This week, I had the opportunity to talk with Isabelle Kirshner, a criminal defense lawyer practicing in New York City with over thirty years experience. Isabelle started off as a prosecutor but in her heart she is a true defender and has been exclusively practicing criminal defense in both State and Federal Court since 1986. She lectures throughout New York regarding federal and state criminal practice and is a long time faculty member of the Intensive Trial Advocacy Program at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. Isabelle is highly regarded in the New York legal community and was one of very few defense lawyers asked to serve on the transition committee for District Attorney Cyrus Vance. She is a fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers and has been selected every year since 2008 as a “Super Lawyer” in the New York City Metro area. Isabelle is an active trial lawyer who has tried all types of criminal trials ranging from complex tax shelter crimes and federal frauds to drug offenses and violent crimes. She has obtained dramatic acquittals for clients in federal court in Murder, RICO, and Hobbs Act cases. I personally met Isabelle when she acted as local support for our firm on a matter in New York City and I can’t sing her praises enough. She is without a doubt the real deal and I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did.
What inspired you to specialize in criminal defense?
I don’t know that I was “inspired” to be a criminal lawyer, I think for me it was just a natural fit. I started out as a prosecutor and as a prosecutor you have an enormous amount of power and discretion to do the right thing. I was in the district attorney’s office in the early 80’s and handled a lot of narcotics crimes when the Rockefeller laws were still in full effect and it became quite clear to me how terribly unfair, draconian, and ridiculous they were. What inspired me was to try to undermine them at every single turn. I was never comfortable sending people to jail for long periods of time and I never thought that doing so was a particularly effective way to deal with bad behavior, except for those violent people who should be separated from society. Quite frankly I was never at ease overseeing a prosecution where a person was facing a long prison term, so it was a natural transition for me to become a defense attorney. Being a defense attorney was ultimately a role that I was much more comfortable in. There was a Judge in state court in New York City who was referred to as the “prince of darkness” and he didn’t like anybody in the DA’s office, and he didn’t like anyone on the defense side either. He did like me, and he used to accuse me of being a mole for the legal aid society, because I used to come in with all sorts of creative ways to get around the mandatory minimums and with a wink and nod we did that a lot together.
When you started, what was the ratio of women to men in the field? How did that affect you?
I left the district attorney’s office in 1986 and I could probably count on one hand the number of women in private practice at the time, other than women working at the legal aid society and federal defender’s office. As big a city as New York is, it is a relatively small community of people who do what I do and it was a very small group of women that were practicing in the criminal defense field at that point. I have been practicing exclusively in criminal defense since 1986 in both state and federal court so I have seen a lot change during that time. I think having fewer women in the field affected me in terms of business opportunity. When I left the DA’s office I was in practice with a man and we were in a suite full of lawyers, and other than one woman who worked for one of the men, I was the only woman in the suite. I was everybody’s buddy and good friend but I don’t think that I got the referrals I would have gotten if I was a man and I wasn’t “one of the guys” for business purposes. It affected me more in terms of developing business and getting referrals than in any other way. On the other hand I was surrounded by some really great lawyers, some legendary lawyers in New York, and it was a wonderful thing to be around them and watch them.
As more women have entered the field has that leveled the playing field for you?
I think so; I think in New York there is a group of us that really try to keep each other in mind for giving and getting business. Quite frankly I think it is just more of a generational thing at this point, as more women enter the field and those of us that have been around for a while are getting older, there are simply more women who are practicing and a woman criminal lawyer is not such a novelty anymore. Although I do think that one thing has not changed, that there are cases that women are still not being considered for. In the old days when there were a lot of organized crime cases, they would never have hired a woman… much like today the biggest white-collar crime cases are still not going to women. Most of the “masters of the universe” that get in trouble now won’t hire a woman to defend them in a criminal matter.
Why are the white-collar cases still primarily going to men?
The concept of having a lawyer who is perceived to be big, powerful, and strong is still something that people in power are more comfortable with. The client’s misperception is that they are not going to get that with a woman lawyer, even if it’s not always the best approach for a specific case. We have all had clients that want you to stand up and pound your chest and fight in a way that is overt and apparent, even when it’s not the best and most effective thing to do in that particular case. I think most of us fight hard for our clients, are zealous advocates and work very hard, but every lawyer comes at advocacy with a unique style. And many of the people choosing lawyers for these white collar cases are men and men with money want someone in there brawling for them.
Did you have women role models? How did this impact your career?
There weren’t many women in private practice to look up to when I started but there were two women that stood out for me that I admired and held in high regard. They both, ironically, ended up getting indicted. I am not sure what this says about me, but my admiration had less to do with the lack of judgment that ultimately got both of them in trouble and more to do with how very passionate they were, and how they wore their passion on their sleeves. One was Lynn Stewart, who is in jail. Lynn was really a zealous advocate and had a fearless attitude when it came to dealing with the Government but I always admired Lynn because she took up the lost causes that no one else wanted to do and did so very effectively. The other is a woman who I always respected. She was one of those practitioners who thought outside of the box. She was a very capable and competent criminal defense lawyer who was very passionate and zealous in her advocacy.
This is a very hard business, and emotionally it is hard for everybody but these women weren’t afraid to demonstrate their passion for their clients. Today there are a lot of great women out there zealously fighting for their clients whom I admire, like Susan Nechleles, Susan Brune, Stacy Richman, and Marjorie Peerce, just to name a few. But I think it takes at least 15 years to actually know what you are doing in this business, and when I started these two women were out there doing it and they were really revolutionaries at that time though they obviously both spun out of control at some point.
Is there any unique aspect about being a woman that you think either helps or hinders you when you represent a client?
I don’t see it as a unique aspect of being a women, I think we are all unique in our own way and we all need to figure out how to maximize our strengths and minimize our weaknesses. I am not someone that bats my eyelashes but I do think that women bring a certain amount of emotional depth to our practice, as we all should, but I don’t know if that is unique to being a woman or if we are just more emotionally developed. I have cried at a sentencing, I have seen men cry at sentencing. I think there are times that you are really emotionally invested and it comes through.
Most rewarding part of being a criminal lawyer? Most draining part?
Jury walking in to the room and saying “Not Guilty” is the greatest feeling in the world! Most draining is when you’re wading knee deep in human misery. People think a client comes to you and all you have to deal with is the case that you were hired to handle… but in reality clients come to you with their lives, their children, spouses, and family and all the other problems that come along with the problem they are hiring you to deal with. And it is very often a difficult situation and it can be really draining, especially when the facts lend themselves to you being helpless to help a client as much as you would want to. We have to measure our victories in different ways in this business and we have to have realistic expectations of where we can end up. It would be great to ride in on the white horse and save everybody’s life but that doesn’t always happen, so we see an awful lot of human suffering, and that for me is the most draining part.
Aside from hard work, what do you attribute to your success?
I think you have to have some “street smarts” and some common sense and I think you have to develop judgment. Judgment is a difficult thing to teach, so if you are lucky you have people around you that exercise good judgment and you can learn from them.
Best advice you ever received?
Can’t lose your sense of humor!
Worst day ever on the job?
When an innocent client was convicted at trial. The footnote to that is that the jury verdict was ultimately reversed and vacated by the Second Circuit and honestly that was a pretty good day.
If you could give your younger self any advice what would it be?
Make a conscious effort to develop contacts and build relationships. Spend time with people who might not otherwise be your first choice to spend time with that can be an investment in your future. I spent a lot of time saying “why do I need to have a drink with this or that person” and looking back on it I wish I had.
One thing people who know you don’t know about you?
I cry all the time. I cry at commercials, ESPN sports moments, you name it.