New Zealand Law Society - Disbarred lawyer world's richest, claims Moneyinc

Disbarred lawyer world's richest, claims Moneyinc

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The United States digital wealth publication says disbarred Mississippi lawyer Richard Scruggs is the richest current or former attorney in the world, with a net worth of $1.7 billion.

In a list of the 20 Richest Lawyers in the World, Moneyinc says "Dickie" Scruggs is best known for his love of tobacco and asbestos cases and won over $1 billion in judgments against various companies.

Scruggs, however, went to prison for six years in 2008 after pleading guilty to accusations of judicial bribery. "Today at the age of 70 he has completed his sentence and retained his massive fortune", says Moneyinc. In a recent interview, Scruggs has said he regained his sense of purpose while in prison and he now runs a charity called Second Chance Mississippi.

One of Scruggs' biggest wins was in litigation against 13 tobacco companies for state health care costs. The settlement was over $248 billion and the law firm Scruggs, Millette, Bozeman and Dent earned around $900 million in fees, with one-third going to Scruggs. 

Although two of the top five lawyers on the list were disbarred, another two appear to have succeeded through hard work and integrity. The other is dead.

The late Joe Jamial

While Moneyinc says its list is all "practising attorneys or judges", its second-richest lawyer is dead. Joe Jamial (listed at $1.7 billion also) apparently died in December 2015 at the age of 90. However, he makes the list because he was the wealthiest practising lawyer in the United States at his death, says Moneyinc.

"Often referred to as the 'King of Torts' ... the 1953 graduate of the University of Texas School of Law was a former marine who had a longstanding reputation in the courtroom for being abrasive, rude, and vulgar."

Thai success story

Third on the list - and the first genuine practising lawyer - is Thai Wichai Thontang, at $1.1 billion. "In addition to his law career, Thongtang is the Chairman of Cable Thai Holding PLC and owns 15% of Dusit Medical, a Bangkok healthcare firm."

A story in the Bangkok Post about Mr Thontang's career says the turning point that transformed him from a lawyer to a billionaire dealmaker "was a legal case involving a failed securities company. It got him curious for the first time about how the stock market works, and what he learned has served him very well."

"I think I'm now a successful person. It's not because of my wealth, but it's my family. My life is fulfilled with a good wife and children," he said in 2013.

William Lerach

Another disbarred lawyer is fourth on the list at $900 million - William Lerach of the United States, who specialised in private securities class action lawsuits for over 30 years. He was disbarred in 2009 for his involvement in a kickback scheme, says MoneyInc, for which he was sentenced to two years imprisonment. Lerach apparently holds the record for the largest sum ever recovered in a group of securities class action lawsuits - a $7.12 billion judgment against Enron.

Like Dickie Scruggs, Lerach has been able to enjoy his fortune after leaving jail.

And another good guy in fifth place...

Fifth on a list, at $850 million, is the other good guy: Bill Neukom who is founder and CEO of the World Justice Project, which is dedicated to promoting the rule of law. Moneyinc says Neukom is a corporate attorney who is well-known for his philanthropy. 

"After graduating from Stanford Law School in 1967, he worked at a small firm until he was asked to do work for Microsoft, which was still in its beginning stages. Eventually, he became Microsoft's legal counsel, a position he held for 25 years. Previously, he was an investor in the San Francisco Giants."

New Zealand?

While the NBR Rich List 2015 contains quite a few accountants - or people who began their career in accounting - lawyers are extremely thin on the ground.

Former lawyer and Los Angeles resident Peter Cooper ($740 million) is on the list, but for his property development activities. The next-closest connection to the law appears to be philanthropist Sir David Levene, who was awarded an honorary doctorate of laws at Auckland University in 2015.

New Zealand lawyers, it seems, can work hard and achieve a good income, but far below the heights of the Moneyinc list. The 2013 census showed that 49% of New Zealand lawyers reported before-tax personal income of over $100,000 in the year to 31 March 2013 - compared to 9% of all employed New Zealanders aged 15 and above.