Michael Avenatti was convicted this afternoon by a jury of all three charges in the extortion trial related to demands for up to $25 million from Nike. I post this news with a great sense of personal sadness. Michael was one of my students and research assistants. He was an outstanding student and one of the most talented trial attorneys in the country. He now faces two other federal trials and significant jail time.
I felt that this first trial held the best chance for Avenatti in seeking an acquittal or hung jury. While the tax and contract claims tend to be more cut and dry, this case turned on how to interpret demands as either zealous advocacy or extortion. The most damaging element was Avenatti’s demand for a lucrative contract for himself for an internal investigation. He was representing Gary Franklin, the coach of youth basketball team California Supreme. Franklin claimed that Nike forced him to make illicit payments to top high school basketball players and their families and later ended its sponsorship of the team.
The prosecutors showed that Avenatti had assumed a towering level of debt and argued that he used the case for self-dealing in an effort to get a windfall from Nike. He demanded $1.5 million for Franklin as well as a payment to Avenatti and another attorney of $12 million. He also asked for a guarantee of $15 to $25 million in payments for the internal investigation.
There is a tragic quality to all of this as a modern Icarus who flew too close to the sun. Michael became wildly successful as an attorney but also wildly spent what he earned from major victories in court. This included private jets, expensive condos, and an indulgent lifestyle. His life was truly a rags to riches story of a kid who worked his way through school and then rocketed to the top of elite lawyers. That story became a tragedy when his rapid climb was followed by an equally rapid plunge from a great height.
I am terribly saddened as I think of that young, ambitious lawyer who sat in my office asking to become a research assistant. That is still the Michael that I remember: highly intelligent, highly motivated. It is hard not to feel a sense of paternalism over our students as we watch them progress in law school and in their professions. Indeed, the greatest joy in teaching is to watch the optimism and excitement of your students as they set out on their careers. We see them when there is nothing but a horizon before them and limitless possibilities. As shocked as I was by these charges, I still cling to the memory of that young law student breaming with talent and drive. He was ultimately undone not by this aptitude but his appetite. That is the true tragedy.