Legal Ethics

Judge Sanctions Cleary Gottlieb

A federal judge has sanctioned Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton for trying to dissuade a witness from testifying in a deposition.

Judge Loretta Preska ordered Cleary to pay its opponent’s attorney fees for the sanctions motion and to circulate the reprimand to all of the firm’s 950 lawyers, the New York Law Journal reports.

Cleary “has shown a willingness to operate in the murky area between zealous advocacy and improper conduct, and here it crossed the line,” she wrote in her opinion (PDF posted by the Wall Street Journal Law Blog).

“Sanctions here will also serve as a general deterrent to other law firms and perhaps an an entreaty as well: Civil litigation can be high-stakes, zealously litigated, aggressively fought, and civil.”

The law firm did not want the witness to testify without an attorney present about his dealings with the Republic of Congo, the law firm’s client, in a suit against the country seeking to enforce a $57 million judgment, according to the judge’s opinion. The witness said Cleary partner Jean-Pierre Vignaud told him his deposition testimony could hurt Congo, the Wall Street Journal Law Blog reports.

A Cleary lawyer would not be able to attend the deposition. Vignaud told the witness in an e-mail that testifying without an attorney presented “very serious risks.”

The law firm issued a statement saying it would appeal. It claims it was merely trying to help the witness understand the nature of U.S. depositions. “Cleary Gottlieb believes strongly that all of our attorneys acted properly and professionally and that this ruling is unwarranted and unfair,” the statement said.

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