They’re a big law firm, too, Sullivan & Cromwell. But they were so negligent in managing one particular case, a death row prisoner nearly lost his legal rights and his life.
It’s a story that will give your mind whiplash, in Cory R. Maples Gets Second Chance After Mailroom Mix-Up – NYTimes.com.
Big time law firm Sullivan & Cromwell apparently volunteered to work pro bono — a number of major law firms do have a small pro bono practice, although they try to keep this info on the down low, lest needy people actually are nervy enough to approach them for legal help — on a death penalty appeal in Alabama. The big muck-a-mucks at Sullivan assigned the case to two young associates, who screwed up badly.
It is almost impossible for me to understand how it happened. The two young lawyers failed to tell their client that they were leaving the firm. They failed to inform the court handling the case that they were leaving the firm and no longer working on the case. They even failed to inform the Sullivan & Cromwell mailroom that they would no longer be at the firm. Nor apparently did they file forwarding addresses.
So when the court sent these two, um, associates (I am physically restraining myself from calling them names) an important ruling in the case, the Sullivan & Cromwell mailroom returned the envelope, unopened, to the court marked “Returned to Sender — attempted unknown.”
This is such a breach of … I don’t know. Ethics? Morality? Plain old law firm management technique?
I can tell you that I have seen young associates behave rudely, lazily and badly to clients, et al., especially if they know they are not tenured and will be leaving the firm. And I can report that there is often a communications and supervision abyss between partners in a law firm and their associates. The partners don’t know how the associates behave, what the associates are doing. As long as the associates are charming to the partners, the partners are the three monkeys. (This is the Kiss-Up, Kick-Down Method of Successful Lawyering. Someone must have a written a book about it.)
But what were Sullivan & Cromwell’s managing partners doing? Didn’t they have long-standing, written down transition plans for these circumstances? Were the associates operating as rogues within this law firm? Even if the associates didn’t have the brains or morality to pass on the case file and report its status to a supervisor, weren’t they instructed to do it?
They just left the firm and that was it.
The situation is so ugly that even reliably conservative Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito called the case “a veritable perfect storm of misfortune,” starting with the oddity that much of it was attributable to lawyers from “one of the country’s most prestigious and expensive” law firms.
Well, I’d argue both with Alito — it wasn’t a “misfortune;” how mealy-mouthed can you get? it was an horrendous breach of professional conduct and I hope someone will bring Sullivan & Cromwell up on charges — and with the usually exemplary Adam Liptak, the Times Supreme Court reporter. Liptak began his story, “The Supreme Court on Wednesday [January 18] ruled that an Alabama death row inmate who missed a filing deadline thanks to a mix-up in the mailroom of a prominent New York law firm must be given another chance.”
It wasn’t a “mix-up in the mailroom.” I guess the Times wouldn’t let Liptak call it an ugly, ugly fuck-up, and not within the mailroom but in the luxurious corner offices of the millionaire partners.
I hope the right people are slammed for this, and by “right,” I don’t mean the idiotic associates or the mailroom guys.