Lawyer Dennis Chang didn't expect to have a potential client in the Rampart corruption case snatched out from under him.
But when the man alleged that L.A. police officers had beaten him up, it was just more blood in the water for the legal sharks circling the biggest corruption case in LAPD history.
Before Chang could get to the alleged victim, two competing lawyers had flown to his Nevada home and signed him on as a client. Chang, however, wasn't too upset: He had already managed to lure a Rampart client away from the illustrious Johnnie Cochran.
When it comes to Rampart, client-snatching is the order of the day for trial attorneys.
With as much as $1 billion in liability awards at stake, and lawyers in line to collect roughly 40 percent of it, lots of infighting has erupted in the local legal community the likes of which some lawyers say they have never seen.
In one corner is a group of lawyers who have been doggedly fighting police corruption case for years. In the other are relative newcomers to the police abuse arena jumping on the Rampart bandwagon with visions of a quick buck and instant fame.
"You're going to see ambulance chasers here," said Chang. "I've already experienced it."
Although most lawyers won't talk about it on the record, they confide that the smell of money has whipped many members of the L.A. legal community into a competitive fury.
Among the alleged tactics being used to collect plaintiffs are lawyers stealing clients from their own partners, offering cars and cash advances to people whose cases seem like easy wins, and even filing legal motions targeting the behavior of other lawyers in the rush for clients.
"I don't know whether promises are being made, or threats, but people who I'm representing have been approached by other lawyers," said one attorney. "I have never experienced anything like it."
"Lawyers are at each other's throats," added another attorney. "They smell blood in the water and they're going after it aggressively. They think the city won't be able to resist settling."
The hunt for publicity
Along with multimillion-dollar settlements, careers are at stake in the effort to secure clients. If the highest-profile cases go to trial, lawyers can expect to see their names almost every day in the media. In the most sensational cases, national publicity is also a distinct possibility.
"The stakes are very high for lawyers," said Eddie Lazarus, the legal correspondent for Talk magazine who is working on an article about the scandal. "This could be a career-making opportunity for them. The question of who's going to be the next lawyer king of L.A. is up for grabs."
The goal, of course, is to be the next Johnnie Cochran. After the O.J. Simpson trial, Cochran gained national fame and now has offices in L.A. and New York.
The bicoastal lawyer has already taken on a leadership role in the Rampart case by holding a meeting in his L.A. office for many of the lawyers who are or will be representing Rampart clients. That meeting was mainly to discuss how they could use the cases to bring about meaningful police reform. Lawyers say that so far, there has been no follow-up.
But the rush for fame is on. At least one lawyer, Gregory A. Yates of Beverly Hills, has hired a publicist to handle all the press he's receiving because of his work on the Rampart case.
And while most lawyers say they don't expect to beef up their operations, Stephen Yagman of Yagman, Yagman & Reichmann said he has hired five new lawyers and expanded his office space.
Those hoping to make a quick buck on the scandal could be jumping on the wrong bandwagon. While many of the cases are expected to settle quickly, there are indications the city will use every weapon in its arsenal to avoid having to pay out huge judgments.
"The city has attorneys who are looking at (fighting these cases) through statutes of limitations and failures to file government claims in a timely manner," said R. Samuel Paz, a private-practice attorney who has long handled police brutality cases in L.A. and who is currently representing seven Rampart plaintiffs.
"There's a high level of complexity involved," Paz said. "Even if it's a case involving (police informant) Rafael Perez, it's not going to be a slam dunk. There's the question of immunity and whether he will take the Fifth. We don't know at this point whether we will be allowed access to his statements, so there will be lots of complications."
Newcomers vs. old-timers
Many of the cases are expected to go to a small group of lawyers known as the police abuse bar, who have been fighting police corruption cases in Los Angeles for a number of years.
"The impetus (to form the police abuse bar) was that there was a lot of police misconduct but few people were familiar with it," said Hugh Manes, a lawyer with Manes & Watson and a founder of the informal group.
Centered around an organization called Police Watch, which refers plaintiffs to lawyers, these lawyers believe there are more than enough members of their group to handle the potential caseload.
"There's not going to be a glut of cases," said Paz. "Any principled and ethical lawyer will find out who the competent civil rights lawyers are and refer clients to us, just as I would do if someone came to me with a bankruptcy case."
The group includes Manes, Paz and Gregory Moreno, who is representing Javier Ovando, one of the most prized plaintiffs because he spent years in jail and now uses a wheelchair after he was shot by a Rampart officer.
But many lawyers unaffiliated with the police abuse bar are taking on Rampart cases particularly if the lawyer has a high profile.
"Most of the Rampart cases have been snatched up outside of Police Watch," said Vina Camper, a case coordinator with the organization. "The high-profile cases are going to high-profile attorneys or attorneys who are being more aggressive."
But that doesn't mean those clients get the best representation.
"The problem from the plaintiffs' perspective is that a lot of them are not going to be astute judges of the quality of representation they are receiving," said one insider. "This situation is fraught with peril for them."
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