Thursday, August 4, 2011

Peddling books

Over the past two weeks, John Nova Lomax at The Houston Press, has told us the incredibly bizarre tale of Denish Shah (also known as Dennis Shaw) who allegedly bilked folks out of their money by befriending them and shutting them off from everyone else. Mr. Shah currently is awaiting trial on a charge of two acts of assault of a family member.

But I'm not writing about Mr. Shah or his exploits. I was more interested in one of the sidebar stories that accompanied the article. It seems that Mr. Shah was sued by the family of a woman he once took a shining to. Mr. Shah allegedly beat the woman and abused and sexually assaulted her children.

Mr. Shah lost the civil case and a judgment of over $20 million was entered against him. No sooner was the ink on the judgment dry that Mr. Shah's attorney in the civil matter, Michael Phillips, announced that he was done with Mr. Shah and that he would be writing a book about his former client.

Mr. Phillips' book The Monster of River Oaks was published last summer.

Now even though Mr. Phillips claims not to have used any privileged information in writing his book, the entire affair seems more than a little dicey. The duty of an attorney is to represent his client and to act in his client's best interest. Abandoning a client after an adverse verdict and writing a book portraying your client as a monster hardly seems to fit the bill.  

"I can't tell you how many grandparents have come up to me emotional, thanking me for writing the book," he says. "They say that their daughters are going through relationships like this. One woman stopped me on the elevator and said she sent my book to Oprah."

Phillips claims the book is a warning to single mothers, whom he characterizes as being the most vulnerable members of our society outside of the extreme elderly. "They get run over. It's a free-fire zone on them," he says. "Extreme wealth, privilege and social standing may be no protection. Dinny was a hunter. Joan was the biggest game in town.
Phillips also claims to be the first person to have done something to stop Shah.

Our ethical duty to our clients extends beyond the actual representation. Our duty to hold their statements in confidence extends to death. Mr. Phillips duty wasn't to warn single mothers and grandmothers about his former client. His duty was to represent his client.

At what point did Mr. Phillips decide he wanted to write a book? At what point did he inform Mr. Shah of his intentions? Did his decision to dump his client and write a book affect his representation of Mr. Shah? And how in the world is calling your former client a monster acting in his best interest? 

"Unfortunately, there's always an appetite for what would purport to be the secrets of the rich and famous. Sadly, the lawyer who defended the guy, who stood in the middle of the courtroom and proclaimed that those children were lying, then tried to profit on essentially the salaciousness of selling the secrets of the rich and famous to the community.
"That is kind of insulting. It's not kind of insulting, it's damned insulting."  --  Jim Perdue, Jr.

Now I don't know Mr. Phillips. I know nothing about his representation of Mr. Shah. But I do have questions about the decisions he made after the jury came back.

As criminal defense attorneys we need to know unsavory details of our clients' lives. We need our clients to be upfront and honest with us when we discuss their case with them. That only happens when a client understands and believes that whatever he says in our office when the door is closed stays in that office for all eternity. Once our clients cease to believe that we will keep their secrets in confidence, our ability to represent them is compromised.

Mr. Phillips did none of us any favors. Of course he isn't the first attorney to write a book to capitalize on a representation - and he won't be the last. But every attorney who makes that decision brings into question whose interest he represents.

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