Famous -- or make that infamous -- class-action attorney William S. Lerach pleaded guilty Monday to one count of conspiracy, admitting his role in a $11.3-million kickback scandal that has upended his former law firm, the pathbreaking shareholder advocacy firm of Milberg Weiss.
As part of his plea, Lerach will pay $8 million to the federal government, and could spend up to two years in prison. Responding to news of the deal, tort reform advocates seized the easy opportunity to make sport of Lerach's downfall. But for those tempted to argue that his crimes make the case for curtailing class-action suits sharply, we'd like to offer the objection that such an argument overstates the evidence. Paying plaintiffs to sue is illegal and should be. Zealously representing injured clients is not and shouldn't be.
To the contrary, it's a necessary calling that benefits victims and society. The usual complaint against lawyers such as Lerach is that they trump up frivolous claims against innocent corporations, dragging down the economy and laughing all the way to the bank. Business interests point out, with some merit, that while individual plaintiffs can receive little in compensation, class-action lawyers reap millions of dollars in fees. Lerach's fees in suits against Enron alone may surpass $1 billion.