The Secret Weapon of Buchanan Ingersoll
Like a showman stepping onto the stage to riotous opening-night applause, Barry Ivan Slotnick, America’s most famous criminal-defense lawyer, strides into the conference room of Buchanan Ingersoll, his elegant double-breasted navy blue striped bespoke suit, the one that plugs in his electric-blue eyes, unbuttoned for that I’m-on-your-side air of casualness.
I’ve been cooling my heels for more than an hour by browsing through the titles of the three dozen books that line the cherrywood top of a computer desk in the corner – even though he’s a Gemini, the sign of the twins, I can’t help but wonder what kind of a guy reads “The Bridges of Madison County” (he has two copies!!), “Conscious Eating,” “Gotti,” “The Runner’s Handbook” and the double-volume “Jean-Michel Basquiat.” I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled for his grand entrance, but before, I, the sole judge and jury, even can turn around, he has extended his manicured hand, flashed his movie-star smile of Pepsodent-perfect pearly whites and fixed me like deer in a lipstick-red Ferrari’s headlights.
“I’m so sorry; I couldn’t get out of court,” he says. “There’s nothing I could do about it.”
With that, an eager Slotnick drops into one of the black-leather swivel chairs. He easily folds his lean, 6-foot-2 frame up like an origami crane, long legs crossed.
It’s not the first time I’ve waited for him, and he’s acutely aware of it. Interview No. 1, after all, was canceled as I sat in his Wall Street office while he got tied up in court. Interview No. 2 was postponed before I even arrived when the judge requested his presence at the last minute. So this, the third time in a month, is a charm that is just as charming as the headline-grabbing Slotnick, who really knows how to work a jury, even if it is comprised of only one woman with a pocket-size Sony tape recorder, black ballpoint pen and steno pad.
As a journalist, I ask questions. As a litigator – or as he prefers, “trial lawyer” – Slotnick asks questions. We both seek answers. But we’re looking for different things and have different agendas and expectations.
“You’re allegedly searching for two things – the truth and clarity,” Slotnick says. “Far be it from me to search for the truth, and sometimes far be it from me to search for clarity.”
I ask the first question, but as soon as Slotnick has the ball in his court, he runs with it and doesn’t give it up until it’s to his advantage. He’s going to tell me exactly what he wants me to hear. He is, after all, a master at working the jury and the media; he is, after all, notorious for, as famed Harvard Law School Prof. Alan Dershowitz puts it, “jumping into the jury box and hugging the jury.”
Pen poised, I brace for that embrace, and Slotnick comes in with a bear hug.
He mentions one case, and like a magician pulling a white rabbit out of his hat, he produces several decades worth of star-studded stories, everything from matrimonial and mob-boss cases to personal injury and white-collar crime suits. “I’m like a plumber; I fix everything,” he says, adding that in his recent cases over reservists being called back to duty in Iraq, he even battled the U.S. Army and won.
Anthony Quinn’s divorce: “We did quite well. Mrs. Quinn said she wasn’t well served,” he says and smiles. “I won’t comment on that.”
The first John Gotti case. “I represented a co-defendant, and everyone was acquitted.”
There is the pre-nup he just wrote for Melanie Knauss, The Donald’s latest wife; there was the time he defended reputed Russian mafia chief Vyacheslav Ivankov, who was prosecuted on extortion charges. And there were all the matters he handled for Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr., the divorce settlement he won for June Gumble, Bryant Gumble’s wife, and all the times he defended reputed mob boss Vincent “The Chin” Gigante.
And then there was Goetz, the case that made Barry Ivan Slotnick a household name, the case that was so controversial that some in his office begged him NOT to take it. In December 1984, you’ll no doubt recall, Bernie Goetz got on a New York City subway and shot four black teenagers who tried to make him hand over a $5 bill. He was charged with attempted murder, but Slotnick, against all the odds, got him acquitted. “Historically, it was an extremely important case,” he says. “It created a schism in this country -- what were the rights of victims? I represented the victim; the DA claimed he was the aggressor, and they were the victims. In that case, I told the jury I was the prosecuting attorney, I was representing the victim. I went through that with the added pressure of knowing there were millions of eyes looking at that courtroom. I personally believe that what he did was right and that if I didn’t prevail, society would take a big loss. I did not think of him as a vigilante; I looked at him as a pure victim who was able to fight back.”
Goetz got convicted of what Slotnick – not the prosecutors -- told the jury to convict him of: possession of an illegal weapon, for which he served several months in jail. “The other charges carried 30 years; he was acquitted of everything else,” Slotnick says. “I leaned into the jury box, and I looked at them and said, ‘He had a gun. It was illegal. You can convict him of that but not of anything else. Everything else he did, he was justified.’ And they just followed my instructions.”
It is arguments like those – How can you argue with a lawyer who says, ‘Convict my client’? -- that have made Slotnick a consistent winner. “I went through a period of 12 years where I didn’t lose a case,” he says, adding that even though he’s handled hundreds of cases – he’s never taken the time to count them – the tally of losses still is too tiny to count against him. “It makes you feel like you can walk on water. In the federal system, the prosecutors win 90 percent of their cases, and I was winning more than they were. For 12 years, they couldn’t beat me.”
When he did finally lose a case, he didn’t just get his toes wet – he nearly drowned. “I disappeared for two weeks,” he says. “I learned that you can’t be invincible all the time, maybe just most of the time. I learned that you have to control your ego.”
Slotnick lives, eats and breathes each case, and he thrives on the so-called “impossible cases” like Goetz’. He doesn’t sleep while he’s on trial. “You have to give it every minute of attention you can,” he says. “When I’m on trial, I know of nothing else in the world. I spend my weekends writing summations. It’s my only chance. When the jury comes in and announces the verdict, it’s over. And I’m not going to blow my only chance. There is no room for a mistake.”
He’s fanatical about closing arguments, which, the way he does them, can run eight, 10, even 12 hours. That’s longer than any actor appears on stage in a live performance. “It’s all written out; I have a book that is 14 inches high, full of my words. I write it out in longhand; I never use it,” he says. “The book stays closed. I write it out because I’m concerned that someday I may blank. It hasn’t happened yet.”
Unlike an actor who hones his performance through rehearsals, Slotnick doesn’t so much as practice before a mirror. He does, however, use his wife, Donna, as a sounding board, talking out trial tactics with her. “She gives me some of my best lines,” he says. (The best line, even though Slotnick doesn’t realize it, was the one she came up with after seeing the movie “The Bridges of Madison County.” The author of the novel was a client of Slotnick’s, hence Slotnick’s two copies of the best seller. She said to an oblivious Slotnick, who has only a vague idea of the plot, “You are not only my special guy but also my Clint Eastwood.” When told of the steamy sex scenes in the bathtub between Eastwood and co-star Meryl Streep, he says, without blushing, “Oh, I had no idea it was such a compliment. I’ll read the book this weekend and see the movie.”)
Slotnick, whose parents were from the area around the Russia/Poland border, grew up in a rough-and-tumble immigrant neighborhood in the Bronx when McCarthyism was in full swing. He was born not with a silver spoon, but with an opening argument in his mouth. He learned about anti-Semitism at an early age after his father tried to buy a summer/weekend house on Beaver Dam Lake in Washingtonville, New York only to have the deal fall through at the last minute when the seller realized they were Jews. His family subsequently bought the house – a friend did the deal then flipped the property – and that’s when Slotnick learned first-hand the real meaning of searing hatred. “Every week, the windows were broken, and my father just kept replacing them,” he says. “Kids used to taunt me and call me Christ killer, and they once beat the living daylights out of me.”
These lessons in life led to his lifelong love of the law. “I decided that I wanted to help people when I grew up, and I believed that the law was the way.”
The minute he graduated from New York University School of Law, he set up practice in Manhattan. For only $5 a month, he bought a mail-drop address. He printed up business cards. All he had to do was find his first client.
So he became a fixture in court, taking a front-row seat. “The judges knew I was there to get assignments, and every once in a while, they would say, ‘Slotnick, the next client is yours,’ and I’d stand up and represent them. I’d speak with people to try to get more clients, and I’d barter with the butcher to pay the bills.”
He focused on criminal defense and eventually started his own boutique law firm that eventually became Slotnick, Shapiro & Crocker. “I went to court and watched the famous lawyers of the day and learned from them,” he says.
By the time he was in his early 30s, he already had won a case, People vs. Columbo, before the U.S. Supreme Court in which he declared New York State’s contempt statute unconstitutional. “Less than ½ of 1 percent of lawyers ever dream of getting to the Supreme Court,” he says proudly. “My star suddenly became very bright.”
Soon, he and his signature beard became as famous as some of his celebrity clients. He decided against working for a large law firm because “I wanted to be able to have an emphasis on helping people and not making money. Plus, I wanted to do what I wanted to do. Now I am a partner in Buchanan Ingersoll, a very large national law firm, and I still do what I want to do.”
Swaying a jury may look easy, especially when it’s done by the likes of Slotnick, who has it down to a slick science, but it requires great mental agility and precise timing. For Slotnick, the pressure is compounded because while he knows right from wrong where the law is concerned, distinguishing right from left comes harder. “I have a learning disability,” he says. “I can’t tell left from right. This makes it necessary for me to be very precise when I do courtroom demonstrations with charts. The only reason I know my left is because my wedding ring is on my left hand.”
Being a successful trial lawyer requires much more than acting ability. “You’ve got to be able to know the law and be a good lawyer,” Slotnick says. “And you have to be Anthony Quinn and Paul Newman. Whenever I ask somebody a question, the minute I get that question out, I have six answers in mind. I say to myself, ‘The answer is, “Yes, no, maybe, how dare you, I don’t know.”’ And I have next question for all six possible answers.”
But even he’s not infallible, and there was a time when he got an answer he didn’t anticipate. I, being a journalist, not a lawyer, can’t anticipate what happened, so I do what journalists do: I asked another question.
What did you do?
“I didn’t look surprised,” he says. “But I was surprised, oh my G-d, was I! I took a step back and shot a question, it may have been relevant, it may not have been relevant, and I was back on my feet. Never get off your feet; never let anybody see that a blow hurts because you lose a jury that way. In my entire career, there was one occasion where I remember I blew it.”
He pauses to keep me hooked. “Do you have time to hear this? I don’t want to bore you. I mean I could go on for four hours, and you probably have something better to do.”
Are you kidding? And miss this?
His client, he continues, was accused of bribing the governor of New York to benefit a podiatrist. “But my client didn’t bribe the governor, he defrauded the podiatrist, because he took the money and put it in his own pocket, a crime he was not charged with. To tell it to the jury, I had to be smiling, making jokes, you stupid prosecutor, you charged him with the wrong crime, acquit him of bribery, some other jury will convict him of defrauding the podiatrist. He’s going to go jail no matter what. He’s going to go to jail regardless.”
When the podiatrist took the stand, he testified that he was so afraid of Slotnick’s client that he fled to Puerto Rico. That gave Slotnick the opening he wanted. “And when you were by the pool in Puerto Rico and you were ordering vodka martinis, were your hands shaking so we could hear the ice cubes? – this was my question to him and I knew all six different answers.”
The jury thought it was funny; the judge didn’t get the joke and started asking the podiatrist questions. “I started to yell at the judge – stop rooting and be fair. And as I did that, I got this angry look on my face, and I suddenly realized out of the corner of my eye that the jury saw a part of me that they’d never seen before, and I lost them for that moment. I think, ‘What am I going to do now,’ but I continue taking my steps and slowly and surely I’m on my toes, and I apologize to the court, with tears in my eyes and my palms up to the sky. They jury were shocked; they had not seen me like that ever before, and it took me 2½ weeks to re-establish myself with them. I added another week and half to that trial because I needed that jury to at least like me again because the evidence was so overwhelming.”
With the members of the jury again sitting in the palm of his hand and begging for more, he dealt the final crushing blow. He told them what an awful person his client was. “I said, ‘Do you think that I like sitting next to that man for six weeks?’ Of course not, he’s the most disgusting individual I’ve ever met… he’s a pig. But guess what, you have to acquit him, and have no fear, he’s committed fraud, that’s a crime, somewhere, somehow, he’s going to go to jail for that, but that will be before another courtroom before another prosecutor.”
The decision: Not guilty.
Afterward, the jurors hugged Slotnick -- and gave the cold shoulder to his client.
How can Slotnick keep defending notorious clients? He sees himself as liberty’s last champion, pointing out that if the criminal justice system lowers the bar so much as an inch, it opens the gate for easier convictions of innocent people like you and me. So if he gets a few guilty people under the bar, that’s the price that must be paid for everyone’s freedom.
His mantra -- take no prisoners, do it all, win the case – has served him well through the decades.
There was the personal-injury case where Slotnick asked for $12 million. After his brilliant summation, the members of the jury had one question: “Can we give more?” Answer: Yes. Slotnick won $22 million, not $12 million.
Slotnick measures each word and calculates each move, so many wondered what was up with him when in 2005, he announced that Pittsburg’s fourth-largest law firm, Buchanan Ingersoll, had acquired Slotnick, Shapiro & Crocker and that he would become the new leader of its white-collar criminal defense and complex civil litigation unit.
“I’ve come to a new point in my career,” he says. “I now try major complex commercial cases, more so than the white-collar cases that I still do. One of my daughters said, ‘Why aren’t you just trying criminal cases like you used to?’ And I said, ‘I’m going to explain to you what mid-life crisis is. I had two choices. I could find another woman; your mother wouldn’t like that, or I could do something different. I decided to do something different.’ I can now do different things in the same arena in which I hit home runs.”
When Slotnick’s not in his office or in court, he’s thinking about his cases. Now that he’s joined a national law firm, he does have support staff, so he has time to do things like go to the gym, run (but not a marathon because that would take too long to train for) and read. So what about those books in the conference room? He goes through them one by one. The one on running and healthy eating are logical; the two volumes on Basquiat were given to him, and he’s using them only as bookends – he doesn’t like that kind of art; and “The Bridges of Madison County,” well, that gives him an insight into what the general public is like and likes.
So what is Slotnick’s next move? I’ve thought of all the six answers he could give, and I even think I know which one he’ll give.
“I’ll keep on picking up files and going to court and looking at jurors and explain to them why my cause is right and the other side is just all wrong,” he says.
After the 2½-hour interview, with flair, the $750-per-hour Slotnick serves up sushi for lunch, joking, “I’m the world’s most expensive waiter.”
Now or never is the time for the moment of truth. He’s busy with the chopsticks; I’ll sneak up on him while he’s distracted.
I hesitate, pondering whether I should even ask this, my best moment-of-truth Barbara Walters-introspective question. Here goes: “What did you do to win me over?” (I confess, I don’t have a clue what his answer will be, which in Slotnick’s world won’t even get me inside the courthouse, much less near the jury box.)
“I don’t know that I won you over,” he says, without a trace of worry as those neon-blue eyes lock me in. “I mean you look good, but you can have me fooled.”
He laughs confidently, and even though I know better, I could swear he winked.
I persist: “But what did you do to win me over?
“Told you the honest truth of what I do. Didn’t embellish and tried to explain it to you as I know how to do those things.”
“But you got me on your side.”
“I hope so.”
“You won’t know until the article comes out.”
“That’s correct. When I read the article, I’ll know for a fact whether I won you over or not. Clients say to me, ‘Oh, you’ve done a great job. That jury loves you.’ And I say to them, ‘After I hear the verdict, we’ll make a determination.’ So after I read what you’ve written, we’ll make a determination.”