White-collar defense attorneys—To deal with white-collar complexity, Atticus Finch and Ghengis Kahn must coexist.

Jun 27, 2008

White-collar crime, although glamorized by movies such as “The Godfather” and “Wall Street,” is not typically as excessive and flamboyant in nature as it has been portrayed in those movies. The phrase takes its roots from a 1939 speech by sociologist Edwin Sutherland, who attached three primary characteristics to white collar crime:

1) The perpetrator must be someone of high social status

2) The perpetrator must benefit from perceived respectability in the eyes of the public

3) The crime must be committed in the course of the perpetrator’s daily occupation

Because white-collar crimes are typically investigated under the jurisdiction of federal agencies, white-collar defense attorneys most often find themselves attempting to pick apart cases put together by the FBI, Secret Service, IRS, or US Postal Service. Typically, these cases involve crimes such as fraud, embezzlement, bribery, or forgery; most often, the charges levied against the defendant are bank or mail fraud. Historically, the white-collar crime showing the largest increase is fraud involving identification documents.

Critics of the government’s prosecution of white-collar crime argue that it is often politically or personally motivated. In a society in which millions import prescription drugs from Canada and share music online (both of which fit the loose definition of white-collar crime), trying to stop all white-collar crime is tantamount to trying to stop all highway speeders—more effort than it’s worth.

Faced with this quandary, prosecutors often shoot for quality over quantity, setting their sights on highly visible defendants, or defendants who fulfill society’s desire for a scapegoat in the wake of debacles Enron or the Savings and Loan Scandal.

An example of this very American trend—legal proceedings closely tracking the nightly news—can be seen in the wake of the subprime mortgage collapse, as investigators have arrested over three hundred highly visible officers of mortgage and other related companies since March, including 60 in a coordinated sweep on June 19.

The reams of data that must be parsed in a corporate case are staggering. Criminal defense attorneys in white collar cases must wade through truckloads of data, since this type of crime has no “smoking gun,” only a paper trail that must be made clearly visible to each juror on the case. These attorneys are uniquely skilled, possessing a thorough knowledge of the law and a general’s ability to assimilate a battlefield’s worth of data.