Lawyer Limelight: Barney Balonick

When lawyers need a lawyer, they call Barney Balonick. Southern California’s top law firms trust Balonick to do one thing: use his “street-fighting tactics” to protect and recover their own assets as well as their clients'.

Immediately after law school, Balonick's next classroom was the court room. Embracing what he believes to this day to be a true honor, he served as a Cook County Assistant State’s Attorney in the criminal prosecutions bureau, quickly moving through the ranks and gaining bare knuckle trial experience in Chicago where he gained his prosecutorial mentality – an attitude carried over to his new life in California.

The Lawdragon 500 Leading Plaintiff Financial member’s successful and prolific trial practice has consistently earned impressive results in creditor’s rights, as well as asset protection and recovery. Balonick, who has run his own litigation boutique since 2013, has tried more than 460 cases from New York to California.

Lawdragon: How did you first become interested in developing this type of practice?

Barney Balonick: I didn't choose it; it chose me. A major, high profile law firm in L.A. needed their bills paid from former clients – the law firm asked me to help because their own attorneys wouldn't or couldn't get the money into the firm's accounts. It started there and took off and hasn't stopped. I think being a former Chicago prosecutor, having that mentality of chasing after defendants helps.

LD: What do you find professionally satisfying about your work?

BB: Never giving up for these prominent law firms and their clients by providing asset protection and asset recovery. Knowing that my client’s assets are secure and the gratitude they express is worth everything. When it comes to forcing the defendants to pay their bills, it’s fighting them until they cave. That's the juice for me. 

LD: Do you have an example of a case you fought that was most fulfilling in that way?

BB: My firm represents a lawyer, and we had to engage in hostile litigation to protect him. We beat the other side so badly that we drove them into bankruptcy and took their assets away. It was vengeance in its purest sense for wrongfully suing one of our clients. 

LD: How many cases have you tried now?

BB: I just won another trial, marking it my 460th. Fastest knockout I've had – I took the defendant down in 80 minutes. 

LD: That’s incredible. Can you describe a recent matter that you’ve handled?

BB: There was a dispute over a vintage Porsche, and this is when my interest really piqued about asset protection. The issue boiled down to: "What makes a Porsche a Porsche?" Is it the engine, the body, etc. Our client wound up with an incredible result – he got the vintage Porsche back as part of the settlement. There was so much conflict over this one asset, and that’s when another shift of my practice occurred. I learned from this case that had my client shifted his assets into a trust, it would have saved him from the anxiety from the litigation and I am now encouraging all my clients to learn their lessons before it’s too late – ethical protection of their assets is the best way to win the fight before it even begins.

LD: Were there any major challenges or takeaways from that case?

BB: It is critical for lawyers to listen, truly listen to their clients. Most clients, corporate and individual, really prefer to not deal with the stress of litigation. Some clients really grapple and struggle with pleadings, motions, fees, etc. If lawyers forget to provide "counsel" then it could lead to the clients not communicating about facts, evidence, etc. Lawyers – and I am included in this – must stop and just listen to the clients.

I also learned that it is OK to not always focus on hitting the start button on the timer for legal billing. Giving the client the victory is still the most important thing. 

LD: Absolutely. How did the client feel about the result?

BB: My client on the Porsche case is not only ecstatic, but he refuses to retain any lawyer other than my firm. He calls me all the time and just yesterday he said, "In just three months, you halved all of my problems from the last two years." That was a good one.

LD: I’m sure. Looking back a bit, did any experience from your undergraduate work push you towards a career in the law?

BB: No. I knew I'd be a lawyer when I was a kid and then I used my will to get here.

LD: Ha! Well, did you have any professors who were particularly influential?

BB: Professor Dr. Bernie Zant at Bradley University has to get special mention. After Dr. Zant, my best teachers are the ones that are in my life now. Stuart Liner, Fred Fenster, Henry David and of course Barry Hirsch. These are true lawyers and I have no idea what I did right to be able to have them in my life, but they teach me more in 10 minutes than I can ever learn in a semester. Stuart Liner gave me a chance (only one with Mr. Liner, so don't mess it up!), and then Fred Fenster, Henry David and Barry Hirsch all make sure that I read the new cases and discuss with them to watch my interpretation. 

LD: It’s great to have so many teachers in life. Was there an early experience or mentor who really helped shape the course of your professional life?

BB: One of the best trial lawyers I ever saw was in Chicago – Barry Goldberg. A dyed-in-the-wool trial lawyer. He had a method of preparing for trial that made the case bullet-proof. I was an associate at his firm, and he said to me: "You give me a year, Barney, and I'll teach you how to be a lawyer and not just someone who graduated from law school and goes to court." It was one of the toughest environments I'd ever been in, but he was right. I use his methods even today. 

LD: That sounds like intense and rewarding early work. On the other side of the aisle, tell me about a lawyer you have come up against in a negotiation or case that you admire, and why.

BB: Dennis Berkson in Chicago. Now that’s a lawyer. Probably the best cross-examiner in that city. One other legend that must be mentioned: Pat Tuite. Both are the lawyer’s lawyer and of the highest caliber.

The other lawyers that I admire in my cases are the ones my firm represents. I found that these lawyers handle themselves very professionally, do an A-rated job (I have to look at their bills very carefully and sometimes have to review their work because it is evidence) and usually conclude that top-to-bottom, they're smarter than I am which makes it a true honor to protect their assets and get their money back into their firm's bank accounts. 

LD: Did you have any jobs between undergrad and law school?

BB: I clerked (in the mail room) for different law firms during the summers. I was always exposed to the practice. But it was my job as a laborer for a construction company that really impacted me. I'll never forget Howard, a 56-year-old man with no education, still having to break his back every day because he never went to school. On my last day on the job, just before I was going to law school, he said to me: "You remember old Howard now, when you're up in your ivory tower counting all that lawyer money... if it ain't one mother f----n’ thing it's another." I've read Plato, Aristotle, Nietzsche, even Marx. I'd put old Howard's truth up against any of them. 

LD: What made you first pursue a career in law?

BB: I never looked at it that way. Law was never a "career" for me – as a prosecutor, I was on trial my first day, barely out of law school and the electricity from the courtroom was pure adrenaline and I was hooked on it. In my first jury trial, the jury came back and found the defendant guilty of some violent crime in less than 3 hours. The sheriff came from behind him, hooked him up and swept him right off the floor. I looked at the victim who was still staring at the defendant's empty chair, and she started to well up with tears. That's why I went to law school. To make defendants pay for what they've done. 

LD: Is there a specific reason why you chose Illinois Tech’s Chicago-Kent College of Law over another law school?

BB: I'm a city kid who knows the streets, and Chicago-Kent is a great teaching school for kids that really want to be lawyers. 

LD: Is this the type of practice you imagined yourself practicing while in law school?

BB: Never. I had no idea I'd wind up in Los Angeles with my own firm. Going from a prosecutor to a business litigator and then changing the focus on assets, how to protect them and recover them – what a ride!

LD: What advice do you have now for current law school students?

BB: Keep in touch with your classmates after you graduate. You can be the best cross-examiner in the city, but if you don't have a case, then what difference does it make? Tell your classmates what you're doing, boast a bit about your deposition, motion or trial. They'll remember you as time goes on to send cases your way. Also, don't close yourself off to other business opportunities. There's more to life than just going to a law practice. Stay open. Who knows? Lightning could strike!

LD: How has your practice changed since the early part of your career?

BB: In one major way, it hasn't. I still go after bad guys. If the defendants were ethical, then they'd pay their lawyers and corporate debt. On the other hand, I’ve had to learn about assets and how to protect them which really opens an entire new vein of law that is fascinating.

LD: Right. Is there a firm that’s stood out to you as your most memorable client?

BB: Yes, but I don't want to mention the firm. During one of that firm's collection cases against their former client, the defense attorney tried to push me around and said “...his client will never pay – no, no, no...” That only made me fight harder, and the defendant paid $150,000 in short order. Making the defense lawyer choke on his "no, no, no" gave the managing partner of the firm a huge smile. Vengeance always feels good. 

LD: How would you describe your style as a lawyer? Or how do you think others see you?

BB: I put everything on front street. I let the judge know what the case is about from minute one, I let the client know the objective, and then we go prove it. We follow the case wherever the evidence takes us, and I know that the judges appreciate this level of honesty. That means everything to me.

LD: Tell me about the management of the firm – as the sole attorney, I imagine you bear a significant amount of responsibility for keeping the firm running. What are some of the challenges you face in that role?

BB: Having new associates do what the firm does. Most law students underestimate the importance of protecting wealth, making sure debts are paid, or even creditor's rights. Fighting tactics are not taught in law school so most law students must learn strategic thinking. Asset protection and enforcement work is technical. The test is to see if the new lawyer has grit and then the rest usually falls into place.

LD: How do you see the firm and legal practice in general developing in the future?

BB: Watching to see what happens to court cases is going to be interesting. We're going to watch to see if court and trials continue to be virtual, because it will impact everything and everyone. What did not change is that the judge is still the judge. It’s the judge’s room and that commands respect.

LD: What do you try to “sell” about your firm to potential recruits – how is it unique?

BB: This is a firm that devotes itself to protecting other law firms, corporations and even some individuals – we use boxing strategies whether we are in court or in the office. Watching Muhammad Ali – we use his brilliant techniques to move the assets, or lure in our opponents and hit them with very damaging questions.

LD: How has firm or practice management changed since the start of your career?

BB: Moving from asset recovery to asset protection is seamless because the mentality is the same. Protecting my clients and what they value most is one of the greatest things I can do.

LD: What do you do for fun when you’re outside the office?

BB: My German Shepherd is the light of my life. I take him with me everywhere and now he goes to court with me (virtually) and the judges actually say hi to him. 

LD: That’s adorable. Do you have a favorite book or movie about the justice system?

BB: "Night Falls on Manhattan."

LD: Are you involved in any pro bono or public interest activities? Please tell us what you find meaningful about your time serving them.

BB: Yes, I help with dog rescues and I'm a huge animal rights advocate. 

LD: If you weren’t a lawyer, what would you be doing now?

BB: I have the greatest respect for law enforcement and the fire department. If that didn't fit – and those jobs are so tough – I'd own my own business right here in Los Angeles because I’m convinced: Los Angeles is phenomenal.