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Silicon Valley's most hated man to hang it up

William Lerach says it's time to go--and the Schadenfreude was overflowing from one tip of the computer business to the other.

I'm sure somebody out there loves William Lerach. Maybe he's got a cat or dog that likes to snuggle up on cold evenings. But this 61-year-old securities lawyer will be remembered as the lawyer Silicon Valley most detested, bar none.

Lerach became a media celebrity in the 1990s when he was filing a myriad of securities class action lawsuits. Tech companies, whose stocks were especially volatile during the go-go days during the Internet Bubble, were a favorite target.

So it was you can imagine the collective high fives going up all across the computer industry late Tuesday when news spread that Lerach had announced his retirement in an e-mail sent to "friends and colleagues" at his firm.

"As you know, I will be retiring in short order to resolve the investigation about alleged events at my former firm more than a decade ago--long before this firm was even a twinkle in the eye. Because the events in question do not involve this 3-year-old firm or any of you, my decision to step aside will ensure continuity and stability for the hundreds of clients who benefit from your stellar work. This will end the investigation," he wrote.

Lerach is feeling the heat. Government investigators are pursuing a criminal probe against his activities during Lerach's days with his old firm, now called Milberg Weiss.

In the e-mail he wrote, first obtained by the Wall Street Journal, Lerach maintained that "despite my mistakes, I am immensely proud that together we built a firm without peer and never shied away from taking on the world's most powerful and corrupt corporations."

Were we talking about a legal scuzzball or a brilliant innovator? That's going to be history's judgment to make. But more than a few companies lied and cheated their way through the 1990s. I bet a lot of burnt investors now wish somebody had held Enron or WorldCom accountable before things got out of hand.

But not every investor suffered losses because executives lied about their companies' financial state. Sometimes it was pure stupidity or pure greed--or in many cases, a nettlesome combination.

In his note Lerach wrote: "I've treasured the opportunity to stand up and fight on behalf of these people, the honorable and innocent victims of dishonorable and despicable greed. But I've also always understood that when you spend decades challenging powerful interests, the powerful interests will fight back with a vengeance."