A an with a man holding a pillow that says "1-800-BigLies We'll indulge your conspiracy theory when other lawyers won't"

Election 2020

When Lawyers Flout the Law

By ignoring the rules, the Trump administration exposed the innumerable fissures in our democracy. With Mike "My Pillow" Lindell's b.s. defamation suit, lawyers are taking it even further.

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As we emerge from the morass of the Trump era, it comes clearly into focus that we spent most of those four long years realizing that the things we thought were rules were actually norms—and that Trump didn’t feel bound by them at all. Trump’s behavior highlighted the cracks in American democracy, the places too tenuous to hold. And when he refused to obey norms, he suffered no consequences whatsoever.

Following Trump’s loss in the 2020 election, we saw similar fissures in the legal profession, and the behavior of Trump’s lawyers—and Trump-adjacent lawyers—have blown those fissures wide open. What we are now seeing is a hope for lawyers to follow the rules of their profession, indeed we expect lawyers to follow those rules. But when they utterly fail to do so in an election context, regardless of how outrageous the lawsuit or the lie, it’s generally met with a shrug.

That’s a big problem.

Take, for example, the defamation lawsuit recently filed by Mike Lindell, the MyPillow dude who has a very tenuous grasp on how laws and the legal system work. Lindell finally filed his own version of Sidney Powell’s Kraken, her Georgia lawsuit that would somehow have overturned the election.

Voting-machine maker Dominion is currently suing Lindell for his obviously false statements about the election, including that the machines were “built to cheat” and that the machines “stole” votes from Trump.

Lindell’s response to being sued was to double down and file a retaliatory lawsuit in which he goes after both Dominion and another voting-machine company, Smartmatic. The filing is pockmarked with fantastical ideas that are utterly untethered from reality, including (1) China hacked our voting machines; (2) people leaving one voting machine company to work for a different voting machine company is evidence of nefarious intent; and (3) voting machines have a hidden algorithm that varies from state to state but is tailored to shift votes, presumably away from Trump, according to “the demographics of each state.”

These things are nonsense, of course. Mike Lindell may not know that, but his attorneys most certainly do. Indeed, the lead attorney who signed Lindell’s complaint was a partner in the Minneapolis location of Barnes and Thornburg, a sprawling national firm that boasts 600 lawyers and is one of the 100 largest law firms in the country.

You’ll note the “was.”

That lawyer, Alex Beck, is no longer a partner at that firm as of the day after he filed the lawsuit. Did he lose that sweet gig because he filed a lawsuit full of nonsense and lies? Nope. Did he lose that sweet gig because he’s part of a concerted effort to dismantle democracy? Did he lose that sweet gig because the entirety of his background is in representing employers in labor law disputes, something not even remotely related to elections? Nope.

No. Beck is no longer a partner at a giant fancy law firm because he didn’t bother to tell that firm he was signing off on the lawsuit, which is a problem.

To be fair, it’s good that Beck is suffering some sort of consequence for his actions, and losing a partner job is likely a pretty big financial hit. But he’ll probably keep his license and pop up somewhere else. Indeed, he’s staying on Lindell’s case, even after his former firm withdrew.

Beck’s story highlights one of the biggest problems the law profession faces: prioritizing rules over morals.

Lawyers have a detailed series of rules they’re required to follow. The Model Rules of Professional Conduct form the basis for most rules in most states. There is no federal regulation of attorneys—all regulation is done at the state level, leading to wildly disparate levels of disciplinary actions and outcomes. However, the most common reason lawyers get disciplined across the country is that they fail to communicate with their clients.

That’s likely not a problem here. Beck is probably very good at keeping in touch with Mike Lindell. Lawyers who do get dinged for rule violations such as a failure to communicate or a failure to manage client funds properly are disproportionately solo and small-firm attorneys. Make no mistake: Mismanaging funds and not keeping a client in the loop are huge problems and warrant discipline, but the profession seems ill-equipped to deal with a failure of morality, a failure of democracy, like we’ve seen with the Trump and Trump-adjacent lawyers.

There have been requests, particularly by Democratic officials in states targeted by Trump post-election, to have some of these attorneys sanctioned, even though judges rarely sanction attorneys. In her pushback against Michigan’s request that she be sanctioned, Sidney Powell stated that the sanctions “are not meant to preserve the integrity of the legal profession” but are instead “a new form of political retribution.”

That’s not surprising, since it is inevitable that someone like Powell can only view the legal profession through the lens of politics and power. That’s why Powell has no problem saying that her wild statements about the 2020 election, particularly regarding voting machines, are not to be taken as true.

As is the case with Lindell, Powell was sued by Dominion over her defamatory statements about their voting machines. Her defense in large part relies upon the notion that political language, particularly around elections, is rough and tumble and “prone to exaggeration and hyperbole.” That may be true when one is a candidate or advocating on behalf of a candidate, but that is, ideally, not the case when acting as an attorney. But Powell’s lawsuit attempting to overturn the Michigan election, to take one example, is nothing but the same outlandish lies regarding algorithms and Democrats and oligarchs and voting machines that Powell made as a Fox News guest, but this time wrapped up in a legal complaint.

The language of legal complaints is not supposed to be rough and tumble or exaggerated or hyperbole. It’s supposed to be the facts as you have best discerned and confirmed when you file the complaint. When you fail to do that due diligence and instead spin wild lies, via your unnamed “whistleblower,” that a voting machine company was “founded by foreign oligarchs and dictators to ensure computerized ballot-stuffing and vote manipulation to whatever level was needed to make certain Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez never lost another election,” you’ve really lost the thread as a lawyer.

The sanctions that Powell thinks are unwarranted aren’t actually about Sidney Powell—or any individual lawyer, really—at all. Rather, the purpose of sanctions from a judge or discipline by a state bar is to “protect the public, the bar, and legal institutions against lawyers who have demonstrated an unwillingness to comply with minimal legal standards.”

Lawyers willing to push the Big Lie, willing to undermine democracy, willing to sign their names onto conspiracy theories masquerading as legal pleadings—these folks aren’t just nihilists, interested in protecting the power of a man who gleefully trashed the county. They’re people who are deeply unwilling to comply with the most modest of professional requirements because they don’t feel like they have to do so. As long as there are no real consequences for that, as long as Sidney Powell gets to simultaneously say she believes everything she says while also saying she shouldn’t be held responsible for it, the profession will be deeply vulnerable and congenitally broken.

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