Law from the Inside Out

MIAMI — No one likes criminal defense lawyers, so the saying goes, until you need one.

Should that day arrive – and you can afford his fees – Miami trial lawyer Roy Black is among the top attorneys in the country.

He has almost 35 years’ experience under his belt, and his clients run the gamut from conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh and actor Kelsey Grammer to WorldCom executive Scott Sullivan and Colombian drug trafficker Fabio Ochoa.

He appears regularly on NBC and MSNBC as a legal analyst. Now he has his own reality TV show, The Law Firm (Bravo, Tuesdays at 8 p.m.).

Despite his wealthy clients and his own quasi-celebrity status, Black, 60, is a far cry from the stereotype of the swaggering, big city lawyer.

He’s more the bookworm-philosopher type than socialite. A noted scholar, he has written several books on the law and has taught a class at the University of Miami Law School since 1973.

At the Miami law firm he founded – Black, Srebnick, Komspan and Stumpf – he is known as a compassionate and supportive boss who never scolds or raises his voice. Government prosecutors also express a healthy respect for his famously thorough trial preparation.

During a two-hour interview in his book-lined office overlooking Biscayne Bay, Black chats easily as he answers e-mails and works on his cuticles with a pair of nail scissors.

Black was born in New York, his father a British Grand Prix racing driver who became Jaguar’s vice president for North America. After his father went into business in Kingston, Jamaica, the family moved to a plantation house atop a mountain overlooking the city.

Black was sent to a strict, British-style public school, Jamaica College. Teachers could be brutal, beating pupils till they bled. But Black looks back on it as character-building. “It was a great education for me,” he says. “I was a typical American kid without any great discipline.”

He later returned to New York, where he finished high school. Despite obtaining the highest grades, he wasn’t allowed to be the valedictorian because of his late entry into the school. “I’m still holding a grudge about that,” he says, laughing.

He accepted a swimming scholarship to the University of Miami. He never excelled on the swim team, instead making waves at the law school, where he placed first in his bar exams in 1970.

He dates his law career to a chance encounter driving on U.S. 1 on his way to a job interview. It was election day, and at one street corner he spotted his law professor and candidate for the public defender’s office, Phil Hubbart, standing with a campaign sign.

He stopped to say hello. The pair went for coffee, and Hubbart ended up offering Black a job if he won. For the next five years, Black toiled away in one of the most overworked public defenders’ offices in the country.

Black earned his fair share of publicity. Many of his clients faced death row. One case, involving a defense plea of insanity, was featured on 60 Minutes.

In 1976, he went into private practice. Rather than join a big established firm – there were plenty of offers – he started his own.

“I just wanted to do what I wanted to do. I pick the cases I want to handle,” he says.

He leapt to national fame in the early 1990s with the William Kennedy Smith rape trial, earning a reputation as a legal strategist.

But his colleagues put it down as much to hard work.

“He works harder than anyone I know to prepare for trial,” says Hubbart, 68, now an appeals court justice in the 3rd District. “He’ll work day and night for months and months.”

Hubbart says Black is one of the most complete lawyers he has come across, from his grasp of legal theory to great courtroom intuition and cross-examination skills. “He doesn’t bore the jury, and he doesn’t grandstand either. There’s not an ounce of that in him,” he says.

His colleagues say his secret is a deep empathy with his clients. He can be teary-eyed after verdicts, whether guilty or not guilty.

“You would think that after 30 years of being a criminal defense lawyer, a big shot like him would get used to it,” says Jackie Perzcek, a partner at Black’s firm. “I think this contributes to his ability as a lawyer because he is open to all people, to their explanations, their experiences, their regrets. . . . He approaches the law with a completely open mind.”

Black’s charity work also testifies to his human side. He and his wife, Lea, host a glittering annual fundraiser at their home for BayPoint School, a boarding school program for students with behavioral problems.

Defense work isn’t what it used to be, Black laments. New legal rules have given government prosecutors the upper hand, he says. So much so, Black doesn’t recommend that young lawyers go into criminal law.

“It’s become a very hostile arena,” he says. “It used to be we were all very collegial. While we would fight all day in court, you could go out and have a drink at the end of the day.”

Black argues that the very essence of the adversarial system of justice is being undermined. “Supposedly, the people have inalienable rights, but our rights keep getting less and less. The whole purpose of the Constitution was not to give us rights, it was to protect the rights we already have,” he says.

“People are afraid to go to trial because of draconian punishments, so they are more likely to negotiate with the prosecutor, who holds out the only chance of getting mitigation and leniency. So we have a system by prosecutor, instead of a system of trial by jury.”

His TV exploits have lately provided a new distraction. Black was approached for The Law Firm by TV producer David Kelley, a former attorney, known for his fictional dramas such as Boston Legal and The Practice.

He isn’t entirely happy with the moniker “reality show.” He doesn’t like it to be compared to I Want to Be a Hilton and Tommy Lee Goes to College.

He prefers to think of his show as a behind-the-scenes examination of the legal profession, “to show people what goes on,” he says.

That said, there’s a surprising dose of reality in The Law Firm.

The unscripted, eight-part series involves 12 young lawyers competing in real court cases, with real clients. Working in teams, each week the cases move up the scale from minor traffic disputes and neighborhood tiffs to murder.

The show premiered on NBC in late July but was demoted to its smaller sister network, Bravo, after the first two episodes. Critics didn’t like the overly dramatic music that accompanied some attorney discussions, or the attention paid to their often childish bickering.

Though the lawyers vie with each other to avoid elimination by Black, the firm’s “managing partner,” he doesn’t like his role to be compared to Donald Trump’s in The Apprentice.

“I really didn’t do this to advertise myself. Number one, I really don’t need it, and number two, it’s just not my personality to do that,” he says. “But I like the idea of exposing the system, and it’s a show really about the lawyers rather than me.”

Though there have been many good law documentaries and nonfiction books written about cases, Black says nothing can substitute for showing what really goes on during an actual case.

At the end of each show, Black critiques the lawyers before choosing one to be eliminated. “Those would go on for two, three, four hours at times, late into the night,” he says. “It got very intense at times.”

Black finds it amusing that some critics of the show express disdain for the lengths lawyers go to win. He may be a philosophical guy, but he still doesn’t like losing.

“It’s all about winning, that’s what it is,” he says. “You hire a lawyer to win your case, not to lose it.”