Lawyer, Schmawyer: Did he Win the Case?

As a lawyer who has spent the past decade trying to pretend that I am not an attorney, I find the story of Brian T. Valery priceless. Here is a man who allegedly is not an attorney but who succeeded for years at pretending that he was one. He surrendered to authorities yesterday and charged with perjury and practicing law without a license.

Apparently, the man was hired by a law firm in 1996 as a paralegal. Eight years later, he told his firm that he had passed the bar exam. How and why the firm did not independently confirm this is a mystery. But then Valery began to practice law like a real grown-up attorney. And the best part? No one really noticed for quite some time. In fact, if you ask me, The New York Times, which ran the story today, buried the lede when Alison Leigh Cowan concluded her article by noting that Valery's involvement in one particularly significant case did not, accoridng to the client, have "any bearing on the outcome of the suit."

This story simply proves what honest attorneys and paralegals and secretaries have known for years-- that you often don't really need a law degree to provide decent legal services to a client and that sometimes "the staff" can do a better job than the partners. That doesn't mean to say I advocate lying to clients and the courts and defrauding everyone. Baby paralegals-- don't try this at home! But, still, to the extent that Valery's Quest chopped the bar down a notch or so I am all for him. And I might even tell him that one day-- in a letter to prison. The perjury charge brings with it a maximum five year sentence.

By Andrew Cohen |  January 11, 2007; 9:00 AM ET
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Seems somewhat similar to the Air Force attorney who was recently found to have been disbarred and the Air Force never knew about it.

Posted by: | January 11, 2007 03:50 PM

Big deal. Thomas Griffith practiced law without a license in Utah for about 4 years, and Bush appointed him to DC Circuit Court of Appeals, arguably the most important federal court after the Supremes.

If it's good enough for federal appeals court judges, it's good enough for a private firm.

Posted by: Garak | January 12, 2007 04:53 PM

You say it shows "that you often don't really need a law degree to provide decent legal services to a client". Shouldn't the conclusion be that the current bar exam system is imprecise in testing who can be an effective lawyer? Me, I'm not a lawyer, and wouldn't want to be, but if someone (some several, to look at the other comments) can do this maybe the bar exam needs some fine tuning.

Posted by: Jasper | January 13, 2007 10:30 AM

Your criticism of Griffith is baseless. There was nothing out of the ordinary or ethically suspect with Griffith practicing law in Utah without being licensed there, provided that he was closely associated with local counsel, which he was. A better criticism would have been for the two years he practiced law in DC without a license due to a "clerical error" resulting in his failure to pay his dues, which he subsequently paid. Still, there is a big difference between someone never passing the bar exam and pretending to have done so and someone who missed a payment due to poor office organization. The former is a serious moral transgression while the latter is simply unprofessional. I certainly wouldn't want either to handle my legal affairs.

Posted by: BFair | January 13, 2007 06:15 PM

Practicing law isn't rocket science. For basic services, like simple divorces, simple estate planning, drunk driving defense, etc., anybody who is reasonably smart, can read English and has good work habits can provide adequate service. The legal profession isn't a priesthood. Maybe there should be a second tier of law license?

Posted by: TBone | January 13, 2007 06:20 PM

At least he can't be disbarred. Can he be liable for malpractice? What about the law firm? Did he get bonuses for doing a good job?

Posted by: Shag from Brookline | January 15, 2007 05:23 PM

I have worked with Brian Valery and I must say he pulled it off pretty good! He acted and sounded just like an attorney...not to mention treated staff as if he was a snotty attorney. As you can tell I'm not an attorney myself but hey he might have opened a new door for staff. Well anyway..we know where he is going to end up..see everyone at the book signing.

Posted by: No Names | January 23, 2007 10:40 AM

Since there are plenty of stories of unlicensed persons practicing medicine at Kaiser, it wouldn't be difficult to pass yourself off as an attorney.

As one person pointed out, it is not "rocket science."

Posted by: Deborah James | January 23, 2007 02:59 PM

Perhaps it's not so much chopping "the bar down a notch or so" as much as it is raising the a paralegal UP a notch or so (UPL aside, of course... I'm talking only in terms of expertise)? Too many attorneys relegate their paralegals to secretarial duties, when they could be utilizing the paralegal more effectively, and bringing in more profits. Just something to think about!

Posted by: Nichole B. | January 23, 2007 05:07 PM

Wow... what a way to get caught doing something illegal! And he did it with grace and style! As a paralegal myself I find that this is just another way for the governing of professionals standards to be reviewed and changed for the better! Behind a good attorney is always a good paralegal! Without us then the attorney is not as good as they can be! One day I will be an attorney and I will always rely on the opinions of the paralegal that would be working for me as they are the back bone of the attorney and their firm! I respect the opinions of my fellow paralegals and always look to them to make sure that what I have found is applying to the case that I would be working on before I give it to the attorney for review! Just like many Doctors are all the time asking their R.N.'s their opinions on many medical cases that come in to their E.R. the R.N.'s are the back bones of the Doctors and I do know this personally as I have in the past been an E.M.T. while doing my E.R. time I myself observed a doctor asking his R.N. their opinion before they actually give their diagnosis and that is great because there is a second set of eyes to find what might be wrong with a patient! This is a new door that is open for the paralegals and attorney's! Think about it!

Posted by: Colleen D | January 23, 2007 11:47 PM

Deborah, you are right, it's not rocket science, it's political science. It takes a decade of studying and a passion to do just the same. Many think that rocket science is hard but the truth is, the scientist think it is easy, cause they too have studied and have a passion for it.

Posted by: no name | January 24, 2007 09:48 AM

Wow this is so crazy to even think someone would believe they would get away with something like this!

Posted by: no name | January 24, 2007 09:50 AM

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