Along the way to becoming one of the city's most influential figures, politically wired attorney Willie Shepherd bullied, belittled, lied, and then some. And his fellow partners at Kamlet Shepherd & Reichert failed to stop him until two junior attorneys took a stand.
III. THE BEGINNING
It started out small, and it was easy enough for Staks to rationalize it away. In the fall of 2007, Staks had been at KSR for about a year when he was asked to write client-bill cover letters. It is a common practice for lawyers to prepare letters explaining charges to clients. Going over the tally for the municipality of Kansas City, for matters in which he had been involved, Staks noticed "a lot of activity on Shepherd's bill that I just didn't see occur." Staks saw that his own time had been accurately recorded: a couple of hours here, a couple of hours there, at his hourly rate of $175, spent preparing documents. But according to Shepherd's hours, it appeared to Staks that it had taken Shepherd far longer than it should have to review related documents. Staks was new to the real world, but he wasn't naive. Attorneys make mistakes tallying their registers. In the end, it all balances out. The first-year associate wrote the letter and went about his business.
Over the course of the next few months, however, Staks paid closer attention to Shepherd's bills. In virtually every statement Staks inspected, he spotted charges that seemed excessive or unwarranted, discrepancies that only a lawyer privy to the casework could easily detect. For review of routine one-paragraph documents, Shepherd would bill for a quarter of an hour. For three such documents that each would require most lawyers, especially seasoned ones, just minutes to review, Shepherd clocked up three-quarters of an hour, and so on, bill after bill. For one client, Shepherd charged billable hours for meetings that Staks was certain Shepherd had not attended, and, as far as the associate could see, added time for business that had nothing to do with another client.
"Bill the shit out of it" was a mantra Shepherd repeated to the attorneys in his environmental division. Having reviewed months of Shepherd's statements, Staks became convinced that what Shepherd meant was to fabricate hours. By early 2008, Staks believed what he had seen added up to a systemic pattern that could not be accidental, or, given Shepherd's hourly rate of about $450, financially negligible. The associate believed he had to present his concerns to his superior in the environmental division.
Rebecca Almon is a tall, fast-moving, fast-talking 42-year-old, with a freckled face and reddish-colored hair. She attended the Chicago-Kent College of Law on scholarship. After graduating on the dean's list, she worked in private practice and then joined the Illinois Attorney General's Environmental Enforcement/Asbestos Litigation Division. She loved the work, but six years into her career the Almons had their first child, and Almon opted to be a full-time mom. Soon the couple had three girls, and in 2002 they moved to Denver seeking a better quality of life for the family. Almon's husband, Joe, had recently started a new business, and with a decrease in earnings and an increase in expenses, he looked his wife's way and said, "Hey, didn't I marry a lawyer?"
After eight years away from practicing law Almon took the bar review class. A neighbor arranged her first interview in Denver, with Willie Shepherd. She so impressed Shepherd that the very same day he extended the offer. As an associate, Almon was assigned to Ginn Resorts. Edward Ginn was attempting to turn the defunct Eagle Mine, just southwest of Vail, into a ski resort. Because the mine was a Superfund site, the matter was complex and high-profile. By 2007, Almon's efforts had so impressed Ginn that the client demanded she be made the lead attorney on the matter. That same year, Almon earned non-equity partner status and became one of the top billers at KSR.
Part of the reason she had been handed such a nuanced case and was able to so quickly distinguish herself, according to several former KSR partners and employees, was because Almon knew more about environmental law than Shepherd. He was not a particularly skilled practicing attorney: When it came to actual casework, according to staffers who worked with Shepherd, he was the managing partner with no clothes. Almon and her associates didn't much care if Shepherd wasn't a big help when it came to casework. He was extremely skilled at wooing clients. Now, though, in early 2008, Staks was telling Almon that Shepherd appeared to be stealing from their clients. Almon ran her hands through her hair and in a tone that conveyed billable hours isn't the half of it, she shared something she had been keeping to herself, something she'd been hoping was an anomaly and would go away.
Almon informed Staks that Shepherd had lied to a Fortune 500 company in order to get business, going so far as to ask her to create what she remembered him calling a "dummy corporation." Delaware-based DuPont was shopping for minority-owned firms to handle some of its business. KSR had not been minority-owned since 2001, when Shepherd and Kamlet recruited Reichert and divided the firm equally among themselves. Nevertheless, Shepherd informed DuPont that KSR qualified for the "diverse-legal supplier network" and instructed Almon to create the dummy corporation, in which he would be the majority shareholder. Almon told Staks that Shepherd had said simply, "Make it so."