Attorney Misconduct, Crime, Legal Ethics, Trials, United Kingdom / Great Britain

Lawyer Busted Barrister of the Day: Liar Liar, Wig on Fire?

Another busted barrister: Archie Leach (John Cleese).

People can argue about whether or not Indians — of the South Asian variety, not the Native American variety — are or are not “Caucasian.” I take no position on that issue, having been burned before (see the comments to this post).

I will say this, though: in my opinion, South Asians share in common with East Asians the ability to pass for much younger than they really are. (It’s generally a blessing, although not always; in a discussion at the recent Penn APALSA conference, some panelists talked about how looking young can complicate dealing with clients and opposing counsel.)

So how much younger can South Asians claim to be? One India-born lawyer, who graduated from a top 14 law school, finds herself in litigation for allegedly lying about her age — amongst many, many other things.

And the whole thing smells worse than Ghazipur landfill….

A lying lawyer? Cynics might say that’s as newsworthy as a smart doctor or a boring accountant. But the allegations in this case are so egregious that they made the pages of the New York Times. According to the Times, Soma Sengupta was 90 days away from becoming a barrister, until this happened:

And then it all collapsed, undone by the chance discovery of a simple lie, that led to many more. A clerk for the British firm that had accepted Ms. Sengupta stumbled upon her application file, and noticed that she had listed a date of birth that put her age at 29.

“Seriously?” the clerk thought, according to Edmund Blackman, a barrister with the firm, One Inner Temple Lane. “There is no way she’s as young as she’s saying on this form.”

Questions were asked, which Ms. Sengupta, who was, in fact, in her late 40s at the time, declined to answer. Eventually, it became clear that she had not only shaved nearly two decades off her age but that nearly everything about her work and education history was not as she had claimed.

Calling into question a woman’s age — how ungentlemanly of Edmund Blackman! I still think Soma Sengupta looks young for her age (even if not 20 years younger).

Lying about your age, it could be argued, is like lying about your sex life: you’re entitled to do it, because it’s rude for someone to ask you about it. But according to the Times piece, Sengupta didn’t just lie about her age; she also submitted a raft of falsified papers. And this is why she now finds herself not only out of barrister contention, but in court back in the United States:

Ms. Sengupta, 52, is on trial in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, where she faces forgery and other charges, the most severe of which carries a maximum prison sentence of seven years. Her boyfriend, Manuel Soares, a former vice president of BNY Mellon, faces the same charges in a coming trial.

Her lawyer has argued the case on technical legal issues, and has not challenged prosecutors’ assertions that Ms. Sengupta forged documents and misrepresented her work history and age.

“We are conceding that some of this conduct, in fact, did occur,” the lawyer, James Kousouros, told Justice Thomas Farber, who will decide the case without a jury.

Soma Sengupta

You’ve got to feel for her boyfriend — facing a prison sentence and learning that his girlfriend’s not 29.

We can see why Sengupta opted for a bench trial. A jury wouldn’t look kindly on a lawyer who admits she’s a liar and just wants to get off on technicalities. But in fairness to Sengupta, she didn’t make up her entire résumé. She did graduate from Georgetown Law (in 1998), and she pass the New York bar exam and become a member of the state bar (in 2000).

Interestingly enough, prosecutors allege that Sengupta initially started lying by hiding some of her professional accomplishments, such as the fact that she had a law degree:

She applied for a job as a paralegal for the Manhattan district attorney’s office, even though the office does not allow lawyers to work as paralegals. Ms. Sengupta claimed that she had left law school before graduating, and wrote that she was born in 1969, making her eight years younger than she actually was, according to trial testimony.

In the prosecutor’s office, she handled somewhat more challenging work than most paralegals because her supervisor, Melissa Paolella, then an assistant district attorney handling white-collar fraud cases, knew that Ms. Sengupta had taken classes in a law school.

(Small world: I know Melissa Paolella from college debate circles. Hi Melissa!)

Alas, it appears that the Manhattan DA’s office caught up with Soma Sengupta: they discovered her status as a lawyer, and they fired her. After bouncing around for a bit, including volunteering part-time for the Legal Aid Society, she hopped across the pond and tried to become a barrister. And that’s when she puffed up her achievements bigger than a poori:

She claimed that she had been an assistant district attorney and had prosecuted “gang and white-collar fraud cases,” which included working to convict 27 gang members who had controlled a section of East Harlem.

She wrote that as a staff lawyer at the Legal Aid Society she had defended “all felonies including murder and sexual offences,” including handling the defense of a “man charged with commissioning the murder of a judge.”

“I have over six years of advocacy experience in a common law system and I am in court on an almost daily basis,” she wrote in her application to the Bar Standards Board of England and Wales.

According to the Times, Sengupta allegedly lied about graduating in the top 1 percent at Georgetown Law and forged multiple reference letters. But her fabrications weren’t caught, and she obtained a pupilage (a one-year training or apprenticeship-type program; I’ve advocated experimenting with them here in the U.S.).

She did not impress her supervisors during her training, but she continued to practice — until the oddities around her age came to light. Her pupilage got suspended, the Bar Standards Board opened an investigation, and the rest is history:

In December 2010, the Manhattan district attorney obtained indictments of Ms. Sengupta and Mr. Soares after learning that their former paralegal had claimed to be a prosecutor for the office, and that the forged documents had passed through Manhattan. Three months later, the two were arrested at Kennedy Airport, where they had flown from London, as they awaited a connecting flight to Puerto Rico.

We’ll keep you posted about the outcome of Sengupta’s criminal trial. A conviction would raise the possibility that Georgetown Law is fast becoming a feeder school — to prison.

P.S. Just kidding; we have a special place in our hearts for GULC. If you haven’t done so already, check out Georgetown Law Weekly’s great legally themed Valentine’s Day cards.

UPDATE (2/16/13, 10 AM): Soma Sengupta was convicted on all counts on Friday. Sentencing will take place on March 22.

Falling Far Short of the Whole Truth [New York Times]
A lawyer’s lies about her age lead to her downfall [ABA Journal]

Earlier: Judge of the Day: Lynn Hughes Strikes Again
Breaking Bad at a Leading Law School: T14 Law Student Sentenced to Four Years for Meth Dealing

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