STAMFORD, Conn., Jan. 21 — During the past two years, when Brian T. Valery was representing a Stamford drug company in connection with product liability lawsuits involving the painkiller OxyContin, William E. McGrath Jr., a lawyer for one of the plaintiffs, found Mr. Valery “unduly aggressive” but never questioned his abilities.
In another case, Steven Maass, who hired Mr. Valery’s former law firm, Anderson Kill & Olick, after Mr. Maass’s electronic trading business was destroyed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, thought Mr. Valery unimpressive but chalked it up to inexperience.
“All first- and second-year attorneys are pretty terrible,” Mr. Maass wrote in a recent exchange of e-mail messages.
But it turned out that Mr. Valery, who billed roughly $300 an hour as he deposed insurance executives and coordinated the testimony of two expert witnesses from Harvard Law School, had never actually been admitted to the bar. Or, for that matter, attended law school, something that eluded his colleagues at Anderson Kill, one of Manhattan’s white-shoe law firms, not to mention the editors of journals for which he co-wrote articles on environmental law and property insurance.
On Wednesday, Mr. Valery, 32, is scheduled to be arraigned on criminal charges of impersonating a lawyer and perjury, as his former law firm negotiates financial settlements with as many as 50 clients he represented. “I’m just flabbergasted,” said David Rosenberg, one of the Harvard professors Mr. Valery worked with in defending the pharmaceutical case.
Mr. Valery has not explained himself publicly and has been referring questions to a criminal lawyer, Joseph R. Conway, who declined to comment about the case but was quick to reassure a reporter about his own credentials. “You can check me,” he said. “I’m a real lawyer.”
Lawyers who had dealings with Mr. Conway’s client are certainly wishing they had asked more questions. And the episode is causing reflection among those who license and regulate lawyers about whether the rules and penalties are strict enough.
Impersonating a lawyer is a felony in some states. But it is a misdemeanor in Connecticut, as it is in New York and New Jersey, and Mr. Valery faces a maximum penalty of two months in jail on that charge.
More serious is the perjury charge, which stems from Mr. Valery’s formal assertion in May 2005 that he was a New York lawyer in good standing, as he entered the Connecticut OxyContin case. It is a felony that carries a five-year prison sentence.
Rather than try to ferret out impostors in their ranks, the legal profession tends to focus investigative resources elsewhere, like on protecting their franchise from encroachment by real estate brokers and accountants who might sign off on documents that traditionally are overseen by lawyers.
Mark A. Dubois, the state official in charge of disciplining lawyers in Connecticut, said that he, like many of those who keep an eye on the profession, spends much of his time warning lawyers to be careful about advertising on the Internet in states where they are not licensed to practice law.
“This is a cautionary tale,” said James Edward Pelzer, the clerk of the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court, who has attested that “a careful search” of records dating back to 1896 produced no evidence that Mr. Valery, a resident of Massapequa Park, N.Y., had ever been admitted to the bar in New York.
For Anderson Kill, “the unfortunate incident,” as its managing partner, Jeffrey L. Glatzer, calls it, has proved embarrassing and costly. The firm has been offering to reimburse clients fees they paid for Mr. Valery’s services for the two years he was described as a full-fledged lawyer and is hoping clients do not contend that their cases were bungled. “We have not had anybody saying anything like that,” Mr. Glatzer said.
“This is a firm where you go home at night and don’t worry about what your partners are doing,” said Mr. Glatzer, referring to the many former judges and senior prosecutors who have practiced there. “So for this to happen is more than a little upsetting.” He said he cannot comment on the refunds except to say “they are not material to our business.”
In October, the firm alerted authorities in Connecticut to the misconduct, leading to Mr. Valery’s disbarment last month. Connecticut authorities debated what Mr. Dubois called the “metaphysical question” of whether they could even disbar someone who was never a lawyer and had only temporary privileges to practice in the state. They decided they could, and should, to keep other states from issuing privileges based on the faulty Connecticut credentials.
Those who monitor the legal profession say it is difficult to defend against an impostor like Mr. Valery, who appears to have lied about his education and experience through a decade of work at the firm since he began as a paralegal in 1996. Anderson Kill partners say they blame themselves for treating Mr. Valery as a “trusted employee” and for failing to corroborate what he told them.
Simple checks might have brought some facts out sooner. While working as a paralegal, Mr. Valery told his bosses that he was attending law school at Fordham University at night, and they altered his work schedule to accommodate classes. But Fordham has no record of Mr. Valery’s enrollment, a spokesman said last week. A call to Siena College in upstate New York also revealed that while Mr. Valery was on track to graduate in the spring of 1996 with a major in sociology, he left without a diploma.
Paul Murray, a Siena professor who teaches a course required of all sociology majors, recalled giving Mr. Valery the go-ahead to do his senior-year research project on “Recidivism in the Judicial System.” But Mr. Valery failed to submit the paper on time and received an incomplete.
Mr. Valery twice told his supervisors that he had failed the state bar exam, before finally reporting, in 2003, that he had passed it, and in 2004, that he had been admitted to the bar. It is hard to fathom why Mr. Valery would have said he flunked — twice — if his goal all along was to be treated like a lawyer. But he may have felt pressure to complete his evolution from paralegal to lawyer because he was already being described as “an attorney pending admission to the bar” from the moment he claimed to have completed law school, in June 2002. “I don’t know if he was told his job was in jeopardy if he didn’t pass the bar, but he was certainly encouraged to do so,” Mr. Glatzer said.
Now, the firm is paying for Mr. Valery’s mistake. Mr. Maass, the man whose trading business was destroyed on 9/11, said Anderson Kill has offered to take $130,000 off his pending bill to reflect work performed by Mr. Valery over 18 months’ time. Anderson Kill is suing Mr. Maass for $640,000 in additional unpaid fees.
In the OxyContin case, Anderson Kill arranged with James R. Fogarty, a Greenwich lawyer, to act as its sponsor in obtaining temporary privileges to practice law in Connecticut for the team of lawyers who were advising Purdue Pharma, a Stamford company, and some related defendants in a dispute with the company’s insurers over their handling of the product liability lawsuits. Mr. Fogarty obliged, testifying later that “it never occurred” to him that Mr. Valery was anything other than a lawyer.
While much of Mr. Valery’s work was supervised, Mr. Valery used “a good deal of judgment” in executing tasks in the pharmaceutical case and participated in about a dozen depositions, including two Mr. Valery handled himself, according to the testimony of John H. Doyle III, a partner with Anderson Kill.
On Oct. 13, three days after the pharmaceutical case ended, Anderson Kill partners learned from an acquaintance of Mr. Valery’s that Mr. Valery’s name was nowhere to be found on a directory of New York lawyers. Mr. Doyle testified that he confronted Mr. Valery, who blamed the omission on “bureaucratic loose ends.”
Mr. Valery was instructed to go to the courthouse at 45 Monroe Place in Brooklyn to locate proof of his bona fides. There, Mr. Pelzer, the court official, and an assistant spent an hour searching in vain for Mr. Valery’s name, page by page, in the vast tomb of records kept of people who have been admitted as lawyers in that part of New York.
He was fired in October.