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Pigs at the trough

If even the guiltiest of the guilty deserve their day in court, so do the greediest of greedy lawyers. So it is that Brown Rudnick Berlack & Israels will get to try to convince a jury next month that the $775 million they and four other law firms were awarded for pressing Massachusetts' case against the evil tobacco companies was not enough. Why they are entitled to another $1.3 billion over the next 25 years and why, in fact, they are entitled to be paid for their good works forever. Forever!

In the world of Boston law, it doesn't get any better than this. On one side you have the top partners at Brown Rudnick, who bill at $400 and more an hour, lining up for another big payday from a case that most of them never spent a day working on. On the other side, you have Attorney General Tom Reilly, still trying to put his life together after a fire burned out his rented second-floor Watertown apartment, saying not another nickel for the lawyers. When the trial begins Nov. 3, it will be Bob Popeo, Boston's most dominant lawyer, versus Dean Richlin, Reilly's most trusted deputy. No matter what a Suffolk County jury decides, the case is headed to the Supreme Judicial Court.

Amid the pounds of documents on file in the case is this intriguing detail: Tom Sobol, the crusading lawyer who headed the Brown Rudnick team, is listed as a witness for the Commonwealth. What Sobol will say -- can say -- could matter a lot. His former partners are doing their best to sit on him.

Sobol won't comment. But in depositions Sobol makes clear that he came to believe that the deal the attorney general's office signed giving the law firms it hired to prosecute the case 25 percent of any settlement was excessive, and that Brown Rudnick should be satisfied with the $178 million it was awarded by an arbitration panel.

Q. In November of 1998, did you think yourself that Brown Rudnick should waive any claim for an excess?

A. I have my own personal view, yes.

Q. And what was that as of then?

A. My personal view is that it should waive.

Q. Did you express that view to the firm's management at that time?

A. Yes.

Q. To whom?

A. All 45 partners.

This is not the story Brown Rudnick wants the man who led the charge telling the jury. And they have made it clear to Sobol that he has much at risk -- both the money he has already received from the settlement and the money to come -- if he violates his severance agreement. One deposition quotes from Sobol's agreement: "Sobol shall not be required to act as a spokesman for [Brown Rudnick's] position in the public media; provided, however, that Sobol shall not publicly oppose, disagree with, or advocate against [Brown Rudnick's] position."

It shouldn't be this way. The lawyers who took on Big Tobacco should be heroes. Against all odds, they beat an evil industry that had never been beaten, and they ensured that the tobacco companies would pay billions to the states -- not just for 25 years, but for as long as they are in business -- to repair some of the damage they caused. For this they should be well paid. And they were. Far beyond anyone's expectations. But in overreaching for another billion dollars and more in the future, the lawyers are compromising not only their own reputations but the reputation of their profession.

In his deposition, M. Frederick Pritzker, head of litigation at Brown Rudnick, acknowledged the risks. He defended the contingency fee and talked about how the firms approached the arbitration panel to win the biggest award without appearing to overreach. "It's in that context that you work on any number of strategies . . . in order to accomplish that goal. And that's one of not to be looking like you're a pig."

Q. And again, the concern is that if you do look like a pig. . . .

A. Pig is probably the wrong and improper word that I used.

Or maybe not.

Steve Bailey is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at 617-929-2902 or at

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