Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking with Justin Paperny, who founded his consulting firm, White Collar Advice, in 2008. Here, Justin shares his insight into the recent college admissions scandal, as well as a bit on his journey and the needs his firm meets.
On March 12th, Justin’s phone began blowing up as U.S. federal prosecutors alleged that at least 50 people, including parents of college applicants, paid more than $25 million between 2011 and 2018 to William Rick Singer, a college admissions counselor and organizer of the “Operation Varsity Blues” scheme.
Jay Rosen: Justin, thank you for joining us today. To kick things off: Back on March 12th, did you have any inkling that this investigation was underway, and were you prepared for the explosion of client interest and media requests that have followed since?
Justin Paperny: I had an inkling, but was not totally prepared for the onslaught of attention and media surrounding this case.
Jay Rosen: And when you had inclination, were you contacted by folks at all who were involved in the investigation? Or was this just how these matters percolate up and how people tend to hear about them?
Justin Paperny: When it’s your full-time job and you’re in the space, speaking with lawyers all over the country, you have an idea. It’s a sixth sense, so to speak. I wasn’t totally surprised [by] the media attention, the perception of these defendants and, frankly, the joy so many people seem to find in their pain. Even earlier today, I was at CNN headquarters at 4:00 a.m., filming “New Day.” And immediately after the interview, I began to get calls and emails from people saying, “These actresses deserve to spend years and years in prison.” I’m not saying they shouldn’t be held accountable, though I think it’s absurd, some of the responses.
Jay Rosen: Let’s step back and share why potential clients and the media might be reaching out to speak with you and your White Collar Advice colleagues. Justin, can you go into a little bit about your history, about how you got into the space, as well as how you decided to come up with White Collar Advice to help people out in these situations?
Justin Paperny: I was fired from UBS Financial Services in January 2005 for my role aiding and abetting a client’s fraud. And, rather than accept responsibility for my conduct, I lived in denial. I lied to my lawyers, I lied to the FBI when they interviewed me. And as a result of those bad choices, I made matters worse.
So after three and a half years of denying and lying and offering excuses, I finally accepted responsibility and was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison. When I surrendered to Taft federal prison camp in April 2008, I began forming friendships and spending time with men who regretted how they prepared for their journey – exactly like me. Spending our days in regret, wondering what the rest of our life would look like. Wondering why we didn’t hold our lawyer accountable, wondering why we would lie to the government, wondering why we would eat poorly and not get out of bed and drink and smoke and put on weight because we were so scared about what our future would hold.
We all had a lot of regrets and felt like we had been in prison for many years before we actually surrendered to prison. So while in prison, going through this experience, I formed a friendship with a man named Michael Santos. He had been inside for more than 22 years when I met him, and we formed a friendship, and he began to mentor and guide me, and he helped me understand accountability.
And it’s one thing to say you have values. It’s a completely different thing to live faithfully to them. So with his mentorship, I began to document my journey by way of a blog I wrote from prison. And within days, I began getting letters from all over the country from people thanking me for providing a glimpse into this foreign world of confinement.
And on the heels of the blog, I wrote a book called “Lessons From Prison,” documenting the mistakes I made as a white-collar defendant and helping others better prepare for their journey. Then upon my release in 2008, I began cold walking through the streets of Los Angeles. After cold walking, cold calling and creating value and goodwill, defendants began to call me.
My first year, I had 25 clients. I profiled 16 of their stories in my second book, called “Ethics in Motion.” It’s really written for compliance and business schools and gets into how good people can make bad decisions. And I also began traveling the country, lecturing on ethics and white-collar crime. Then stopped the traveling in 2014 to focus on the prison consulting.
And I’m very passionate about it, because I lived it. I needed this service when I was in trouble. And I believe that our role is different from a lawyer because lawyers are paid to extol their clients’ virtues at sentencing, but our role is to help the defendant articulate why are they are worthy of leniency and mercy. And it’s a very big distinction that I feel the need to make clear every single day.
Jay Rosen: You’ve moved on from being an “army of one” to having a full-blown consultancy. How did you set about building the organization you have today?
Justin Paperny: I was reaching the point several years ago where, ethically, I couldn’t take any additional business, because I didn’t feel I would be able to absolutely deliver the work. I had six or seven new clients come in at once and realized, I’m not in a position to do all of this work. I’ve got to build a team. And frankly, there are others on my team who have experiences in the system that I don’t have. For example, there’s a program called our RDAP, which is an early-release program. I didn’t go through it, so I knew I had to find experts to bring onto my team. Likewise, I’ve had many female clients over the years, but I did not have a female consultant on my team. So then I found Ingrid Okun and Jennifer Myers, both of whom served time in federal prison.
So by virtue of reaching a point where I could no longer manage everything on my own, I couldn’t scale. I didn’t have enough digital products to help those who couldn’t afford to pay me five figures or more. And then I was turning away business, telling people it would be unfair for me to help you today because I cannot faithfully deliver the work. So then I embarked on a mission to grow our team and create very clearly defined scopes of work from $9 to $40,000 and everything in between.
It’s taken many years, but the process of growing out the team really began when I had this huge month and I knew I really needed to grow a business – to develop systems and processes.
Jay Rosen: And just to confirm that I heard you correctly, all of your consultants have had their own journey through the bureau of prisons, is that correct?
Justin Paperny: Except for one: A former senior federal probation officer. She will do mock interviews for probation interviews, which is of course is very important. But yes, Jennifer Meyers, Ingrid Okin and Shon Hopwood, my partner who served 11 years in prison for robbing banks and is now a Professor of Law at Georgetown and was honored at the White House and introduced by President Trump on Monday. Michael Santos served 26 years in prison. So we all have extensive experience through the system.
When people come home – after that Washington Post piece, for example – I’ve had more than 300 or 400 people who have been to prison reach out and want to come work with me. And I’ll say, “Well, tell me what you did in prison. Why are you in a position to coach and guide others? Serving time is not enough.” And some can articulate what they did and demonstrate it. Others cannot. So if we’re in a position to teach, or we want to teach and get paid, we have to be authentic and able to have documented why we’re in a position to help. Without that, anyone can go to prison and come home and say, “I want to be a prison consultant.” And some people try to do that. I know, because they steal our content.
Jay Rosen: Before three weeks ago, what would a standard day be like for you and your team? As a follow-on to that, when you do engage with those clients, what questions are top of mind, and what are the things that trouble them the most or that they’re most anxious about? What do people want to know about your journey, and how can you help them?
Justin Paperny: I’m fortunate to start at about 4:00 AM every day, along with my partner Michael Santos. In the first couple of hours, we’re writing, researching, editing narratives and documents we’re producing for clients. We’re editing and creating sentencing videos. That can certainly impact a sentence. So the early hours are spent alone – kind of like when I was in prison – organizing the day. Then, as our clients begin to wake up, we have a set calendar for the day. To the extent that I can I always set calls.
With respect to the questions, the initial questions – depending on where they are in the journey – tend to deal with prison. What is prison going to be like? Prison is so sensationalized on TV, so many of them are scared, and there are some reasons to be scared in prison, if you behave foolishly. But the reality is, the easiest part of the sanction can be prison. Where I spend a lot of time as helping clients manage their day, manage their business. Just because you go to prison doesn’t mean your business should cease to exist.
For example, I think Gordon Caplan this morning, a lawyer in New York, pled guilty in this college cheating scandal. He will be disbarred. But what is the next step for someone like him with a felony conviction? Well, he’s got to begin to create that plan now.
So, I ensure that our clients are productive during the day and also that they’re not digging a deeper hole before their sentence. Look at Paul Manafort. Look at Martin Shkreli. Look at Roger Stone, and in my case, I lied to the FBI. That was obstruction, and I later spoke at the FBI Academy in Virginia and learned that had I not lied during my interview, they would not have prosecuted me. Think about that. So we have to ensure matters don’t get worse, and also make sure they’re preparing for the other side of the journey, because it’s coming.
Jay Rosen: Your clients range from somebody who can just afford some rudimentary materials from your website to people who can pay five figures. I’m wondering if you can go into a little bit about your blueprint program and how do you combine that together with the other coaching and the narrative programs to ensure successful outcomes for your clients?
Justin Paperny: It was very hard over the years before I had digital programs, when a defendant would call and say, “I’ve been up all night watching your YouTube videos, or I’ve read hundreds of your blogs,” which alone provides massive value for free. So you’re measurably ahead just by doing that. But it was hard for me when they’d say, “I’d love to hire you. I need you to be my coach. I need your guidance.” And they couldn’t afford me because lawyers are expensive and some clients lose their job and they’re struggling. And they understood that I couldn’t work for free. So we had to create a solution. And one of the solutions is the Blueprint, which immediately gives them access to lesson plans we’ve spent years writing, as well as to all of our prior coaching calls.
I had to find a win-win, knowing that some people are not in a position to pay five figures or more. So that’s a benefit of the Blueprint; it enables us to help people who are on more of a modest budget. It’s wonderful for someone who may be just days away from going to prison. We can have a couple of hours on the phone, and they can spend some time watching our prior group coaching calls that teach them how to get more time in the halfway house, how to run a business from prison, how to prepare for federal probation. Branding and marketing with a felony conviction – the pros and cons, how to do it.
I tell them it’s not so much the money. Most people can afford it, especially if I spread the payments out over two or three months. Are you willing to invest the time? I use the analogy of what Tony Robbins once said: “So many people buy my book, yet they never read it.” And I tell them that it does no good to invest in the program if you’re not actually going to follow through. And it’s important they understand that. It’s one thing to say it. Another thing to do it. So accountability on our end is key.
Jay Rosen: A little bit earlier you said that anybody could say that they are a prison consultant, and I’m wondering if you can articulate how White Collar Advice differs from your competitors in the space that claim to be experts?
Justin Paperny: Well, the prison consulting industry is a sordid industry. It is not respected by many lawyers, because many prison consultants play lawyer. They dispense legal advice. They prey on the vulnerabilities and fears of defendants to win business. It will scare them into what life is like in prison. Reality is, the highest value in prison for most is boredom. There’s nothing to fear. There’s as much violence in federal prison camp as there is at the local Starbucks here in Calabasas.
The reason our company is “White Collar Advice” and not “Federal Prison Time” or some other name is because so much of what we do is just not prison advice. It’s business advice. It’s managing and growing a business before prison. It is keeping your family connected and close together, and it’s developing a new record as a law-abiding citizen while Googling your name to see that you have broken the law.
It’s managing your health while spiraling out of control. So it’s easy to say “prison advice,” but the majority of the work we do has very little to do with federal prison, believe it or not. Of course when they go, we prepare them for prison. It’s the easiest part of what we do actually. And I think that’s a big differentiator between other consultants, who just focus on life in prison and scare to drum up business. And people shouldn’t pay me or anyone to learn how to shop in the commissary (it’s pretty easy) or to learn how to prepare for a team meeting (you show up, you answer questions, it’s pretty easy). What we help our clients do is initiate a five- and 10-year plan and then reverse engineer their way back.
And those are our best relationships when we’re with a client for many, many years, so I’m not denying that our fees may be expensive to some, but when you extrapolate the fee out over several years of guiding someone, clients will say, “it’s the best investment I ever made. In fact, I should have given the money that I gave to my lawyer to Justin, and vice versa.”
We’re accountable. We’re deliberate, and we also do payment plans. We reassess after 30 days. That happened yesterday with a new client. He said, “let’s move forward. I’m excited. Let’s make the first payment.” And I said “no, let’s, reassess our work after 30 days. Let’s make sure that we’re accountable, that we’re doing the work, that you’re learning, that you’re finding value in what we’re doing. I’m proud of that. It’s something that I think has separated us.
Jay Rosen: In my column, I’m usually discussing corporate culture, ethics and compliance. And while your consulting advice seems to be somewhat tailored to those who might be facing incarceration, do you have any preventative advice to offer our readers that may help them hit the pause button for an extra moment and may keep them from potentially making the biggest mistake of their life by telling a single lie?
Justin Paperny: Dale Carnegie said, “You should aim to have a single message to convey when you lecture.” I always close with one message: There’s a lot of people who think white-collar defendants are stupid. They’re not stupid. Some of my clients had been billionaires, entrepreneurs, mavens of industry. They’re not dumb. But let me tell you, what they did and what I did was make short-sighted decisions – send an email, a desire to close a deal – without considering how it would influence their life in the future. Their kids’ kids’ kids’ kids.
So I would encourage all of your readers before they send a text message or send an email or feel pressure to close a deal because of the commission, or if they’re working in a corporate culture that encourages profits, consequences be damned: Think about it. Think about the long-term value of pursuing or closing a deal today. Had I done that, had I stopped to think, how will turning the other way for this commission influence the rest of my life? I would not have done it. What’s the point of making $50,000 or $100,000 dollars today if it’s to your long-term detriment? That message would have resonated with me. But I’ll also be clear: It’s hard for someone in my audience to think they could ever be in this situation. I have written that I could have imagined getting leprosy before I ever could have imagined becoming a convicted felon. I grew up educated. I didn’t know people that had gone to prison. The idea that I could become ensnared in a crime seemed so foreign to me.
So for that reason, I might have tuned out if I heard my message. There are people in my audience that sleep and get on Facebook and Twitter. They don’t think this is ever going to be them. But the studies show that it’s going to be someone. And when I mention that, every now and again, someone will say to me, “you know what? You’re right. I wasn’t paying attention until you told me. That makes a lot of sense.” That’s what I would convey here. Give some consideration to how your choices will impact your life.
Justin Paperny is the Director at White Collar Advice. A graduate of the University of Southern California, he built his career as a successful stockbroker at notable firms including Bear Stearns and UBS. Some bad decisions led Justin into problems with the criminal justice system, including a felony conviction for violating securities laws. Now, he is a sought-after consultant and speaker on ethics and corporate compliance.
 The Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP) is an intensive nine-month, 500-hour substance abuse rehabilitation program administered by the United States Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), offered to federal prisoners who qualify and voluntarily elect to enroll.