Long ago, someone told me to assume everything you write will end up on the front page of the New York Times, and someone else (likely my mother) told me, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” These lessons were on my mind when reading an article about Martin Shkreli (of let-me-acquire-a-life-saving-drug-currently-selling-for-$13-per-pill-and-jack-up-the-price-of-it-to-$750-per-pill fame) on Tuesday’s front page of the New York Times. The article begins:
Tim Pierotti, who once ran a consumer hedge fund for Martin Shkreli, said he had already lost faith in his boss by the end of 2012.
Then a letter from Mr. Shkreli came to his home, addressed to his wife.
“Your husband has stolen $1.6 million from me,” it read.
“Your pathetic excuse of a husband,” the letter added, “needs to get a real job that does not depend on fraud to succeed.”
“I hope to see you and your four children homeless,” the letter said. “I will do whatever I can to assure this. Your husband’s arrogance is infuriating, and making an enemy out of me is a mistake.”
The letter was entered into evidence Tuesday as Mr. Pierotti testified in Mr. Shkreli’s trial in Federal District Court in Brooklyn.
The trial referred to in the article is the currently pending trial where Shkreli stands accused of committing securities fraud. After nearly fifteen years of practicing law, I don’t know much about securities, and I have no idea whether Shkreli is guilty of fraud.
But here’s what I do know: In many cases, jurors don’t have the slightest understanding of the relevant factual issues – these cases may include complicated patent-infringement lawsuits, antitrust lawsuits, and, yes, securities-fraud lawsuits. But they do understand very well whether they like a party (or a witness) and it’s my belief that jurors often decide which party they like first and then look for any way to find in that party’s favor (or against the party they like the least). Given this, likeability is of primary importance in any jury trial (judges, of course, are human beings too, so being likeable in front of a judge is also a good thing).
Which takes me back to the Shkreli letter. In general, people like wives—and they really like children. Why send a letter saying you hope to see a wife and her four children homeless? Sending the letter likely made Shkreli feel good. But is that temporary feeling worth spending years of your life in prison (or, in a civil lawsuit, worth millions of dollars in damages)? Not in my book. So even if Pierotti “stole $1.6 million from” Shrkeli, the letter shouldn’t have been sent, as it violates the two principles discussed above—(i) assume everything you write will end up on the front page of the New York Times (and, in this case, to boot, admitted into evidence in your criminal trial), and (ii) if you don’t have anything nice to say, say nothing at all.
Assume Shkreli was right that Pierotti had, in fact, stolen $1.6 million from Shkreli, what should Shkreli have done? Here are two better things I can think of: (i) file a civil lawsuit against him, and (ii) report him to state or federal law enforcement. What do you think would make Pierotti feel worse – receiving a silly letter telling him that you hoped his wife and children become homeless and that “making an enemy out of me is a mistake” or knowing that he was a defendant in a civil lawsuit and that state and federal officials were investigating him? (Based on the full Shkreli letter, it seems as if Shkreli did file a lawsuit and report Pierotti to the authorities—so Shkreli should’ve left well enough alone.)
In the practice of law, as in life, it’s often tempting to send puerile correspondence—especially e-mail—when someone upsets you. Trying to make someone else feel bad may make you feel good for a couple of minutes. But, if you do, inevitably it’s you that will end up looking like the bad guy. And your reputation—whether in court before a judge, in the practice of law amongst fellow members of the bar, your industry, or life in general—is important and priceless. So the next time you think about sending that over-the-top e-mail or letter, stop and let things cool down. Then draft a response that you’d be happy to see on the front page of the New York Times. And, as a general rule, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
If you ignores these principles, your correspondence could very well come back to haunt you. We’ll see whether it does in Shkreli’s case.