Saturday, April 24, 2010

Fear, Gratitude and Clients

On Tuesday I'll be teaching Allan J. Lichtman's “Tommy the Cork: The Secret World of Washington’s First Modern Lobbyist,” Washington Monthly (February 1987): 41-49. Lichtman wrote the article from the wiretaps Harry Truman ordered on Thomas Corcoran, the New Dealer turned Washington lawyer, which survive in Truman's presidential library. Among the unattractive aspects of Corcoran's personality the transcripts revealed was an eagerness to impress his fellow lawyers with his hard-boiled attitude toward his clients--in particular, his eagerness to exploit their fear and "just take the pants off them." He characterized one potential client to Abe Fortas as "a rich man who's scared as I never knew one who's scared. . . . . I think you can get $100,000 down this morning." He described another matter "as a case of people who are awfully scared and they might pay you desperately well."

Corcoran became something of a negative reference for later Washington lawyers. (One of them once described him to me as "just a lobbyist.") Yet even in the more genteel world of the the elite Wall Street bar the same emotional dynamic was acknowledged and, it seems, exploited. At least that's the conclusion I draw from Learned Hand's remark, in a letter written in 1925 to Frederic Coudert that survives in Hand's papers at the Harvard Law School Library. "I always assured you that you were sure to win that case," Hand (right), a great federal judge, wrote to Coudert, a great corporation lawyer. "It is not often that I feel as certain as I did then. But I will keep my opinion dark from your clients. I am pleased to know that they regarded themselves as in very grave danger. Their gratitude ought to be commensurate with their fears."

Image credits: Corcoran; Hand

3 comments:

Shag from Brookline said...

Is there a link to this article available? Does the subject for your class relate in some way to the recent SCOTUS decision in Perdue v. Kenny on the award of legal fees? In over 50 years of practice, I was never in a situation where I could "scare" a client to obtain a bigger fee. But I was aware of criminal law practitioners who were reputed to have "connections" who were able to "scare" clients into the need for large upfront fees. Did Corcoran have ties with Wall Street?

Dan Ernst said...

Sorry, Shag, I don't know of an on-line location for the article. Corcoran practiced for some years at the leading NYC firm of Cotton & Franklin (the predecessor to Cahill Gordon & Reindel) from 1927 to 1932.

Shag from Brookline said...

Dan, thanks.

I "Googled" "Tommy the Cork" and the first item was a Washington Decoded website that features "The Tapping of 'Tommy the Cork'" noting at the end that the article first appeared in The Nation on 8 Feb 1986. The author is not disclosed, however. The article is 7 pages in length. Most likely it is not the same as Lichtman's article.