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Profile: Barry Slotnick

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-02-18

Surely a man who's taken on the government, big corporations, the Army, other big-time lawyers, other powerful people like himself -- surely such a man would occasionally experience some trepidation, a reporter asked Barry Slotnick over lunch yesterday, surely he felt an occasional frisson of, well, fear as he took on legal cases that, for more than three decades, have fetched him headlines, awards, celebrity, and also opprobrium? A fear of losing in court, perhaps, a fear of losing face?

Mr. Slotnick turned his angular hirsute face to the questioner.

"Fear?" he said. "The day I know fear and trepidation is the day I quit. I know well what it's like to go up against the government, against others who are very powerful in contemporary American society. A good lawyer must not worry about his adversaries. Fear is not what a good lawyer should have."

The Bronx-born Mr. Slotnick gave the reporter a cool, level stare, the sort that judges and juries from district courts to appellate courts to justices of the U.S. Supreme Court have received since his graduation from New York University's Law School.

"Fear?" he said, presently. "I fear no other human being, no agency, no corporation. I don't fear powerful consortiums. If I worry, then I'm not doing the job well for my client. I'm as big, as smart, and as strong as anyone else. When it comes to my lawyering, there's no fear in me."

Most anyone hearing this sort of talk might attribute it to arrogance, but from Mr. Slotnick's body language it seemed to the reporter to be flowing out of an easy, practiced self-confidence. So what was the well-spring of such assurance?

"The strength of my beliefs comes from my father, Meyer, who was a politician in the Bronx," Mr. Slotnick said. "As a child, I sat at our dining table and watched long lines of poor immigrants -- he was an immigrant from Eastern Europe himself -- who came to him for jobs, for help in settling in their newfound land. He was my role model. My juices flow from the self-confidence and serenity he instilled in me, the desire he spawned in me to help people. Helping people -- that's what I do. I'm liberty's last champion -- I really believe that."

And there were two other sources of his self-confidence, he said.

One was the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Republican of Wisconsin. The reporter did a double take. Senator McCarthy, as in the man who hounded often innocent men and women in the early 1950s when he launched Senate investigations of alleged Communist infiltration of American society. How would such a man be the source of anybody's sensibility?

"If I were to credit anybody for putting me on the track of protecting people legally, it would be Senator McCarthy," Mr. Slotnick said. "I saw how he destroyed human beings. I vowed that, as a lawyer, I would forever work to ensure that powerful people and institutions did not destroy everyday people."

And the other source?

"My belief in wanting to help others through the law also comes from the heritage of my people, who've been persecuted for centuries," Mr. Slotnick said. "I've learned from the history of my people that you can't always trust governments, and you can't always trust other people -- even your neighbors."

But surely, the reporter said, surely in this age of greater acceptance of ethnic diversity, surely the lessons of history would be taken into account -- even by those inclined toward repeating the terrible mistakes of the past?

"It doesn't necessarily work that way," Mr. Slotnick said. "If there's something that I'm deeply concerned about it's that there'll be a return to hate, a return to genocide. I can't just go into a field position and simply pray that it won't happen again. I've got to go out, put on my gloves and fight to ensure that it won't happen again."

It occurred to the reporter that these weren't lawyerly words. Mr. Slotnick certainly spoke with passion; he almost seemed to be proselytizing. So it seemed only natural to ask him if, after such a long and pugilistic career in the law, how he felt about being in the courtroom. After all, the reporter said, wasn't the courtroom of American jurisprudence the arena where infractions were supposed to be addressed -- and redressed?

"We have the best legal system in the world," Mr. Slotnick said. "And I start from the premise that all my clients are entitled to my best efforts. There are thousands of lawyers in New York, the world's capital for law. But not all of them know how to win. You can have the best cause in the world, you could be defending the most worthy of clients -- but you have to go into that courtroom and win. That means persuading a jury of 12 men and women."

So what does it take to win?

"It takes knowledge, it takes cunning, it takes tact, it takes understanding of how to make the right presentation and the right summation before a jury," Mr. Slotnick said. "And you know what? No lawyer, no matter how smart, no lawyer can win alone. You need a smart team of other lawyers and investigators and researchers behind you. I am what I am because of the people who help me prepare for my cases."

The reporter said he was a bit surprised that Mr. Slotnick -- who critics as well as the press have sometimes called bombastic -- would be openly crediting his associates. [He's just merged his 40-year-old firm, Slotnick, Shapiro & Crocker, which has 11 lawyers with Buchanan Ingersoll, Pittsburgh's third-largest law firm and one of the 120 biggest in America.]

"The egos in this town are so large that nobody's willing to share credit," he said. "Anybody who says he can win alone is arrogant -- and a loser. I have no trouble in acknowledging the role my colleagues play in my success. And I always tell young lawyers: Have the humility to give credit to others where it's due. As much as anything else -- as much as smarts, a killer instinct, the sheer will to win, insight, an ability to organize your thoughts, an ability to analyze issues -- the law is also about humility."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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