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The Defense Never Rests

With talent, heart, and hard work, Benjamin Brafman wins over clients and juries in many, many impossible cases.

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Nightclub owner Peter Gatien remembers awaiting the verdict in his February 1998 federal trial for promoting drug dealing at the popular New York clubs Limelight and the Tunnel. Federal prosecutors had endless resources, tape recordings, and documents in their favor, and Gatien feared he didn’t have a chance. Standing next to him was defense attorney Benjamin Brafman (LL.M. ’79). “It was the defining moment of my life,” Gatien says. “I was looking at 17 years. Ben held my hand, and he was actually shaking.”

After just two and a half hours of deliberation, the jury acquitted Gatien. Onlookers (many of whom worked in his clubs) burst into cheers. He and Brafman hugged, Gatien recalls. “He lived my trial as much as I did.”

That devotion accounts in large part for Brafman’s tremendous success as a defense lawyer. The rest is “a combination of theatrical skills and dogged preparation,” says New Yorker legal affairs staff writer Jeffrey Toobin, who insists that Brafman is the best courtroom lawyer he has ever witnessed.

Brafman first attracted notice in the 1970s as an assistant district attorney in the Manhattan D.A.’s office. Itching for trial experience, he took any and all cases, including the long shots. He tried 24 cases over a four-year period and lost only one. In 1985, with a practice of his own, he won an acquittal for a defendant in a highly publicized case involving the Gambino crime family. More mob cases came his way. “I cut my teeth on those cases,” Brafman says.

Today, he is one of the best-known defense attorneys in the city—and well beyond. Dominique Strauss-Kahn hired Brafman to fight bombshell sexual assault charges that forced his resignation from the International Monetary Fund this spring. Brafman also represented hip-hop/fashion entrepreneur Sean Combs over his alleged role in a 1999 nightclub shooting, and rapper Jay-Z on assault charges. He briefly defended Michael Jackson in a 2004 child molestation trial, and New York Giant Plaxico Burress in a 2008 firearms case.

Although celebrity cases have propelled Brafman into the spotlight, they comprise just a small portion of a practice that includes white-collar and common criminal cases, plus commercial litigation. Among his peers he is not viewed as a celebrity lawyer, says defense attorney Andrew Lawler. “Ben is someone to go to because you have a problem and you’re looking for a good lawyer.”

That good lawyering starts with fierce loyalty to his clients. “He gives them his blood and guts,” says colleague Robert Katzberg, whose firm, Kaplan & Katzberg, shares a floor with Brafman & Associates in an East Midtown office tower. Katzberg says that Brafman’s clients respond in kind, with one even naming his son Benjamin.

Brafman is also blessed with the gift of gab, a likable personality, and quickfootedness— all of which make for riveting courtroom performances. Michael Bachner, who represented a co-defendant (also acquitted) in the Combs trial, recalls how Brafman “decimated a key witness during a two-hour extemporaneous cross-examination, at the end of which everyone in the courtroom wondered why the prosecution ever even called that witness.”

Colleagues say he charms judges, jurors, and opposing witnesses alike with his disarming 5’6” stature and down-to-earth Brooklyn upbringing as well as a self-deprecating sense of humor, which he cultivated while doing a short stint as a stand-up comic in his 20s. “Jurors love him,” says Combs, who calls Brafman “Uncle Benny” and gets in touch each year on his trial anniversary. “He has a New York way of connecting with New York jurors. He’s the guy you’d go to a baseball game with, the guy from around the neighborhood.”

Speaking to a group of students as the guest at a dean’s roundtable in November, Brafman said: “Natural talent gets you somewhere. But it doesn’t mean anything unless you put in the hours.”

By all accounts, Brafman prepares assiduously for trial. Bachner worked with Brafman in the 1980s on organized crime cases that hinged on government wiretaps. Brafman required him not only to listen to the prosecutors’ tapes (while other lawyers would only read the transcript) but also to listen to the part when the witness is being wired up—a strategy that often provides the facts that are the key to victory. Brafman credits his work ethic to his father, Sol, who spent 40 years working in the garment district. Brafman’s father and mother, Rose, were Holocaust survivors and raised their family in an Orthodox home.

Brafman earned his B.A. in 1971 from Brooklyn College and his J.D. in 1974 from Ohio Northern University. He went on to get an LL.M. in criminal justice from NYU School of Law. “It was important for me to know that I could dance with the best and not trip,” he says, explaining why he sought a degree specifically from NYU Law.

Brafman says his faith and family keep him grounded: “I have a solid, happy personal life, which makes me a better lawyer.” He and his wife of 38 years, Lynda, are close to their two children and grandchildren. He is also active in a number of charities, including Kulanu, a Jewish school for disabled children, and the Israel Cancer Research Fund. “Being a good lawyer is great,” says Brafman, “but being a good person is more important.”

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