What I've Learned From LaFrance v. Sorensen

I wear multiple hats around here. I'm the editor, meaning that I ultimately decide just how to deploy limited staff time and edit the articles produced by that staff. I'm an opinion writer, composing this column two or three times a month and sharing the duty of writing the editorials that appear to the left. And I'm a reporter, gathering information and crafting it into original news stories, which are supposed to be (to borrow a copyrighted phrase) fair and balanced.

It's good to be the editor, because it allows me to assign myself the stories that I'm most interested in covering - like, for instance, the legal wrangling in the civil case of Stephen L. LaFrance Holdings Inc. v. Garret Sorensen et al. This story has been a blast to write because I couldn't care less how it turns out. I don't know any of the LaFrance family personally, and I don't know Garret or Katherine Sorensen or Katherine's sister, Shannon Walters. My acquaintance with the lawyers involved in this mess is strictly professional. It's been like watching an exciting sporting event involving teams that you really don't care about.

Garret Sorensen was a vice president at USA Drug, owned by LaFrance Holdings. He and his wife and sister-in-law are accused, in both civil and criminal court, of secretly setting up a side business and funneling advertising commissions from USA Drug to their business.

Since a federal grand jury indicted the Sorensens and Walters back in 2009, I must assume that there is sufficient evidence to suggest that a crime was committed and that they committed it. But it's also possible, as the Sorensens' criminal defense lawyer intends to argue, that there was a culture of self-dealing at USA Drug and that the Sorensens believed they had permission to get in on it. Either way is fine by me.

I have, however, learned a few things from observing this case:

  • I'm glad I'm not friendly with the LaFrances. Garret Sorensen was a fraternity brother of Stephen LaFrance Jr. John Atwood, who served time in state prison for embezzling from USA Drug almost a decade ago, was a friend from childhood. Ryan Solomon, who has been sanctioned for his aggressive representation of the LaFrance organization, was Jason LaFrance's college roommate. I know that correlation isn't necessarily causation, but I'd rather not take any chances.
  • It's possible for lawyer and client to be too close. Solomon wasn't just Jason LaFrance's college roommate; they are close friends and running buddies. LaFrance's child knows Solomon as "Uncle Ryan," and Solomon testified in court that he could read LaFrance's emotions from the way he held his mouth. The result, according to U.S. District Judge Bill Wilson, who sanctioned Solomon, was "a classic case of a lawyer setting professionalism aside and posturing for a longtime friend and valued client."
  • In this pseudo-sporting event, offense and defense were reversed. The LaFrances, represented by Solomon and the Rose Law Firm, were on offense - they were the plaintiffs who filed the civil suit - but their strategy was entirely defensive, with the goal of avoiding depositions trumping the nominal goal of litigation, which is to win a judgment against the defendants. Meanwhile, Pat James, representing the defense of Garret and Katherine Sorensen, was on the offensive - demanding depositions even before his clients had been served; planning a countersuit alleging that the LaFrances had defamed the Sorensens; showing up for a deposition that he had been told, repeatedly and in no uncertain terms, would not be happening.

James' defensive strategy might be offensive in more than one sense of the word, but so far it has been successful. It reminded me of a fascinating article by Malcolm Gladwell that appeared in The New Yorker magazine in 2009: "How David Beats Goliath." (It's still available online.) James was using a full-court press against the LaFrances and the Rose Law Firm. He changed the tempo of the legal encounter, just as David in the Old Testament surprised Goliath by running out to meet him.

(Gwen Moritz is editor of Arkansas Business. Email her at GMoritz@ABPG.com.)