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The Life and Career change of legendary lawyer Plato Cacheris
by Regan Morris
On January 1, Mr. Cacheris, 75, started as a partner at the firm Trout Cacheris, leaving behind his career at Baker & McKenzie, one of the largest law firms in the world.
"Basically I decided that the big firm had too many conflicts. Every time you wanted to get in a case, there'd be some reasons why you couldn't," he said. "And secondly Bob Trout and John Richards are old friends of mine, and we'd discussed starting the firm that we're in now, and we decided that it's the best thing to do."
The newly named Trout & Cacheris is a boutique criminal, civil trial practice firm with six attorneys—and far fewer conflicts of interest that the goliath Baker.
At 75, Mr. Cacheris is looking forward to his next trial. He was admitted to the bar in 1956.
"I'm not looking at retirement; I'm looking at trying the next case," he said. "I have several pending that I don't think I can discuss now because they haven't hit the headlines, but I have several clients that I'm representing that could result in trials."
Mr. Cacheris is modest about his success and advises anyone who wants a similar career as a trial lawyer to get into the courtroom and try as many cases as possible.
"I would say if that's what you want to do, then I would say try to get into court originally as I did by becoming a prosecutor," he said. "Or just by going down and trying cases."
Mr. Cacheris, who was born in Pittsburgh and moved to Washington, DC, in the seventh grade, joined the Justice Department as a trial attorney in 1956. In 1960 he moved to the United States Attorney's Office in Alexandria, VA, as the chief assistant and prosecutor. In 1965, he left the government and has been doing defense work ever since.
While he prosecuted many high-profile cases as a government lawyer, his first big defense case involved Watergate, the two-year political scandal that eventually brought down President Richard Nixon. Mr. Cacheris and his then partner Bill Hundley represented Attorney General John Mitchell, who was convicted in the Watergate cover-up trial and served 19 months in prison.
Watergate was a turning point in Mr. Cacheris' career and also in the legal profession. Because so many lawyers were involved in the Watergate scandal, Mr. Cacheris said Americans became more cynical about the legal profession.
"A lot of people at that time were in fact critical of the legal profession because so many lawyers were implicated in Watergate," he said. "Don't forget President Nixon was a lawyer, John Mitchell was a lawyer, and there were other lawyers in the case: Robert Mardian, Kenneth Parkinson, John Dean. Well, he wasn't prosecuted in that case; he was prosecuted as a byproduct of the Watergate case. But he was a lawyer."
Mr. Cacheris laughed when asked if Watergate started all the lawyer jokes in America and said no: "I think they preceded that, but this didn't help."
He has represented former FBI agent Robert Hanssen and former CIA agent Aldrich Ames during two of the most high-profile espionage cases in modern times. During the Iran Contra investigation, he represented Oliver North's secretary, Fawn Hall. And more recently, he represented famous White House intern Monica Lewinsky during the independent counsel's investigation of President Bill Clinton.
Ms. Lewinsky essentially won her case when she was given transactional immunity in exchange for her testimony. While Mr. Cacheris was pleased that his client got what she wanted and what was best for her, he said he was a little disappointed that the case didn't go to trial.
"It didn't go to trial, although we told (independent counsel Kenneth) Starr we were prepared to go to trial and relished going to trial on Monica's behalf," he said. "It would have been a very interesting trial. But she needed, she wanted, to be exonerated, and the resolution of the case exonerated her. So while I may personally have been disappointed that there wasn't a trial for her, we accomplished what she wanted, and you can't say we were disappointed in that."
When we asked Mr. Cacheris about changes he has witnessed in the legal profession over the last 40 years, the Supreme Court had yet to issue its ruling regarding federal sentencing guidelines. Yet in a moment of prescience Mr. Cacheris said federal sentencing guidelines were the most troubling change.
"The most dramatic and most disappointing change has been the federal sentencing guidelines, which I think are not there to serve citizens and have discouraged trials by requiring that people who go to trial get punished for going to trial," he said. Under the guidelines, people get rewarded for pleading guilty and cutting a deal, he said.
"And that has impacted very heavily on the criminal trial practice. I think they're too strict and they're basically unfair. They result in sometimes sentences that are longer for people that don't deserve that longer sentence, and they hamstring judges in assessing individuals that are brought before them for sentencing purposes, because the guidelines dictate to the judge what sentence should be given," he said. "I think any lawyer that practices criminal law will tell you the guidelines are the bane of our existence."
It turns out that Mr. Cacheris's thinking runs close to the Supreme Court's on the issue. The Supreme Court's recent decision in United States v. Booker addressed federal sentencing guidelines head on and held that insofar as the guidelines permit judicial-as opposed to jury-fact finding to form the basis for sentencing, they violate the Sixth Amendment. In addition, the court held that the guidelines are to be advisory, not mandatory, and that appellate courts may reverse unreasonable sentences.
Mr. Cacheris said he remains in contact with many of the people he has represented over the years.
"As much as I can, yes, I do become friends," he said. "If somebody wants me to represent them, I consider it a compliment, and, yes, we do become friends."
Over the years I have renewed the account on and off and will continue to do so as your service has been a great help.
Frank J. Catalano
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