In my current professional circles, you risk stigma of caricaturesque proportions to adopt a conspiracy theory. Judges despise it, co-counsel smirk, colleagues raise eyebrows, and generally speaking, there is a strong presumption against it. Good, honest, hard-working white collar professionals conspiring?–well, that is just absurd.
And yet I am repeatedly stunned at the number of times I find professionals wearing the whitest of collars conspiring to legitimize their own past actions, to cover up their own missteps or the missteps of their superiors. Defendants conspire to delete incriminating emails, board members conspire to eliminate the voice of dissent, politicians conspire to feign consensus, and the list goes on. Even in medicine, I have witnessed first hand management conspiring to discredit, department heads conspiring to wrongfully terminate, and institutions conspiring to discredit injured patients.
In the white collar world, I have found that the revelation or discovery of conspiracy is usually at the kernel level. It is a Bates stamped document buried in gigabytes of info, Bates number 10102 in the document production of 100,000 pages that mega firm sent to you one month ago on an intimidating encrypted platform. It is the subtle but unmistakable choice of a single word on the fifth line of an email between a CEO and her lackey, the single word that alludes to a plan of convenience that no one will speak about or actually commit to paper.
And so it occurs to me that the ability to conspire has evolutionary significance. It is, in essence, a survival trait to know how to effectively conspire. It is not simply the ability to lie, because anyone can do that. It is much more sophisticated. It is a fluid, intuitive ability to shift blame and focus, to conceal, and to enlist the willing or unwilling support of those around you to pull it off. At the white collar level, the best friend of conspiracy is process, particularly when it is multi-layered and bloated. Process buddies up to conspiracy, because it allows the architect of the conspiracy to enlist widespread support with relatve ease and the sheen of official approval. Chain of command equals deference, decisions don’t get questioned, and months later, all that is left is a seeming well papered consensus where there was in fact none.
Form a committee, empanel a grievance board, submit to private arbitration. And whatever construct you use, fill its chairs with subordinates, affiliates or repeat business. There you go. It is the evolution of conspiracy, transforming the survival trait of the original conspirator (usually a leader, department head, CEO, etc.) into an institutional mechanism that preserves and protects.
I often counsel aggrieved clients to modulate conspiracy theories when testifying. It hurts credibility, I tell them, and what if you are wrong? What I probably have not acknowledged is that, particularly with large institutions and governments, I am really worried just how far the conspiracy extends and how far the institution will go to further it. And I’ll admit, my profession is set up to accept this. By far, the best outcome is a settlement that gives the conspiracy an easy out–that leaves the conspiracy untouched and unscathed. I rub shoulders with esteemed defense counsel, we smile and chat, and we all know there is something foul afoot. But if my client is cleared or well compensated, we move on.
And so it goes, though it shouldn’t.