The young lawyer would miss his job as prosecutor in the Bronx District Attorney's Office in New York City, but decided to leave because he wanted to start a family.

But he stayed in touch with friends from his time there, almost all of whom were lawyers who, after leaving the district attorney's office, followed the standard career path of taking up assigned counsel work to build their practices.

One of his acquaintances, though, seemed to have hit it real big soon after he took up assigned counsel work. When he saw his friend's new office, he was bowled over by the hardwood floors, the plasterwork and what he could only describe as a "panic room." He also noticed that his acquaintance had taken to carrying a pearl-handled .45.

His acquaintance told him that as soon as he won an acquittal of a "connected" guy from Brooklyn, he had no problem getting new clients. All of the ornate work in his office had been done as a "service," which he might, in the future, be called upon to repay.

When a new criminal lawyer is trying to build a practice on low-paying assigned counsel work, there's incentive to take on more cases than he can handle to generate income. That's why tapping into a stream of a few, very high-paying clients is so much more attractive. But young, inexperienced lawyers struggling to keep their practices afloat can quickly find that the pursuit of these clients can lead them straight over to the other side of the law.

The number of criminal lawyers convicted of money laundering has skyrocketed in recent years. They are increasingly used as tools of organized crime, to provide prospective advice on how best to evade detection by police, or for setting up client trust accounts, through which money -- usually drug money -- is laundered in sham transactions.

In 1998, M. Donald Cardwell, a well-known criminal defense lawyer from Connecticut, was convicted for money laundering, partly as a result of receiving $11,000 in cash as part of his fee in a certain case. The implication is that Cardwell's client was using him as a method of laundering money.

This past March, Miami lawyer Donald Ferguson was released from federal custody after doing two years for taking his legal fee from a Columbian drug cartel member. The court found that even though the money was accepted for a completely legitimate purpose, Ferguson should have known that it was the proceeds of a crime and that he was assisting in the laundering of drug money.

The court's ruling poses a perplexing question for criminal defense lawyers: When representing someone like John Gotti or Pablo Escobar, can the money for your fee ever come from a legitimate source?

Other lawyers, once they learn from their clients the basics of moving money across borders or through sham entities to disguise its source, abandon the practice of law completely for a new career in money laundering. Cesar Trevino, now disbarred, brought $700,000 in cash in the trunk of his car across the U.S. -- Mexico once early in his career.

Some lawyers are accepting other forms of remuneration from organized crime, even if not straight fees. "There is evidence that Russian organized crime, specifically, has even set up new lawyers in their practices and used them as a tool to funnel the proceeds of personal injury cases -- most built on fraud -- back to Russia," says James Quiggle of the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud in Washington, D.C.

In 1998, disbarred lawyer James R. DeRose and his son were indicted for money laundering after accepting at least a quarter million dollars in drug money to buy luxury items, some for their use and others for the benefit of the client that provided the money.

New lawyers are the most prone to accept, or even seek, the steady paycheck that representing organized crime, which encompasses the street-level crack ring as well as the guys Hollywood makes movies about. New lawyers worrying about the day-to-day viability of their practices are also much more vulnerable than experienced lawyers with established practices in taking foolish chances to keep their clients happy. 

"Repeat representation of criminal organizations can be a slippery slope, particularly for young lawyers who lack the experience to recognize the pitfalls" says Neal R. Sonnett, a Miami-based former federal prosecutor who specializes in white-collar crime. "There is a difference between zealous advocacy and illegal conduct, and engaging in repeat business creates the risk that a lawyer could be viewed as 'house counsel' or be asked to give prospective advice."

There's a difference between lawyering and committing a crime, a difference young lawyers need to learn to recognize, Sonnett said. Inexperience, after all, is not a defense.

"Lawyers who assist their clients in criminal activity should be prosecuted, regardless of whether or not they are new to the profession," he said.

Matt Hayes began practicing immigration law shortly after graduating from Pace University School of Law in 1994. He founded his own New York City firm in 1997, specializing in immigration law and representing new immigrants in civil and criminal matters. He recently left the practice for the "more normal life" of insurance defense. He lives in Bergen County, N.J.

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