Attorney Ben Brafman's portfolio of prominent clients is extensive, including Sean Combs, Plaxico Burress, and Dominique Strauss Kahn. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One on 1 profile.
Most lawyers just get paid for their work privately. By check. But from one of his better known clients, Ben Brafman got something more: A very public shout-out.
"I don't know of any other white, Jewish lawyers mentioned in a Jay-Z song," he says about the 2002 rap single Welcome to New York City. "I even know the lyric: Coverage at Centre Street, got Brafman defending me, 'cause New York would miss me if I was locked in the penitentiary."
We rarely get a chance to see Brafman in action because of the rules about cameras in the courtroom. But at an event in 2011 called the Trial of Socrates, sponsored by the Onassis Foundation, Brafman played Socrates defending himself, and displayed many of the qualities for which he is known. Among them: preparation and wit.
"I am Socrates," Brafman intoned, in character. "I have been given the opportunity to confer with Ben Brafman, who may well be one of the finest legal minds of his time."
But Brafman says that most of his clients are not high profile.
In fact, he says he does his best work when cases don't go to trial and never hit the front page of the paper.
"There are people who I've represented who I know," he says, "and their wives don't know I've represented them."
Brafman was already well known when he took on the Sean "Puffy" Combs case with Johnny Cochran. Puffy was facing weapons violations and other charges.
The two-month-long trial in 2001 was perfect fodder for the tabloids and television.
"That verdict was one of the most intense ones I've ever taken," Brafman recalls. "There were five counts and until the fifth 'not guilty' was uttered by the foreperson, I thought I was going to have a stroke or a heart attack."
"I feel like I just won the Super Bowl," Brafman told reporters outside the courthouse after the verdict was delivered. "This quarterback is going right to synagogue to thank God."
Brafman says that contrary to popular opinion, celebrities do not always get better treatment in the legal system – and occasionally receive what he considers unfair treatment.
He cites the Plaxico Burress case. Burress went to prison for two years.
"It's a question of dealing with the mayor of the city calling for maximum sentence; the district attorney calling for the maximum sentence; the public is calling for maximum sentence, and someone who you think is being made an example of and it's just not fair."
But the coverage of these cases paled in comparison to the attention paid to the case of French presidential hopeful Dominique Strauss Kahn.
For Brafman it represented a not-so-perfect publicity storm.
"Allegations of sex, there are issues of race and class," he says. "And it's world media so it was 24/7 crazy scrutiny."
After three months of global coverage the case was dismissed.
"I had friends traveling in China who e-mailed me saying that my picture was on the front page of their newspaper delivered to a hotel in a small village in China," Brafman says. "It was kind of absurd for a while."
Perhaps the final word on the atmosphere surrounding the case fell to one of his Brafman's grandsons, who watched French tourists taking pictures of Brafman at the U.S. Open.
"He looked at them and said, 'Why do you want to take a picture of my grandfather?' It was like, 'What is this all about?' I mean he knew I've represented celebrities, but this whole thing to him sort of seemed dumb," Brafman says. "And in a way it is. But I get it, and I can't say it's not fun at times. It is."
Brafman grew up in Crown Heights, in what he describes as a lower middle class Orthodox Jewish family.
"I didn't grow up on Easy Street and just slip into being a successful criminal lawyer," he says.
"My father as a soldier in World War II. Being the son of Holocaust survivors, having grandparents murdered in the Holocaust gave me a sense of, you know, 'I want to do something with my life and I want to do it right,'" Brafman says.
He went to Brooklyn College at night, and then to a law school that is hardly a household name in New York: Ohio Northern.
In Ohio, he read about two New York attorneys and called them for an internship. He was told: Next time you're in New York, kid, maybe we'll have lunch.
"I had a credit card and I went to the airport and I got on a plane and went to New York, and the next day I called him," Brafman recalls. "I said, 'Mr. McGuire, I'm Ben Brafman, I called from Ohio yesterday.' He said, 'Yeah, why are you calling again?' I said , 'I came to New York to have lunch with you.'"
He got the internship, then a job with the firm, a Masters of Law at New York University, and a spot in the district attorney's office – before eventually opening his own practice.
Early on, Brafman, an orthodox Jew with a son and a brother who are rabbis, became known for defending several reputed mobsters.
So was there ever a time when his religious beliefs collided with his obligations in a particular case?
"On the contrary – I think my religious background and religious beliefs help me," Brafman says. "Because one of the tenets of my religion, the Jewish religion, is to express kindness toward people in need. And also to give people the benefit of the doubt."
"My brother and my son, who I love and deeply respect, I think they admire what I do and respect it," he says. "(But) it doesn't mean on occasion I don't have to represent someone who is alleged to have done something hideous."
Brafman is married with two grown children and several grandchildren. He says that during high profile trials, he rarely sleeps. And he's happy that his children have followed their own passions.
"It would be very hard to be Ben Brafman's son or daughter and be a lawyer, because there's just too many complications that that presents," he says. "Second, I don't want them to have the kind of tension, aggravation, and relentless difficulties that I deal with professionally in their own lives. I'd like them to have the peace that I don't have sometimes."
But he says being a trial lawyer is a good fit for him. He also calls it "perhaps the hardest job in the world."
"Doctors work in private. When they lose a patient, the patient dies," he says. "When I lose a case, I get letters for 20 years. And doctors work in an operating room where nobody sees what they do. And they're surrounded by their colleagues, so if they screw up, they screw up. I work in a world stage. When I say world stage, everyone knew where I was last summer."
Brafman says he's been blessed both personally and professionally. He often cites a work ethic instilled in him years ago.
"A lot of people I know who are as successful spend a lot of time cruising around the world and taking long uninterrupted vacations which I never really get the luxury of doing," he says. "But I think what they do is boring."
"Regrets?" he says. "I think everybody at this point in their life looks back and asks, 'What if I did things differently?' But professionally, I don't know what else I could have done and yet be where I am today."