Photo by Laura Barisonzi.
Gerald L. "Jerry" Shargel, 77, died Saturday after a lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s.
He reigned as the leading criminal defense lawyer in the Golden Age of New York’s mob prosecutions, defending among many, many others Hell’s Kitchen Westies leader James Coonan, the Gottis of the Gambino crime family, and numerous other gangsters. Less public was his equal prowess representing white-collar defendants.
While ink by the ocean was spilled on the dapper defender of organized crime members against aggressive G-men, it obscured the legal chops of a truly extraordinary attorney.
“Regardless whether you loved or despised his clients, one thing on which everyone could always agree was that he was perhaps the best criminal defense lawyer of his generation,” says Cadwalader trial lawyer Nick Gravante. “Trying a case seemed like an almost effortless experience for him because he was so skilled and it came so naturally to him. He enjoyed every minute of every trial, from beginning to end – especially when before a jury.”
A native of Brunswick, N.J., Shargel graduated from Brooklyn Law School in 1969. He reveled in the ability to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and watch big-time trials. Between his second and third years of law school, he sat for a heartbeat at the prosecutor’s table – but only because of a program created by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York for that summer, 1968. Judges brought in top lawyers from all over the country to eliminate a massive backlog of cases. Seated at the prosecutor’s table, Shargel looked over and saw legendary defender James LaRossa. It was the first and last time Shargel sat on the prosecutor’s side; LaRossa became a mentor and later his law partner.
Shargel quickly earned his chops as a trial lawyer. He relished the performance, the stakes, and making the government prove their charges.
“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,” Shargel said in a 2012 interview. “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.”
He lived large on the stage of courtroom showdowns, from the war on the mob in the 1970s and 1980s through white-collar crackdowns of this century. He represented a who's who of real estate entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers and politicians in white-collar matters that became the heart of his practice. Over the years, he was investigated, thrown off a case with Bruce Cutler because he was accused of being “in-house counsel” to the mob, provided solace to family whose loved ones were convicted, and turned back charges on legions of defendants, all the while maintaining the line between accusations and guilt.
John Gotti was once caught on a wiretap saying he wanted to throw Shargel out the window. "It wasn’t personal," Shargel said, with his typical panache.
“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 …,” he said. Nor was Jerry's practice for those fearful of the limelight, as an extraordinary 24-page New Yorker article in 1994 confirmed.
“Jerry was a great mentor, a true friend and always fun to try cases with,” said Gravante, co-head of Litigation at Cadwalader. He is among an elite cadre of counsel mentored to be a trial lawyer from Shargel. Also among that group is Alan Futerfas, who worked with him for years and became his partner, handling trials ranging from the Westies prosecution, memorialized in books and movies, to defending "Sally Dogs" Lombardy before Judge Maryanne Trump Barry. Fittingly, Futerfas and Gravante are both defending the Trump Organization and its leading employees.
“Few people know today that Jerry was one of the best appellate writers ever. He wrote over 100 briefs on appeal and his writing was tight, crisp, simple, logical and extraordinarily compelling,” Futerfas said. “Jerry read every new federal decision on criminal law. He read these decisions on vacation, on the weekends, at his summer homes and in the office early in the morning. I was there, at his beach house, and saw him reading slip opinions on a Sunday morning at 6 a.m.,” recalled Futerfas.
“Jerry took that unparalleled knowledge of the law and brought it into the courtroom where he was simply a ridiculously skilled trial lawyer. The judges knew that Shargel knew the law better than anyone and Jerry won numerous rulings on all kinds of matters – jury selection, evidence, openings and summations. And because he was so respected, and so entertaining, Jerry got away with doing practically anything in the courtroom. Countless times I saw judges, who may have hated the client by the way, nonetheless smile broadly as they watched Jerry decimate a government witness and dismantle the government’s case.”
“And, of course, jurors always looked forward to the Shargel cross – there was no better show in town. The government would finish a direct examination and all the jurors would look at Jerry in anticipation of the destruction that would soon occur,” recalled Futerfas.
Though academic and thoughtful in private, Shargel lived large for his clients, helming his own firm until 2013, when he joined Winston & Strawn, from which he retired in 2018.
Acutely aware of the knife-edge balance between the practice of the law and its art, he reminisced of his early days practicing in the ‘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,” he said.
He is survived by his wife, Terry; son, David Shargel; daughter, Johanna Tobel; six grandchildren; his mother; and his sister, Judy Shargel.