Secrets of Success from America's Best Defense Attorney
Three life lessons from the legendary Ben Brafman that everyone should learn.
“Why do people hate criminal defense attorneys so much?" I asked Ben Brafman, legendary criminal defense attorney who has defended high-profile clients like Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Puff Daddy, Jay-Z, NFL star Plaxico Burress, numerous political pundits, and even the Italian mafia. “At the end of the day, isn’t your job just to protect criminals?”
Brafman smiled, completely unfazed. “Alleged criminals,” he corrected me matter-of-factly. Then he went on to say something which blew my mind.
“I don’t focus on my reputation amongst the masses. I care about my reputation amongst the people who matter. In my business, that would be judges. After all my years in this profession, they know that I’ll fight tooth-and-nail to prove that a conviction is not 'beyond a reasonable doubt.' But I’ll never lie. I thrive in the grey but I’ll never say that black is white or that white is black. This work isn’t about glamour or popularity. No, this work is about keeping the government honest.
Criminal defense attorney, Benjamin Brafman.
“Even a perpetrator who isn’t innocent should be allowed a defense as afforded to them by the Constitution. Especially with today’s cultural hyperfocus on the court of public opinion, I do this work to protect the law. Without my job, society risks slipping into autocracy. Even if those autocrats believe themselves to be the good guys.”
I chewed on that for a second. He had a good point. As Brafman spoke, I glanced around his tony, Manhattan office. Photos of him with celebrities, moguls, and politicians of all stripes lined the walls. A framed copy of the New York magazine edition labeling him the “Best Criminal Defense Lawyer in New York” huddled humbly in midst of awards from the State Bar Association and a host of national and international law institutions. Success was literally written all over the walls. What I quickly discovered was that there was one consistent ingredient to his success. Sacrifice.
Raised in a home which couldn’t afford him the finer things of life, Brafman eventually made it to law school at Ohio Northern University. Already married, he set his eyes on working a summer job at the Manhattan criminal-defense law firm of Robert McGuire and Andrew Lawler. He read up on all their cases and put in a cold call from Ohio to McGuire’s landline in New York. McGuire politely rejected Brafman’s solicitation. Brafman persisted and McGuire ended the call with, “If you’re ever in New York, we can have lunch.” The next day, Brafman showed up in his office bright and early in the morning. “[It’s] easier to hire him than figure out how not to hire him,” McGuire was reported as saying.
Since that day, Brafman has arguably become the iconic prototype for what it means to be an American Jewish lawyer in the 21st century. He is a legal legend, respected by his friends and foes alike. Throughout the afternoon which I spent with Mr. Brafman, he shared with me the stories, values, and personal ideologies for success. Here are three highlights from our conversation.
The author with Benjamin Brafman
1. Pick Your Sacrifices
Brafman regularly advises young aspiring attorneys to “pick” their sacrifices. His mantra is that it’s not prestigious credentials or better academic training which gets one across the finish line first but a good old, hard work ethic.
“There are no short-cuts,” Brafman told me. “Contemporaries of mine have traveled the world but I don’t take off the summer, even now. I remember one time I was cross-examining a witness on the stand. It was a complicated case that had stretched on for months. In the back of the courtroom sat a class from a prestigious local law school. At the break, one of these young law students walked up to me. 'Wow, Mr. Brafman, your cross examination was amazing. Really, really fun to watch you in action.' I asked him what he had done the summer prior. He was confused but responded that he had spent the summer sailing in the Hamptons. I replied by telling him I had spent the summer preparing this day’s cross-examination from hundreds of conversations and written text which I had to weave together. He was stunned. This is what I mean by saying you must pick your sacrifices.
“When I was just starting out, I used to go home at 7pm and continued working at my dining room table until 2am. I chose not to sacrifice time spent away from the company of my wife and family. But I also chose to do it this way so my young children would witness how hard I was working. I didn’t want them thinking I just came home and watched TV. It’s not easy. When my father was dying, he was in a coma for six months. I spent almost every night and weekend in the hospital, preparing for the next court day by his bedside. It wasn’t as efficient as working from the office but it was the sacrifice I picked.
“Aside for not taking much vacation time, another sacrifice I’ve picked is sleep. I function on two to three hours of sleep.” Brafman paused and laughed. “If it wasn’t for me being keeping Shabbat I’d be dead.”
2. Humanize Everyone
Brafman’s career is focused on humanizing everyone, even people charged with a heinous crime. For him, it’s especially those whom society are prone to demonize who he fights to humanize. “One of the lessons I’ve learned,” he remarked, “is that it’s not what happened that’s important but why it happened.”
“A large part of my work is humanizing my clients to the jury,” he continued. “But part of being able to humanize someone else is being human. Sometimes, the cross examination calls for a knock-down-slugfest style. But, more often than not, the real art is to obtain helpful information from a witness through a relaxed and easy-going examination.”
Brafman often uses humor to win over the crowd. During one multi-defendant case, the self-described “little Jewish guy” told the jury, “The prosecutor wants you to believe this story. I want to be six inches taller. But neither one of us is going to get our wish.”
Brafman had actually wanted to be a stand-up comedian before pursuing a career in law. He made his rounds in the Catskills as a kid, telling jokes and charming audiences. As Carrie Goldberg, author of Nobody's Victim: Fighting Psychos, Stalkers, Pervs, and Trolls, told Esquire magazine, “Cases don’t get decided with facts of evidence. They get decided on storytelling, and Ben is a master storyteller. This is the stuff they don’t teach in law school.”
Mr. Brafman (left) with
Dominique Strauss-Kahn (right).
3. Stay True to Your Values
As a child, Brafman didn’t fit well into the Yeshiva school model popular amongst the Orthodox Jewish community in which he lived. One day, his principal had enough of his shenanigans and informed his father that Benjamin was being expelled. When his father came to pick him up, the principal said, “Binyamin doesn’t belong in this Yeshiva but he’s been blessed with an ability to communicate quite effectively. Perhaps he’ll be able to use it for good in the future.”
To this day, Brafman uses his ability to communicate not just for professional purposes but to transmit the values of his Jewish ancestors. “In the past five years,” Brafman gushed with pride, “I’ve spoken at over 100 conferences and gala dinner for Jewish charities and nonprofits.” He credits his love for Torah and Jewish values to his parents, both Holocaust survivors.
His mother, Rose, fled to the United States from the Nazi’s at age 16. Her parents and one of her sisters were murdered in the concentration camps. At her eulogy in 1996, Brafman solemnly said, “This is the first day my mother is not afraid.” His father, Sol, rescued a Torah scroll from a synagogue that was set ablaze on Kristallnacht.
In a 2011 speech Brafman gave in honor of his grandparents titled “I was murdered at Auschwitz,''Brafman said, “You must know the terror, not only to make you sad and angry but to make you vigilant.” For Brafman, this vigilance is not just to stand up in the face of antisemitism but also to stand up proudly for his Torah value system.
Brafman’s Jewish pride has been famously documented. Back in 1999, Brafman was retained by the rapper Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs. Combs is a man used to getting his way and told Ben he would have to be available to him 24/7. Brafman replied that he was only available “24/6” and honors the Shabbat. One Friday, shortly afterwards, Brafman’s phone kept ringing non-stop. The call was blocked but he suspected it was Combs. Nevertheless, he refused to pick up the phone. As soon as Shabbos concluded, he called Combs immediately and apologized for not answering earlier. Combs laughed and thanked Brafman, telling him that he had won $10,000 when he bet his friends that Brafman would refuse to take his call on “his Jewish Sabbath.” When Brafman won the case for Combs on a late Friday afternoon, he was caught on camera telling the press that he had to rush home to make it to synagogue on time for Shabbos.
“I’m an observant Jew,” he says. “But when the media speaks with me, I’m always careful not to present myself as a Jew, but rather as a professional, and I watch every single word that comes out of my mouth.” He’s taken these beliefs on the road and spoken to thousands of his Jewish brethren about this topic. His message to them is that there is a great need for those who openly display their devotion to God and Torah to make a “Kiddush Hashem” - sanctifying God's Name by being extra honest, extra courteous and extra ethical in all their interactions with mainstream society.
"What the world needs is more tolerance,” Brafman told me. “And not just tolerance in mainstream society but within my own Jewish community.” He bemoans all the political and religious infighting with the Jewish community. "This was the greatness of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. He loved every Jew, every human being, and he never passed critical judgement on anyone. We need more open hearts like his.”
One of his greatest sources of inspiration was his beloved older brother, Rabbi Aaron Brafman, who recently passed away.
Benjamin Brafman with his older brother Rabbi Aaron Brafman OB”M. ©2016
“My brother was well-educated and could have done anything,” Brafman shared, choking up for the first time in our meeting. “But he chose to dedicate himself to chinuch (Yeshiva education).” Rabbi Aaron Brafman was a beloved dean of Yeshiva Derech Ayson–Yeshiva of Far Rockaway for many years until he passed away at the age of 74 in 2017. “He was the type of guy who exuded tolerance and love for everyone. He deeply cared about everyone, especially his students. He could see on their face what was troubling them and he worked even harder than me to support them and attend to their every need.”
Since his brother’s passing, Brafman has opened a Cheder in Ramat Eshkol neighborhood of Jerusalem called Toras Aaron (“The Torah of Aaron”), named after his beloved brother. It is operated under the leadership of Brafman’s own son, Rabbi David Brafman. “My son is an erudite rabbi and an extremely hard worker, just like my brother. My brother dedicated his life to chinuch, so I wish to do the same with the years I have left.”
He laughed when I asked him if he ever thought he’d end up becoming a Yeshiva fundraiser. “No,” he said,” I never thought I’d be doing this at my stage of the game.” He remarked how raising money for his other charitable endeavors (like cancer research) is an “easy sell.” But even for a man of his stature, resources and network, raising money for yeshivas “is tough.” Sometimes, he’ll have clients who are so grateful for his services, they’ll make a donation to the Cheder. Other times, people will give money because they can’t believe it’s Ben Brafman asking them to give. “There’s no method to this madness. Sometimes the check is for $50 and other times it’s for $50,000.”
The facade the Cheder in Israel which Brafman dedicated to his brother ,
the late Rav Aaron Brafman ZTL
Out of all his successful accomplishments, the one he prizes the most is the story of a humble Torah scroll housed in the yeshiva in which his brother was a teacher. “My father survived hellish conditions. His best friends were the ones who betrayed him and got him arrested by the Nazi’s. Then he came to America and refused to be silenced by the horrors he witnessed. On the contrary, he rededicated himself to his family and his God with renewed vigor. A few years ago, I had that Torah scroll which he rescued on Kristallnacht restored by a Torah scribe. Who was the scribe? My father’s grandson. Then I donated the Torah scroll to my brother's yeshiva. And every year, on the holiest day of the year Yom Kippur, this Torah scroll is read for the entire congregation. Do you know who reads from it? My father’s great grandson.”
Brafman paused. I held my breath.
Then he looked at me with a piercing stare. “They say we must never forget. But I say we must always remember. Who we are and why we do what we do.”
For a man whose job is to defend alleged criminals, he speaks like a saint.