“I’m not the morality police, I’m a criminal defence lawyer.”
Benjamin Brafman is one of the most successful white collar criminal defence lawyers in New York City and indeed the nation. Known for a disarming sense of humour, quick wit and skilful cross-examinations skills, his clients have included mobsters, drug dealers and celebrities like Jay-Z, and Michael Jackson. He recently was the attorney for Harvey Weinstein until a difference of opinion led to their parting of ways.
Like all the best trial lawyers, Brafman is a storyteller, who tries to turn his cases into narratives that jurors will read his way. In court, he’s a natural performer, constantly animated, often pacing the floor, gesticulating as needed to emphasize his outrage at the injustice heaped upon his clients.
Renowned for his way with juries, not least because he can be very amusing, prosecutors may roll their eyes, but the jurors always laugh. One of his favourite and often used lines: “The prosecution wants you to believe their side of the story. I wish I were taller. But we can’t always get what we want.” conveys just the right tone of self deprecation and common sense. Trust me, he is saying, and all will be well.
Benjamin Brafman. Original painting 2020. Collection of the artist.
Growing up as an Orthodox Jew and son of Holocaust Survivors, Brafman started working at ten years old as a waiter in Queens and later at several Catskills resorts. He took night classes at Brooklyn College and then decided to apply to law school. He was accepted at the little known Ohio Northern University in the sleepy town of Ada where, with little to distract him, Brafman flourished, editing the law review and graduating with distinction.
It was here that Brafman discovered his love for criminal defence, and took a summer internship with the Brooklyn D. A.’s office, working long hours in the courthouse and studying the prosecutorial system. A year later, he interned for McGuire & Lawler, one of the top white-collar defence firms in New York.
In 1976 Brafman worked for four years as a Manhattan assistant district attorney winning all but one of 24 difficult cases. This led to tempting offers from major city law firms but he didn’t want to work for anyone else and in 1980 he rented the ground floor of a townhouse on the Upper East Side and hung out his shingle and started the beginnings of an independent professional career.
Brafman initially represented a few known Mafia members, but turned down many more. “I didn’t want to be known as a Mob lawyer,” he says. In 1990, he successfully defended an accused drug trafficker but then avoided narcotics cases for a while. “I didn’t want to be known as a drug lawyer, either,” he says.
However it was in 2000 when he got a call from Johnnie Cochran to join the defence team for the rapper P Diddy, who was facing firearm and bribery charges that celebrity clients started to call.
In 2011, he represented Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the International Monetary Fund, accused of sexual aggression at a Manhattan hotel. Strauss-Kahn, a powerful figure on the international stage maintained it was consensual. In the end, Brafman shut down the accusations and DSK walked free.
Brafman is a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers, holds the Pursuit of Justice Award from The American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists and is a recipient of the “first” ever Clarence Darrow Award by the New York State Association of Criminal Defence Lawyers. He lectures widely throughout the United States on issues related to trial advocacy.
“There aren’t a lot of people who do this anymore,” he said the other day. “It’s getting lonely at the Alamo.”