Many in the legal community know about the clusterfuck circus known as the Prenda Law Firm. But one of the key players of Prenda was a young attorney who only followed orders and almost became a scapegoat. When I heard about this guy, I thought that I could have been in a similar situation after graduation.
The now shut-down law firm was the classic “copyright troll”. A copyright troll files lawsuits against unknown John Doe defendants all over the country claiming that they illegally downloaded copyrighted material – in this case, porn. Once the John Does were identified (usually through tracing IP addresses), they were sent a settlement demand letter. The amount was usually low enough to encourage a quiet settlement as opposed to hiring an attorney to fight the case. Fighting the trolls can be embarrassing because it also exposes the downloader’s name and the name of the porn video in court filings.
Because of this, most of the defendants settled. It is believed that Prenda made settlement demands to at least 20,000 people and collected $20 million in the process. However, one of the defendants manned up, hired an attorney and fought Prenda. The defense attorney, Morgan Pietz investigated Prenda’s operations and uncovered all kinds of shady shit.
To make a long story short, Prenda was using the courts to extort money from people. The firm filed multiple lawsuits only for the purpose of extorting settlements and no intent to litigate. Prenda lied to numerous federal courts, stole someone’s identity in connection with these lawsuits and may have committed tax evasion. A federal judge in Los Angeles issued monetary sanctions against everyone in Prenda law and referred the matter to the Justice Department, the State Bars and the IRS.
Four attorneys were associated with Prenda. Three of them – Paul Duffy, Paul Hansmeier and John Steele – were the masterminds of this operation.
The fourth attorney, Brett Gibbs, did the grunt work for the three assholes and used the Nuremberg defense in court. Brett claimed that he filed the lawsuits and prepared the settlement letters under orders from Duffy, Hansmeier and Steele. Brett also claimed that the head honchos used his signature stamp without his permission. Most of the Prenda commentators were sympathetic to Brett believing that he unknowingly got himself involved with a bad crowd.
So who is Brett? He graduated from UC Hastings Law School in 2007. I couldn’t find any information about his prior career. But it wouldn’t surprise me if he hopped from job to job with nothing steady until he was hired by Prenda.
At first glance, Brett probably thought that Prenda was a legitimate operation. After all, intellectual property must be protected even if it means suing illicit downloaders. Lawyers have to do dubious things sometimes – enforcing foreclosures, collecting past due debts, and defending pornographers’ rights to name a few. Litigators, because of their adversarial nature will inevitably make enemies.
But at some point, Brett must have known that something strange was going on. He knew about the multiple lawsuits being filed with no intent to litigate beyond a certain point. He must have known about the identity theft issues. He must have known that if he continues to do Prenda’s dirty work, he would also be responsible for their actions.
Brett could have resigned from Prenda a long time ago but he faced the young lawyer’s dilemma. He had nowhere else to go and won’t be eligible for unemployment benefits. He also had student loans, medical bills and living expenses to pay. He probably thought that if he held on long enough, all of the bullshit would go away. It took a suspicious and angry federal judge to compel Brett to resign.
And recently, Brett begged the court for mercy. In his declaration, he claimed that he was poor and had less than $500 in his bank account. He also has brain cancer which has resulted in extremely high medical bills. This leads me to believe that Prenda paid Brett jack shit or that Brett may have hidden money in an offshore account.
To the idealistic lawyer wannabes, Brett is fucked. His legal career is over after six years. Who’s going to hire an attorney with brain cancer and former ties with Prenda? And now that his name has a really stinky Google footprint, it will be extremely difficult for him to restart a new career. Assuming he is not disbarred, he will be a solo practitioner hustling for crumbs. He’s going to spend the rest of his days as a hermit and serve as an example of a new attorney who made some bad choices. Or just not give a fuck anymore and do something shady himself.
If you are contemplating going to law school or are already a law student, you can easily end up in Brett’s situation if you don’t get a job right out of law school. If you are not careful or are really desperate, you can end up working for a copyright troll, a fraudulent loan modification mill or any one of these fraudulent mills using young lawyers’ licenses to extort money from people. Because you are a new attorney, you will not understand the true nature of these operations for months. By then, your name will be associated with at least a hundred clients and might be subject to multiple state bar complaints and public complaints on consumer message boards. I have seen newly admitted lawyers get their licenses suspended just for following orders from the non-lawyer bosses. The management of these fly by night operations don’t give a fuck about ethics rules and will not hesitate to blame you if something goes wrong.
You might be smart enough to avoid getting yourself in this mess. But at some point, the pressure to be successful will be overbearing. Once you see your $2,000 per month student loan bill and think about the consequences of defaulting on your credit report and marriage potential, you career decision will turn to an immediate cost/benefit analysis. You’re afraid that if turned down the job, the self-righteous critic-trolls will label you lazy, entitled and not willing to do “whatever it takes” to succeed.
If anything, learn from Brett’s experience and know that it can happen to any young lawyer with no job prospects. And if you fuck up, no one, especially your law school is not going to care.