I don’t ordinarily write about ethical transgressions or semi-sordid tales of malfeasance among people more often found on the New York Post’s Page 6 than in the Times or the Journal, but here we have a cautionary tale that, I fear, may hold a slightly larger lesson for us all.
I refer to the cover story in the current edition of The American Lawyer, “StarrStruck,” which details the downfall of Jonathan Bristol, a corporate partner at Winston & Strawn in New York when our story opens. Bristol’s key client was the (now) notorious Ken Starr, accountant and financial adviser to the stars, convicted of running a Ponzi scheme that ended up costing his clients about $59-million in total. (Starr’s clients included Bunny Mellon, Barbara Walters, Al Pacino, Caroline Kennedy, Matt Lauer, Uma Thurman, Neil Simon, Paul Simon and Carly Simon, Donald Marron and Howard Stringer, and you get the picture.) Starr also displayed
superlative telling judgment in choosing, for his fourth wife, a former Scores stripper over three decades his junior. These things add up.
But we’re not here to talk about Ken Starr, but Jonathan Bristol.
Bristol’s unraveling started in April 2010 when Uma Thurman discovered (after a friend with a background in finance took a look at her statements) that $1-million was missing from her investment account with Starr. Eventually, this would lead to Bristol pleading guilty in May 2011 to conspiracy to commit money laundering; he had allowed Starr to transfer nearly $19 million in stolen funds through his personal attorney escrow accounts (which, I hasten to add, none of his colleagues at Winston had any idea existed).
And specifically, he pled guilty to transferring $1 million into Thurman’s acount after receiving $1 million that Starr stole from James Wiatt (former head of the William Morris Agency) that same day. He has not yet been sentenced. (Starr is serving 7-1/2 years upstate.)
On the surface, you would think Bristol was the most improbable of fellows to pull such a stunt. He graduated magna cum laude from Amherst in 1978, went straight to UVa law school, and started as an associate in real estate finance at the then prestigious real estate boutique Dreyer & Traub. He made partner, but by 1996 three of his clients had sued the firm for malpractice (all three were settled for undisclosed amounts). Bristol decamped,
going to the corporate and bankruptcy boutique Eichler, Forgosh, Gottilla & Rudnick in New Jersey. When Eichler, Forgosh split in 1995, Bristol was in the group that landed at Pitney Hardin Kipp & Szuch. Early in his stay at Pitney, Bristol worked on a deal that ultimately spawned litigation against the firm that would drag on for more than a decade (ultimately being dismissed for lack of standing by the plaintiff).
Bristol’s next stop was the Morristown, NJ office of Brown Raysman Millstein Felder & Steiner, which merged with Thelen Reid & Priest in December 2006. Thelen proceeded to suffer a string of lateral partner departurers and voted to dissolve in November 2008. That was when Bristol landed at Winston & Strawn.
Initially, Bristol was promised annual compensation of $1.35-million, but with the financial meltdown he agreed to have that reduced to $500,000 as his transactional practice withered–leaving him with only one meaningful client, Ken Starr. Bristol was able to bill Starr at the rate of about $1-million/year, but Starr wasn’t paying. Humiliatingly, Bristol later testified that he was reporting to Winston management on his efforts to collect “daily.”
Now, it would be safe to say that Bristol was feeling intense pressure to keep his billables up.
That, of course, is anything but an excuse for what he did: It’s safe to say that in the environment of the past few years, hundreds if not thousands of partners, and associates, have found themselves under enormous pressure to remain “productive” (somewhat Orwellian legal industry jargon for “billing lots of hours,” as we all know, which from a societal standpoint may have a positive, a negative, or a random correlation with being a productive citizen). To attempt to minimize what Bristol did because he was in a tight spot is to insult and demean the probity of those thousands of others in similar spots who refuse to cut corners, much less to resort to naked criminality.
But I want to point out something else about Bristol’s trajectory which–with the exception of his self-inflicted career-ending defalcation, and how it all ended–is altogether too common these days, and it worries me.
Just reflect on this enumeration for a moment:
- Dreyer & Traub
- Eichler Forgosh
- Pitney Hardin
- Brown Raysman
- Winston & Strawn
And the last five in the space of barely a dozen years.
Now my question to you is: Where is the institutional loyalty in such a hop-skip-and-a-jump resume?
That’s a bilateral question, mind you: From lawyer to firm and from firm to lawyer.
Granted, Bristol was an extreme outlier in that he seemed to scatter malpractice suits in his wake as Johnny Appleseed scattered–well, you know. (See “How Many Malpractice Suits is Too Many?”) Firms are not required to exercise perpetual forbearance with those who cause them to be hauled into court.
Still, I see a cautionary tale here.
The more resumes that end up looking like Bristol’s–for whatever reasons–the more exposed I believe we are to rot from within.
The problem is easier to state than to solve.
Firms cannot commit the equivalent of unilateral disarmament by glossing over the cost, in dollars and morale of everyone else, of “unproductive” lawyers–certainly not in today’s environment. Yet there are lawyers, as there are athletes, who have an off year or two through no fault of their own, and jettisoning someone at the first sign of a break in the ever-upward momentum, sends a corrosive message of its own.
So that’s why the tale of Jonathan Bristol, sorry and star-laden as it is, is not really Page 6 material.