Control—Having It and Losing It

October 26, 2016

Air traffic controllerBy: Sara Kropf

I work with a lot of corporate executives who are being investigated by the government.

They are folks who are used to being in control.

They lead divisions or units or entire companies. They lead a government agency. They handle problems inside the organization and manage multi-million dollar budgets and hundreds of employees. They manage crises on a daily basis. People scuttle around following their orders.

These executives are successful and organized and ambitious. They are in control of their careers and their lives.

But when the government comes calling, all of this control dissolves. And that is a very, very painful process for many of my clients.

How do they lose control?

My clients lose control mostly through the extreme lack of information. They often don’t know what’s being investigated, who’s being interviewed, what documents are being turned over and reviewed.

Most important, they don’t know when it is going to be over. My good friend Justin Dillon wrote an excellent piece about how waiting to hear from the government is the hardest part.

My clients have no idea when they will be contacted by the government or how the government will treat them. Sometimes I can find out whether they are targets of the grand jury or just a witness. But often they are drowning in the deep roiling sea of “subject.” So they have no idea if the government thinks they did something wrong or they just know about wrongdoing by others. Sometimes we don’t even know if there is an investigation, thanks to grand jury secrecy.

I can’t speed up an investigation. I wish I could. My clients definitely wish I could. So we sit and we wait and the longer we wait, the less in control my clients feel.

And all of this leads to the feeling of powerlessness, the complete loss of control. My clients can’t make the government do anything at all.

How do they react?

Some of my clients hide. They burrow down and keep working and hope for the best. I would guess that they also have sleepless nights. They don’t want to hear from me. I can hear the dread in their voice every time I give them a call. I start every call by saying “no news here from the government; I’m just checking on you.”

Some of my clients get angry. They hate the system or their co-workers. Sometimes they hate me too. They yell or use a few choice words. I’ve heard it all, so it always amuses me when they apologize for a few salty phrases.

Some of my clients get organized. They send me spreadsheets and timelines and documents to help. They call me with lots of questions and want to hear every single development in the case.

All of my clients are scared. They worry about losing their freedom and their careers. They worry that they will be forever defined by a single mistake—or even a whole host of mistakes. They worry that years of hard work and a good reputation will be decimated.  They worry about their families and their kids reading about them on the internet.

They worry that they will lose all of their friends.

How can we help?

Honestly, I spend a lot of time talking to clients about the process. I try to let them know what’s coming. Even the most sophisticated executive has likely never been personally investigated before. So a certain amount of hand holding is part of this job. I’ll explain things two or three or ten times, whatever it takes.

I tell them to get a prescription for Ambien or do whatever will help them sleep except drinking copious amounts of alcohol. To eat well. To lean on their spouse or partner or friends. To spend time with their family. To keep up with hobbies. To exercise. To stay sane as best they can. To go on with life while the investigation rolls through the long process of justice.

Sometimes, I listen to them cry. That hurts. Every single time. These are tough people. But being the target of an investigation has a way of breaking my clients down to their core and making them vulnerable as hell. They hate crying, too. At times, they stop crying–shocked that they cried in the first place.

Mostly I listen. And listen. And listen some more.

I wish every prosecutor just once had the experience of listening to you client tell you about how scared they are that they will miss their daughter’s wedding if the jury doesn’t go the right way or will miss a few years of their kids’ lives if we enter into that plea deal. (I would guess, too, that prosecutors wish every defense attorney would listen to the stories of the victims of financial fraud. That’s a fair point.)

We all work hard as lawyers, crafting arguments, writing briefs, preparing proffers, negotiating the best deal possible. But the “real”—and hardest—part of representing clients is helping them survive the process of losing control.

Best case scenario: one day they get it back.

Published by Kropf Moseley

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