Photo by Laura Barisonzi.
Who would you hire if caught up in a complex criminal case – murder, racketeering, bribery, any type of fraud – facing the prospect of spending the rest of your life, or too much of it, in prison? Take that question to New Yorkers familiar with the city’s legal elite, and Gerald Shargel's name might be the most common response.
The trial lawyer’s trial lawyer – who in the early years was known more as an appellate star (see the 1972 Supreme Court case Giglio vs. U.S.) – always seems to find himself in the news, and now on film. Shargel guided Dave Letterman blackmailer Joe Halderman to a guilty plea, and he did the same for disgraced Dreier LLP head Marc Dreier, which earned Shargel a supporting role in the documentary "Unraveled."
Of course, he is best known for defending mobsters like Hell’s Kitchen’s James Coonan and the Gottis of the Gambino crime family. In one case against John Gotti Sr., U.S. District Judge Leo Glasser referred to Shargel and partner Bruce Cutler as “house counsel” for the Gottis and removed them from the case; Shargel himself was the target of a multi-year federal investigation into his relationship with the mob – no charges were brought.
That colorful history sometimes obscures the diversity of his consistently successful criminal defense practice; Shargel generally does not discriminate against certain types of defendants as long as the stakes are high. At the time of our discussion, his trial schedule was filing up as lead defense counsel in the CityTime fraud involving New York’s’ payroll system, along with a pending securities fraud case and an insurance fraud case.
Lawdragon: In the documentary "Unraveled," Marc Dreier seemed torn between accepting what he did and trying to minimize his crimes. Did you sense a certain amount of denial on his part?
Gerald Shargel: Well, he’s not in denial about his predicament. He’s accepted the reality that he’s serving a 20-year prison term as well as anyone could expect, and in a certain sense, he’s in a state of grace. He realized from the moment he was arrested – I think it’s clear in the film – that life as he knew it was over, or at least over for a very long time. The film was shot over 60 days, and I think that by the end he was fully remorseful and accepting of responsibility for what he did.
LD: Are these types of white-collar cases different now, perhaps given some of the anti-Wall Street sentiment out there?
GS: In the sense that the draconian sentences in white-collar cases are out of control, yes. I have been on a long journey with these cases, doing it now for 42 years. I remember a time when white-collar defendants received five-year sentences. I remember one case where the wife was falling over about how harsh the judge had been. He was one of the toughest judges on the district court in New Jersey and really excoriated the defendant, and then when he finished his speech he gave a five-year sentence. We’ve gone from that to me getting phone calls and emails congratulating me for a 20-year sentence for Dreier. Where have we come if I’m getting congratulations for that? The prosecution asked for 145 years.
But my practice is not limited to white-collar cases; I have clients with every color collar. Taking on a diverse clientele makes the practice more interesting. While I have plenty of white-collar cases, I emphatically do not limit my practice to them. I limit my practice to serious cases.
LD: Some of those serious cases have been defending Mafia figures, leading some of your fellow lawyers to wonder why you would handle those types of cases given that you could remain busy without them.
GS: I don’t apologize for any of that. I’m a criminal defense lawyer. That means I represent people charged with serious crimes and do my level best to raise reasonable doubt, and to see that they are acquitted. It doesn’t always work. But I don’t look down my nose at any particular kind of case. Even in the last few years, I’ve represented a number of people that the government calls mobsters.
LD: You’ve been quoted before as saying you like “the action.” What do you mean by that?
GS: I like the action of high-profile cases. I’ve been fortunate to have a disproportionate number of high-profile cases. You know, walking into a packed courtroom, or walking into a courtroom where another room has a closed-circuit feed because the first room has filled up, to cross examine somebody under those circumstances – well, if you don’t like that, you don’t want to be a trial lawyer. I like the public attention, the scrutiny; I like it when the press section is full. I think any trial lawyer would welcome that. It’s what I live for.
LD: Did you know early on that you wanted to work on criminal cases?
GS: Well, I went to law school at a time when it was a certainty you would find a law-related job after graduation, and I hadn’t given a lot of thought about what type of law. One of the wonderful things about going to a New York City school was that you were so close to the action of the Southern District of New York and the Eastern District of New York – you were just a short walk or a bridge away from going to the court house and watching trials. I can remember those early trials; they are still in my mind – indelibly imprinted like a permanent tattoo. To see a lawyer in command of the courtroom and cross-examining a witness, or giving opening statements or closing arguments, that impressed me greatly.
LD: How did you get started doing criminal work?
GS: The summer between the second and third year of Brooklyn Law School I worked as a student assistant – what they called interns then – at the U.S. Attorney’s office in the Eastern District. I thought about being a prosecutor then. During that summer, the district had a crash program due to the enormous backlog of cases; this was before the speedy trial statute. They brought visiting judges and lawyers literally from all over the country. Every courtroom was filled with the best defense lawyers, and that kind of did it for me. I knew I did not want to be a prosecutor. It seemed I’d rather sit at the defense table, and I never did sit at the prosecutor’s table after that. In one case that summer I looked over to the defense table and saw Jim LaRossa, who later became a mentor, and later I became his partner.
LD: Have you ever had any second thoughts about the mix of cases? After all, in a wiretapped conversation, John Gotti threatened to kill you, specifically by throwing you out a window.
GS: I never believed that he meant it. I was in the process of trying to win an acquittal for him. He was an operatic person. I actually think that matrimonial lawyers are more at risk. This is not a practice for the thin-skinned, but after 42 years I am still chugging along.
LD: How about the federal government’s investigation of you? That must have been incredibly frustrating and nerve-wracking and threatening to your practice.
GS: I would have preferred that it never happened. But going back to what I said, it is not a practice for the thin skinned. If I look back at the trajectory of my practice, the bar in the graph goes up during those years. The adverse publicity did not stop my practice from growing.
LD: I imagine some people might become very distracted, even consumed with resentment against the prosecutor [John Gleeson, who became a federal judge].
GS: I knew I didn’t do anything wrong. But people can make things up, and it was something that was ever-present in my mind. I’m not trying to minimize it – it would have been better if it never happened – but I don’t hate the prosecutor. I’ve never hated the prosecutor, even in the worst moments. I’m a firm believer in, “It is what is,” and you have to deal with the problem and just keep moving forward. If you can’t move through the problem, you have to move around it. I actually like the prosecutor and have known him for years.
LD: Has your courtroom style changed over the years?
GS: I think it has changed. At times it depends on the case. I think my approach now is more professional and less acting; I think I was more dramatic before. As time passes, jurors have had different expectations. When I started practicing in the early '70s, I felt like I had a foot in two different eras. I was coming in at a time when there was still a little remnant of the old style of practice. Trial lawyers are like folk singers: They don’t copy other styles that came before, but they are influenced by them. I had a lot of influences from older lawyers who practiced in a different era. For a while I was probably more dramatic than I needed to be. I think over the years that’s quieted down. My approach to trials is not kicking and screaming and calling the government the Evil Empire. My approach is, “Let’s all reason together,” and I try to persuade the jury I have a more reasonable interpretation of the evidence. Sometimes you are more effective with a softer approach. But if a situation calls for sarcasm, I’ll be as sarcastic as anyone else.
LD: Did you want your kids to also become lawyers?
GS: No, I just wanted them to be happy in the work that they did and to be satisfied. It just happened. My daughter was at Akin Gump but wanted to do more public interest work and is now doing appeals for indigent youthful offenders in California. My son is at Bracewell & Giuliani here in New York.
LD: Given your busy caseload, what has drawn you to teaching at your alma mater?
GS: It’s enormously satisfying. I find that I am really driven by the students. When you teach, you have the opportunity to make an indelible impression in people’s minds. When former students come up to me in courtroom hallways and call me professor – I encourage them to call me Gerry – and have these favorable reactions years later, that is just very rewarding.
LD: In one of the profiles on you, I read that you have insomnia. Is that still the case?
GS: I was up at four o’clock this morning preparing for a case, if that’s insomnia, then I do. When I come home at the end of a trial day or between trials, I don’t really like to sit down and work until late. I maintain a schedule where I’m sleeping by 9:30 or 10. I get along well on very little sleep, just four or five hours a night, some nights not even that. I would rather get up at 3:30 in the morning than come home and work after dinner. I’m no good in the evenings, I’m good in the mornings.