Class action custody fight

The Madison County Record Jan. 6, 2008, 9:54am

For most lawyers, clients get trust and professional responsibility.

For some others, clients get spelled client$, with the emphasis on $.

Consider the recent deposition crossfire in Richard Burke v. Brad Lakin, the venomous legal battle between two prolific Metro-East class action impresarios, currently playing out in U.S. District Court.

Lakin fired Burke from his post as the Lakin Law Firm's top class action lawyer last January. Burke immediately sued for $5 million, claiming the firm owed him money. Lakin counter-sued in April, accusing Burke of trying to siphon settlement funds and steal clients.

Today, the men are locked in a break-up of epic proportions. But when they refer to the legion of still-active class action lawsuits they once pursued together, the ones they cannot try apart, the lawyers sound as if they're describing personal possessions more than lawyerly obligations.

Their rhetoric is what one might expect from two emotional spouses haggling over the house and the car, not ethically obliged officers of the court, bound by law to act in their clients' best interests.

As barbs fly, client interests seem secondary. Who gets what seems foremost.

Of course, this isn't really so surprising. In our currently warped system, lawyers "own" class action lawsuits more than plaintiffs do.

Almost exclusively, lawyers plot and scheme these suits themselves. Finding a plaintiff to fit is a separate affair.

Burke himself has never been one to let a plaintiff get in the way of his class action. He spent much of last year aggressively pursuing a case against American Family Insurance with no plaintiff at all. Manuel Hernandez died in 2004. But no matter--perhaps it was never about him anyway.

Once you accept that the world isn't overflowing with Erin Brockoviches, it's easy to see how men like Burke and Lakin might get

"I'd be worried," said U.S. Magistrate Judge Philip Frazier during an October Burke v. Lakin flare up, "that the other sharks swimming in the water out there, the other law firms that are looking around, come in behind you all and have you bumped as incompetent counsel."

To be sure, that would be the worst. Imagine another lawyer swooping in and stealing a carefully-crafted litigation creation.

How bad would it be if both sides lost-- to some "shark."

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