Sunday, December 18, 2016

Crime Never Pays (enough)

My 22 year old briefcase.  Photo by J. Berta

“A lawyer with a briefcase can steal more than a thousand men with guns.”

Greetings All:

If you've seen the movie, The Godfather, Mario Puzo's epic (and ultimately tragic) story, you may recall this opening line.  Don Vito Corleone says it not with anger but with a shrug, as if acknowledging rain is wet.  As a practicing attorney for two plus decades, I've always stood at the intersection of amusement and regret for the actions of some of my "colleagues" in the legal profession.  While most of us work hard and are honorable, there are those who view bar membership as a license to steal.

I'm a fan of the news service Flipboard.  It's a way to get customized news and read it on your phone by "flipping" thru stories.  I think it is pretty cool and they cover a wide range of topics.  This morning, I read, "The Psychology of White-Collar Criminals."  It was re-published (I presume with permission) from The Atlantic.  Eugene Soltes writes a terrific story about how those who, on the surface, were the epitome of success and respectability, were simply criminals.  I particularly like this line from Soltes story:

"At first, I was struck by their lack of remorse regarding either their actions or the harm those actions had caused. One executive even joked with me about how he’d been practicing with his $1,000-an-hour lawyer to convincingly, albeit falsely, express regret during his upcoming parole hearing. Troublingly, those who received lenient sentences for testifying against others often told me stories that differed from their sworn testimony."

I encourage you to read this story.  Here's the link. 

From Enron to WorldCom to Tyco to "fill in the blank" there have been epic examples of business tycoons who simply decided to break the law in order to achieve (or attempt to) achieve their goals.  One of the more more brazen that comes to mind is John DeLorean.  He was a car executive whose car was featured in the "Back to the Future" movie.  He also was arrested in 1982 of attempting to distribute 55 pounds of cocaine with a street value of $24 million dollars.  Here's a story on him from The History Channel. 

The Delorean DMC-12, from Wikipedia, Fair Use Claimed, link to photo here.

DeLorean's story reads like a crime novel.   Maverick car exec runs into obstacle after obstacle and turns to crime to keep his company afloat.  Although he was acquitted on the cocaine charges, he could not escape the civil consequences of his actions.  

How's the story ends?  Epic failure.  Ryan Holiday discusses DeLorean's crash into the guardrail of life vividly in his book, Ego is the Enemy."  Here's a super snippet of his take on this sad tale from Nir Eyal's blog, Nir and Far.

So why do people do such stupid things?  Why do people who have so much engage in crime to get more?  I suppose it is ego.  I also think there is a heaping side order scoop of justification.  The dreaded "ends justify the means."  

Yeah, tell it to the judge.

And it is tragic.  Because in the end, it will never, ever be enough.  The fame, the wealth, the covers of Forbes or the 20 minute prime time interviews.  It all dissolves, like ice in March, first a slow drip, then a puddle, then nothing but cold cement.

But there is some good news.  There are those out there who are hitting the cover off the ball in business and are doing it right.  From Tim Ferriss to Elon Musk, there are plenty of wildly successful (in the purest capitalistic sense) and still not wrapped up in the trapping of wealth and status.

Then there is perhaps the best example for the post:  Gary Vaynerchuk.  Here is a link to his website.  Here is a guy who rarely wears a suit yet is all about hustle.  I so admire him for not only what he has done but the way he has gone about it.  He is profane and direct in a way that could easily put off those of us in (frozen) flyover country.  I gently advise:  Get over it and listen to him IF you're looking for more out of your commercial endeavors.  He has a YouTube show, DailyVee.  If you watch just one of his videos, check out episode 101 here.

This is a guy who made it truly on his own...and his own terms.  He offers the way, the path.  He just won't walk it for you.  Sounds like a fair deal to me.

And I suppose my point is that when you look at a guy like Vaynerchuk you see someone who profanely renounces those things that ultimately trapped and snared the "subjects" in Soltes' article.  The cynics might say it's part of his act, his shtick.  I'd argue it's his suit of the form of a t-shirt.

The briefcase I featured in the opening photo is one dear friends gave me when I graduated law school.  Although it's not my primary "go to" court bag, I'm glad to still have it around.  And I'm also glad I can say it has never been involved in anything remotely related to the type of crimes The Don was referencing.  

When thinking back on the article that inspired this blog post, I think that the greatest "crime" perpetrated by those "white collar" criminals was not what sent them to prison and banished them from their current gilded age.  No, it was something else.

They all had talent, and drive, and hustle, and vision and work ethic and all the things we want, we demand in successful people.  Yet they did not have (or perhaps lost is a more accurate description) their own internal compass of right and wrong.  And that is a crime for which they will all serve a life sentence.

The Stoic and Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius said it best:  (And thanks to Nir Eyal quoting it in his above-mentioned blog post:)

"It can ruin your life only if it ruins your character."

Be well my friends,

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