A lawyer out of prison gets a precious thing; another chance
Bob George joins Bruce Bierhans to practice once again
Bierhans, left, and George; 80 years of trial experience between them.
Bob George served 33 months in federal prison for money laundering, disbarred by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, emerging in 2015 to take work far from the courtrooms where he had built a reputation as a dedicated defense attorney – in car dealerships.
His name rings around here because he represented the man convicted of killing Christa Worthington in the most infamous Cape Cod trial in a generation. Twenty years after that murder Christopher McCowen remains in prison, and many still wonder about the verdict. But that’s another story for another time, because this one is about a phoenix-like resurrection:
Bob George is back. As of February 1 he joins Bruce Bierhan’s law firm based in Hyannis, “of counsel” with one of the Cape’s most respected attorneys.
Disbarred lawyers, especially those convicted of laundering $200,000 for a Mob-connected guy (pocketing $20,000), rarely re-emerge into the legal light of day. George is doing that after a unanimous recommendation from the Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers. The support he built was wide-ranging and extraordinary, including an endorsement from Nancy Gertner, retired federal judge, Harvard Law professor, WBUR/National Public Radio analyst, to many a legal gold standard:
“I knew Bob when I was practicing, and as a judge,” says Gertner. “He was an extraordinary lawyer – IS an extraordinary lawyer. He took high-profile and not high-profile cases that no one else would take, and he always put his best into it. Some lawyers do it for the money and you can tell they’re perfunctory. Bob was passionate about the people he was representing.”
But the conviction was serious. Why advocate for his return?
“I knew the charges, I knew the conviction,” says Gertner. “I’ve also seen the government pick out who they choose to prosecute … and I wanted to add the context that criminal defense lawyers constantly are facing ethical issues.
“So look, a mistake is a mistake. But the balance of his career presented in a far different direction.”
For Bierhans, the up side of bringing on George outweighs the risk. Bierhans has built a successful practice while engaging deeply in cultural, non-profit, and public worlds; he’s led boards of Outer Cape Health Care, WOMR, the Cape Wellness Collaborative to name a few. He served a short stint as Wellfleet’s town moderator. There is no courtroom on Cape Cod in which he’s a stranger. I’ve seen his work first-hand; his comprehensive, creative representation helped me and my family secure the right for our two Haitian godchildren to remain in this country nine years ago.
“I truly believe Bob deserves this second chance he’s been given,” says Bierhans. “If this is the right place to do that, so be it … And by the way, I’m at a point in my life and career where I feel fully capable of addressing any criticism that might be directed at me.”
“I’ve come through some changes,” muses George, surely an understatement. “It’s been a long tunnel. When you look at Bruce’s practice, including social outreach, nonprofits, community, it provides me a platform to do what I want to do with the rest of my career: Community service of some type. Try important cases but not too many. I want to make a difference.
“I’ve made a commitment to the Board of Bar Overseers. My admission (and remorse) was genuine and heartfelt. It couldn’t be anything else. I have a different mission in life now … I hope that doesn’t sound too cheesy.”
The two met during the Worthington/McCowen case, George representing the defendant, Bierhans representing a garbage disposal company where McCowen worked.
“I think I’m perceptive, I get people,” says Bierhans. Toward the end of the trial, he saw a moment far removed from legal jousting: “Bob put his arm around McCowen. That showed me something personal and it stuck in my mind. I saw a decent trial lawyer, and a decent human being.”
Some might argue that George’s defense was not as thorough and creative as it might have been; perhaps, as a passionate one-man show with a lot of cases but not a lot of people power behind him, he was overextended. But there never was a hint that George mailed it in, or had anything but his client’s welfare foremost in mind.
Bierhans reached out after the trial and again after George’s conviction. Out of prison, before reinstatement, George had settled into a home in Dennis he’s owned since 1996. Once allowed, he considered whether to re-hang a shingle in Boston, but a persistent Bierhans offer seemed right; be “of counsel” rather than an employee, use the office for support, support younger counsel, come and go, rebuild a practice.
They’re both 67 years old. With 80 years of trial experience between them, there’s not a lot they haven’t seen, civil or criminal. Their combined professional, personal, and political contacts are deep and wide. Ten years ago you would have said that their reputations were as strong as anyone’s; Bierhan’s has only enhanced, George’s now needs repair.
He has a lot of people pulling for him, including Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen. “No one wants to be judged by their worst act in life,” Cullen wrote. “The redemption of Bobby George means he won’t be.”
Bierhans is intrigued with the possibilities. “I just get a feeling,” he says, “that something interesting and fascinating is going to walk in that door.”
He doesn’t really mean George. He means cases.
Judge Gertner provides social context:
“This is no different than anyone getting out of prison. What’s the road back? How do you make people full citizens again? For a lawyer we ask additional questions and that’s appropriate, we have a special ethical role.” But there must come a point, she argues, when society accepts a statement — for everyone:
“Once the punishment is over, the punishment should be over.”
NEXT: A ‘ COMPACT’ THAT HAS SERVED EVERY TOWN — FOR 35 YEARS.
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