Defenders of accused murderer Kyle Rittenhouse, who is in jail after allegedly fatally shooting two Black Lives Matter protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, have insisted that he was merely acting in self-defense.
But Rittenhouse’s attorney, John Pierce, is mounting a more impassioned, perhaps novel, case to win his client’s freedom. Rittenhouse, Pierce argues, is the first hero of a new American Revolution.
“Kyle Rittenhouse will go down in American history alongside that brave unknown patriot at Lexington Green who fired ‘The Shot Heard Round the World’ on April 19, 1775,” Pierce wrote in a since-deleted tweet on Tuesday. “A Second American Revolution against Tyranny has begun.”
Despite not being a criminal-defense attorney, Pierce has become the public face of a growing legal and financial effort to acquit Rittenhouse, appearing on Fox News with Tucker Carlson, promising to send a “special forces team” of lawyers to Wisconsin, and taking the unusual step of posting audio from a jailhouse phone call with Rittenhouse on Twitter to thank his supporters.
Pierce has teamed up with famed defamation attorney Lin Wood to launch #FightBack Foundation, a nonprofit with a dizzying array of goals that includes saving Rittenhouse, “contesting surveillance abuse,” and “stopping human trafficking.” That fundraising effort has been endorsed by far-right columnist Michelle Malkin and former New York Police Department Commissioner Bernie Kerik. At least some of the money donated to the foundation from Rittenhouse’s supporters will go toward Pierce’s own law firm, Pierce Bainbridge, as part of the legal defense, according to Pierce.
What may not be clear to donors, however, is that Pierce and the once-prominent firm he founded are mired in millions of dollars of debt, while a payday-lender-style loan to cover his own expenses prompted him to take a leave of absence. As Pierce’s firm totters around him, he appears to be using Rittenhouse’s legal defense to give himself a new persona as a trash-talking, right-wing firebrand.
Asked for comment for this story, Pierce didn’t directly address the turmoil at his firm or the allegations of financial mismanagement that have been levied against him.
“I am not quite the rapscallion you make it seem, Will ;),” Pierce wrote in an email. “But I do love my God, my Country and Notre Dame, and I will fight to the death for Kyle Rittenhouse.”
Pierce’s collaborator in the Rittenhouse case did offer what could be described as a qualified defense. Wood said the #FightBack Foundation would have strict rules about approving expenses, including payments to Pierce’s firm.
“I have to draw a fine line, a sharp line, between his involvement with the foundation and his defense of Kyle,” Wood said.
Asked about Pierce’s financial problems, Wood said he didn’t know enough about them to comment.
“I will say this generally speaking: If you’re looking for a pristine lawyer in this country, good luck,” said Wood, who has represented Covington Catholic student Nick Sandmann in lawsuits against various media outlets. “Last I checked, we’re all sinners, and that includes non-lawyers.”
Pierce founded Pierce Bainbridge as a boutique litigation firm in January 2017, after a curiously truncated run through a series of white-shoe law firms. Despite the questions about his exits from high-powered legal jobs, Pierce was able to recruit talented lawyers to its offices in New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and Boston, and earned positive press for Pierce Bainbridge.
One magazine profile asked whether Pierce Bainbridge was “the fastest growing firm in Big Law,” and Pierce declared that Pierce Bainbridge would end up being the top litigation firm in the country.
“We are really creating SEAL Team Six of litigation,” Pierce declared in March 2019.
Pierce funded at least part of the firm’s expansion with millions of dollars from Pravati Capital, a niche lender that offers startup funding for law firms.
At the same time, Pierce Bainbridge took on a series of high-profile video game lawsuits, representing rapper 2 Milly and former Fresh Prince of Bel Air star Alfonso Ribeiro in cases alleging their dances had been stolen and sold to players in mega-popular game Fortnite and a former wrestler who claimed his image had been lifted and used for a character in Microsoft’s Gears of War game. The firm also represented Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) and several Trumpworld figures, including Rudy Giuliani and former Trump campaign figures George Papadopoulos and Carter Page.
Internally, Pierce boasted about willingness to push limits.
“It’s so great since I’ve never been arrested or sanctioned or sued for anything,” Pierce wrote in a Pierce Bainbridge Slack channel, according to court records. “I know exactly where the line is and just get off on tipping my toe over sometimes. It’s so fun.”
At the same time, Pierce began to behave erratically toward his ex-wife, according to records of text messages filed in a Los Angeles child-custody case. In those messages, Pierce allegedly made references to the Apocalypse, declaring “I will find u at Armageddon and fuck u up.”
“I am good,” Pierce purportedly wrote. “U are evil. God is on my side. I will hunt u down and fuck u up.”
Pierce allegedly taunted his ex-wife over politics, claiming that he and Gabbard, a Pierce Bainbridge client, “will fuck u fascist neo-nazi socialist mother fuckers up” and accusing her of being a “libtard” who supports Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY).
“ARE U A NEO-NAZI AOC LOVING ANTI SEMITE???” Pierce wrote in one message.
In another, Pierce referenced the terrorist-torturing action-hero star of the TV show 24.
“Watch Jack Bauer on 24 if ur curious what I’m capable of,” Pierce allegedly wrote.
Pierce has extensive personal debts, according to a 2019 court filing made during his custody case. As of November 2019, Pierce claimed in those documents that he owed $850,000 to the IRS, along with an additional $200,000 in other taxes. In total, Pierce claimed to pay nearly $20,000 in monthly payments on various debts.
Allegations about a dire financial situation at Pierce Bainbridge itself spilled into public view in May 2019 when Don Lewis, a former partner and Harvard Law classmate of Pierce, filed a lawsuit alleging that Pierce Bainbridge exaggerated the value of its lawsuit returns to get money from lenders. Lewis claimed, for example, that Pierce Bainbridge insisted internally that the Gears of War lawsuit was worth $1 billion. Instead, the Gears of War case was dismissed.
While Lewis claims he was fired for refusing to go along with financial mismanagement, Pierce Bainbridge has denied the allegations, sued him for extortion, and countered that Lewis’ employment was terminated amid an investigation into allegations from a paralegal that Lewis had sexually harassed her. Both the firm and Lewis, who has denied acting inappropriately, are co-defendants in a retaliation lawsuit filed last month by the paralegal.
Whatever the truth of Lewis’ allegations, Pierce Bainbridge was already facing financial pressure. In March 2019, Pravati Capital reported in a business lien filing that Pierce Bainbridge had defaulted on a loan worth more than $9 million. Two months later, Pravati announced an end to its relationship with the firm.
While the $9 million lien was later paid off, even more ominous financial problems for Pierce and his firm surfaced this spring and set off a cascade of setbacks. In April, Law360 reported that the firm owed another litigation funder, Virage Capital Management, a whopping $65 million, and was tracking down former partners to demand payment. In June, Virage announced that Pierce Bainbridge had defaulted on its debt.
The firm’s financial woes have involved Pierce himself. In March 2020, John Pierce and Pierce Bainbridge were sued by a payday-lender-style financial business called Karish Kapital, which offers emergency cash for businesses. Karish Kapital alleged that Pierce had personally taken out a loan worth nearly $4 million from them and signed over the firm’s assets as collateral.
In a statement to The American Lawyer, a Pierce Bainbridge spokesperson said Pierce was on an “indefinite leave of absence” and had “accepted money from Karish Kapital LLC for his personal use.” In May, Pierce told Law360 that he had gone to rehab for unspecified issues.
Pierce’s loan from Karish Kapital marked the start of a cascade of bad news for the firm. On April 9, three named partners left the firm. James Bainbridge, the last remaining named partner aside from Pierce, set up his own separate firm in July, although he remains a partner at Pierce Bainbridge. As of May, Law360 reported, more than 60 lawyers had left the firm in the last six months.
“More than a dozen of those attorneys told Law360 they left due to a combination of frustration at a perceived lack of organization at the firm and concern over its financial situation, among other things,” Law360 reported in April.
The firm’s financial issues have somehow grown even worse. Pierce Bainbridge has been sued since March by at least three other lenders, two of whom allege Pierce cut deals with them offering a daily cut of the firm’s revenue to pay off the loans. Combined, the three lenders allege Pierce Bainbridge owes them nearly $600,000. In August, a legal services company sued Pierce Bainbridge, alleging $135,000 in unpaid bills.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, former Pierce Bainbridge partner Lewis was amused by Pierce’s new turn representing Rittenhouse.
“This dude’s on Twitter like a complete lunatic, trying to rile up people and get money,” Lewis said.
The possibility that money donated to the #FightBack Foundation might be misused has been criticized by various right-wing figures, including Robert Barnes, an attorney for conspiracy-theory outlet Infowars who has clashed with Wood in the past. Amid the criticism, Pierce announced that he would step down from the nonprofit’s board, but would continue to represent Rittenhouse.
Days before he stepped down, though, Pierce urged his Twitter fans to keep donating to the foundation. When the donation link supposedly stopped working, Pierce suggested a malevolent conspiracy was afoot.
“Dark forces are at work,” Pierce warned in a tweet.