waking moment. When a lawyer ignores this, he gets burned. He has no one to blame but himself.
Nobody likes to pay legal fees, and no lawyer can blame them. It’s dead money, meaning that once paid, it’s gone. It’s not an investment that pays dividends or appreciates. It’s not a purchase that allows you the joy of possessing some item that makes you feel special. At its very best, legal fees end up putting you where you were before you started. The money’s gone and you’re no better off.
Then again, you’re no worse off, and that’s why you pay the lawyer. Or at least, you pay the lawyers for the potential of being no worse off, since they can’t promise an outcome, but only do the best they can to defend. It’s a crappy, if necessary, deal.
But Holmes has fallen from grace, and didn’t land on a cushion of hundred dollar bills. What’s the worst possible take on her circumstances?
In fact, she recently appeared in court in a civil fraud case in Arizona and acted as her own attorney. Her lawyers in the Arizona case quit over non-payment. Holmes told the judge that she would be using arguments the attorneys for her co-defendants used.
This isn’t the same approach she’s using in the criminal proceedings linked to the collapse of Theranos that are being brought against her in California. She showed up to the San Jose trial wearing a designer dress and coat that cost a combined $990. Seems like some of that could have been used to at least secure attorneys in Arizona. Dresses at Target run less than $50, after all.
When Holmes was a billionaire, she went shopping and bought herself some nice clothing. In the scheme of wealthy folk, a dress and coat that “cost a combined $990” isn’t a big deal in the scheme of expensive clothing. But so what? Is she supposed to burn her old dresses and go shopping at Target? Or maybe she should pay her lawyers in used clothing?
There are lawyers who adore their close-up enough that they’re willing to eat the legal fee to be on the telly. The problem with doing that is that people irrationally expect the celebrity lawyer to be making big money by dint of being in close proximity to fame. It doesn’t necessarily work that way. And the lawyer, desperate to keep up appearances, may be inclined to do bad things to bolster his pretenses. Avenatti, anyone?
Over the years, I’ve had clients offer to pay me in kind, from cars to watches to real estate in places I would never go. I’ve had potential clients who believed that they were so important, their case was so important, that I should do it for free, just to bask in their reflected glory. I passed. Clothes may make the person, but they don’t pay the lawyer. And if that’s all the client has left, then the lawyer has chosen poorly.