"Hey man, I don’t practice law. I talk on the phone." — Richard Scruggs, on federal wiretap

This week, Class Action Countermeasures introduces another regular feature: book reviews. Once a month, I’ll be reviewing a book that has some relation to class action litigation. The primary purpose of the review will be to determine what class-action lawyers can learn that will assist them in formulating class-action defense strategies. (I’ve done this once or twice before.) First up is The Fall of the House of Zeus: The Rise and Ruin of America’s Most Powerful Trial Lawyer, by Curtis Wilkie.

The Fall of the House of Zeus tells the story of Richard Scruggs. Scruggs began his career as a trial attorney in Pascalouga, Mississippi. He became one of the most financially successful attorneys in the country by extracting huge settlements from both the asbestos and tobacco industries. And he ended his career as a felon, convicted for attempting to bribe a judge.

Early in his introduction, Wilkie describes his subject as:

a remarkable story of personal treachery, clandestine political skullduggery, enormous professional hatred within the legal community, a zealous prosecution–all with ramifications that extended to high levels in Washington.

Wilkie delivers on that promise. The book is a fascinating portrait of Mississippi backroom politics, the plaintiffs’ trial bar, and a single man wrestling with the effects of sudden wealth and gradual drug addiction. While the book is definitely sympathetic towards Scruggs, it whitewashes neither the crimes he committed nor his motives for doing so.

That said, the title of the book is a misnomer: by his own admission, Scruggs was no "trial lawyer." He was first and foremost a dealmaker whose most common tactics included:

  • making large campaign contributions to various judges and prosecutors in Mississippi; and
  • coordinating plaintiffs’ counsel on large cases, including paying a number of lawyers not to interfere with his litigation.

Scruggs arguably was not even effective in his chosen role. Some of what he did to extract large settlements was either unethical or outright illegal:

  • He bought documents from whistleblowers in at least two cases. (He bought 1,500 pages from a Brown & Williamson paralegal in the tobacco litigation; and paid the Rigsby sisters to be "consultants" so he could use their documents against State Farm in Katrina-related litigation.)
  • He paid hush money to lawyers and politicians (including some no-interest loans) in order to cover up some of his conduct.
  • And, of course, he famously tried to bribe a judge.

As a result, the litigation tactics Wilkie does describe largely involve setting up large, profitable agreements rather than trying to establish facts in a court of law.

  • Scruggs consolidated cases that linked "a few strong cases with hundreds of lesser claims" as a means of inducing settlements from large defendants.
  • He used smaller cases as "discovery engines" for larger planned litigation.
  • And he passed along documents he did uncover to prosecutors to fuel investigations that would maximize the pressure on defendants to settle.

Ultimately, as Wilkie tells it, Scruggs’s dealmaking was his undoing. Many of his alliances split up over the division of fees. And the crime that ultimately sent him to jail–trying to bribe a judge–arose from an effort to influence litigation over one of his fee agreements.

So what can defense lawyers learn from this book? The primary lesson is that–far more than most defense lawyers–class action plaintiffs’ practice involves multiple fronts. Plaintiffs who follow Scruggs’s model must coordinate with local officials, other lawyers who want a share of their action, the local press, and local politicians. (This lines up with the extensive email traffic Scruggs exchanged with the Rendon Group.) Moreover, plaintiffs lawyers may not always engage in direct tactics. Scruggs extracted large settlements by doing just about everything BUT the traditional practice of law. Clearly, not every plaintiffs’ lawyer will follow the Scruggs model, but as Scruggs’s career–and Wilkie’s account of it–show, the backroom dealmaker fills an important niche in the ecology of the plaintiffs’ bar.