Law professor co-authors book on federal criminal pretrials

by Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Lenny Feller spent 5-1/2 years as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Michigan, prosecuting cases involving violent crime, economic crime, national security, controlled substances, child exploitation, and more.

He shares those experiences with Michigan Law students in his seminar on Federal Prosecution and Defense; and has also previously taught at Wayne State University (WSU) Law School, where he developed a counterterrorism law class.

“In criminal practice, every day can bring unique practical, ethical, and moral challenges for which there’s not necessarily a right answer,” he says. “In a city like Detroit, where should limited prosecutorial resources be focused – public corruption, national security, violent crime, economic fraud? What’s the appropriate role of government in trying to prevent future crime through undercover ‘sting’ operations? Is there a meaningful balance between incarceration and treatment for recidivist drug addicts?

“I try to foster a dialogue on these sorts of issues with law students and every class brings new and meaningful insights from them.”

His law students will soon have a new learning tool in Feller’s book, Federal Criminal Pretrial Advocacy, co-written with WSU Professor Peter Henning and UDM Professor Karen Henning, and due to be published by year-end.

“Every law school has one or more trial advocacy courses, which allow students to litigate a case and learn the practical skills of being a lawyer, such as motion practice, opening and closing arguments, direct and cross-examination,” he says. “But in my experience, these courses universally focus on civil practice, with the case file involving a tort or contract dispute.

“In this book, we hope to teach students the practical skills they’ll need that are unique to criminal practice, like handling bond hearings, guilty pleas, and sentencings.”

Feller, who is now in private practice as a litigation partner at Kirkland & Ellis in Chicago, considers himself lucky to have had experiences in government, private practice, and academia.
“In teaching, hopefully I can provide students with some perspective on the interplay between how the theoretical concepts they’re learning in law school are applied in actual practice,” he says.

It’s perhaps not the best career path for his students – budget cutbacks now make it difficult to get a job.

“On the defense side, a very small number of big firms have a serious criminal practice – I’m very fortunate that Kirkland happens to be one and to have one of the best,” Feller says. “Most criminal lawyers are sole practitioners or in very small partnerships. Most often, you have to hang up your own shingle and work your way up through appointed cases to build a practice. I think the statistics are that most criminal lawyers make less than the average attorney.

“Counterterrorism and national security law are niche specialties – it’s hard to imagine a practice devoted entirely to those fields.”

Feller, who received numerous awards and commendations from the Department of Justice, ATF, Secret Service, Department of Homeland Security, and the FBI, says that being able to step into court every day and represent the United States is an unparalleled privilege unique to serving as a federal prosecutor.

“I was also lucky to have some extraordinary cases where I had the opportunity, I hope, to both make a positive impact on the community as a whole and to provide some solace to individual crime victims.

“Thanks mostly to the incredible work of the FBI, ATF, Secret Service, and Homeland Security agents that I worked with, we were able to dismantle a nationwide child prostitution organization, put away some of the most violent drug traffickers and gang members in Detroit, clean up some mortgage fraud and identity theft, seize tens of thousands of dollars suspected of supporting terrorism, and even bring back a kidnapped six-year-old from overseas.”

It sounds like something from a movie or TV show – the sort of thing that first attracted Feller to the field of law. “I’m one of those folks who decided at a very young age that I was going to be a lawyer – I think because I liked watching legal shows, like L.A. Law, on TV – and never had the good sense to think better of it.

“But I do fundamentally believe that our legal system, for all its flaws, is at the fundamental core of America’s greatness. There’s no other country in the world where an individual, with a modestly talented attorney, can take on the full might of the government, whether in the criminal or civil arena, and, if his cause is just, have every realistic expectation of prevailing before a neutral arbiter.”

In private practice, there might be even more responsibility and faith placed in an attorney, he says.

“Oftentimes, you’re all that stands between the government and an individual going to jail or a company facing hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars in potential liability, which can result in thousands of employees losing their jobs and tens of thousands of shareholders losing their life savings.

“Clients necessarily place an incredible amount of trust in you and I work every day to try and be worthy of it.”

A nationwide practice like Kirkland’s also provides a remarkable opportunity to learn about many different kinds of companies and industries, he says. Recent cases he has worked on include clients in health care, energy, manufacturing, and higher education.

Feller, who has a bachelor’s degree in economics and political science from U-M and a law degree from Harvard, has always been interested in business and politics, as well as law.
“I’m intrigued by the intersection of the three fields,” he says. “A Law Review article I wrote for the University of Pennsylvania Journal of Business Law about the elimination of brands as part of the auto manufacturers’ 2009 bankruptcies tried to capture that crossroads.”

Feller has served on the board of directors of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit Young Adult Division, and of the Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan Detroit; and was vice president of the Harvard Law School Alumni Association of Eastern Michigan.

He does pro bono work for the U-M Innocence Clinic, coordinating about 35 attorneys at Kirkland who have reviewed several hundred applications of inmates seeking representation; and he is currently supervising about a half dozen attorneys involved in further investigations for cases warranting additional review.

Between practicing law and teaching, what little time Feller has left is devoted to spending time with his family, and to getting to every football, baseball, basketball, and hockey game and tennis match he can manage.

A native of Kiev, Ukraine, Feller came to the U.S. in 1980, at the age of 3, when his family immigrated and settled in Detroit. He and his wife Lisa have three sons: Lucas, 7, Logan, 5, and Levi, 3.

“We have another on the way in July, which the ultrasound tech tells us is a girl, but my wife is skeptical,” he says with a smile.