Movies, White-Collar Crime

Lessons (For White-Collar Practitioners) From The Wolf Of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street, by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, is out, and is the story of the rise and fall of Jordan Belfort, a stockbroker who, if the movie is to be believed (and maybe it mainly should be, including the dwarf tossing) built a fabulously successful and fundamentally corrupt trading firm, then was indicted, then went to federal prison and cooperated against two dozen of his friends and co-conspirators.

The film has been criticized for glorifying fraud and being dangerous — a “reckless attempt at continuing to pretend that these sorts of schemes are entertaining” — in a letter by the daughter of someone who went to prison for the stuff in the movie. Apparently traders love it in a creepy and not good way.

DiCaprio responded, saying that Scorsese’s vision is to show characters as they really are and ask “Who am I to judge anybody?” Apparently Pope Francis is contagious.

I don’t think the movie glorifies fraud any more than, say, Macbeth glorifies ambition. It seems like there are some pretty awesome parts to fraud, like you can use fraud to get a lot of money, which you can use to buy cool things. The movie is also frank that there are some serious downsides, like you can go to prison for committing it.

The film is also a largely accurate portrayal of the reality of a lot of white-collar practice.

Here’s how . . 

(1) Talking to the police is often a bad idea.

In the movie, Belfort learns that the FBI is investigating him. He’s a guy who knows how to talk — that’s really his only skill. He talks people into buying things that really have no objective value.

So Belfort wants to talk to the FBI agent investigating him to resolve things. It goes poorly.

Also, don’t try to bribe the FBI. FYI.

(2) Cooperation is a little insane.

There’s a great scene in the movie where Belfort is told by the AUSA that his case is a “Grenada” — the U.S. government is simply not going to lose a trial since the evidence is so completely overwhelming. In the scene the government lets him know that they’d like him to wear a wire and provide information.

Belfort says “You want me to be a rat”?

The AUSA says, “No, we’d like you to cooperate.”

As it happens, they’re both right.

But here’s what’s funky about the case — and about cooperation practice. Belfort built the firm. He was the architect of the fraud and the company. Yet he turns around and cooperates to put his henchman in prison.

The government was, in essence, making a deal with the devil to get Faust. Or to get a bunch of Fausts. I haven’t pulled the sentences, but I’d wager Belfort did a fair bit less time than his less culpable helpers.

The point of cooperation is supposed to be to move up the chain — to use information from less culpable people in order to get convictions of more culpable people. But, of course, in a stats driven world, an additional conviction counts, and restraint in how cooperation is used doesn’t.

(3) Understanding a person can be powerful

Finally, about the criticism of the movie, I suspect that the negative reaction some folks have to the movie is that, on one hand, they really want to hate people like Belfort. He hires prostitutes and rapes his wife and, perhaps more importantly, steals a ton of money from a lot of people.

These days, many folks kind of want to hate Wall Street and people who work there. And the movie makes that hard.

Leonardo DiCaprio is a likeable guy. And the film makes you see where Belfort is coming from. You understand what motivates him. You see him as human. It’s hard to hate someone who you see as a person.

There’s a powerful lesson here for criminal defense lawyers. The criminal justice system is set up to dehumanize our clients — to call them “the defendant” and give them numbers (FBI numbers, U.S. Marshal Service numbers, Bureau of Prison numbers, docket numbers).

Prosecutors and judges have enormous power over our clients. The more we can convince these people to see our clients as just that, people, the better they’ll do. Of course, the best prosecutors and judges already internalize this, and when you see that message from the bench or in a plea offer it can be a powerfully moving thing.

I took a client in for a proffer session with an AUSA once, and I remember afterward him telling me that going into the meeting he thought my client was a monster, but coming out he thought he was just a deeply flawed person who had made serious mistakes.

If only Leonardo DiCaprio could make a movie about everyone charged in federal court.

The Wolf of Wall Street: The True Story [Time]
Critical Mass: Bears and bulls wage war over ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ [Entertainment Weekly]
An Open Letter to the Makers of The Wolf of Wall Street, and the Wolf Himself [LA Weekly]
We Saw ‘Wolf Of Wall Street’ With A Bunch Of Wall Street Dudes And It Was Disturbing [Business Insider]
Leonardo DiCaprio answers ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ critics [CNN]

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