Brooklyn Heights

The Brooklyn ‘Court Street Lawyer’ gains partial acceptance, but still snubbed

December 17, 2014 By Charisma L. Troiano, Esq. Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Steve Cohn, Eagle file photo

A Brooklyn “Court Street lawyer” is not merely an attorney with an office on the long Brooklyn Heights block, which is known as prime office real estate for the borough’s legal community due to its close proximity to all Brooklyn courthouses. 

“When people say ‘Court Street lawyer,’ they generally mean a street-smart sharpie who may not have an Ivy League degree, but does possess verve, hustle and a striver’s charisma,” a Dec. 12 New York Times article quoted.

Some of Brooklyn’s actual Court Street attorneys were flattered by the Times’ description.

“It is an accurate description,” noted attorney Scott Cerbin, who has offices at 16 Court St. “We are street smart.” 

Many noted attorneys have come from Court Street, said Steve Cohn, a family and matrimonial lawyer, also at 16 Court St.

“There was Abraham ‘Bunny’ Lindenbaum and his son, Samuel Lindenbaum (16 Court St.), and the firm Bonina and Bonina (16 Court St.),” Cohn pointed out. “On Court Street, there are generations and generations of lawyers.” 

Brooklyn attorneys, often labeled a Court Street lawyer even if their office location is elsewhere in the borough, were not always treated with the generosity of those flattering words.

In 1993, a Times article described a “Court Street kind of lawyer” as a “guy with the stocky build of a cop, a silver bracelet, a beeper on his belts and eyes that don’t flinch.” 

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In response, true Court Street lawyers came to the defense.

In a February 1993 letter to the Times editors, Robert Salzman shot back, “[t]he phrase ‘Court Street lawyer’ is an old elitist insult that reveals a socially toxic view of New York City as divided into two sectors — Manhattan and ‘the outer boroughs.’ 

“Burial of this phrase is long overdue.” 

As reported in a 1982 New York Times article, Court Street lawyers “… speak a peculiar language, an irreverent shorthand of calamity: ‘leg-off’ and ‘eye-out’ and ‘stretcher’ cases, which bring large verdicts and ‘schemer’ cases, which involve minor injuries and are barely worth trying.” 

It has been argued that the phrase has roots in a prejudice against the demography of Court Street, dating back to the 1930s.
“The phrase ‘Court Street lawyer’ probably has its roots in decades-old biases that characterized the attitudes of the legal establishment toward lawyers who were the children of immigrants,” Salzman wrote in 1993.  

The phrase held such a negative connotation that, in the 1970s, two Brooklyn Law School professors, Joseph Crea and William Herrman, found themselves suing each other for slander after one was supposedly referred to as a Court Street lawyer to a group of law school students.

The suit, seeking damages of $100,000 was dismissed in civil court, but identified the “public hatred, contempt, scorn, obloquy or shame,” so negatively associated with the phrase.

With the Times’ most recent description of the Downtown Brooklyn lawyer, many actual Court Street attorneys sense a turnaround in respect. 

“I thought the comment that a Court Street lawyer is a ‘sharpie’ with ‘verve’ was great,” said Richard Klass, a Brooklyn attorney who has embraced the phrase.

Klass’ website is courtstreetlaw.com with the tagline “Your Court Street Lawyer.” 

“I think 25 years ago, there was a different connotation and … the quality of legal services on Court Street [including Montague and Joralemon streets] has increased. So The New York Times’ characterization is pretty accurate,” added attorney Raymond Raskin, whose office is located on Montague Street.

Robert Salzman, who defended the Court Street lawyers’ image in the 80s, told the Eagle that, “they are trying to upgrade their characterization, but it is still a pejorative. It still represents that we are different in Brooklyn.” Salzman has an office on Court Street. 

Some Brooklyn attorneys note that there is a difference in Brooklyn when it comes to its attorneys and the legal community.  

“Every county is different, but it’s the way the Brooklyn courts function,” Raskin said. “The courts here have a very heavy workload but you see the same clerks and judges at Brooklyn Bar Association events. In Manhattan, it’s not the same.” 

Andrea Bonina, managing partner of the firm Bonina and Bonina, has grown up around Court Street lawyers.  Her father, nationally recognized attorney John Anthony Bonina, started the firm almost 50 years ago.  

“There’s no better community of lawyers,” Bonina told the Eagle.   

But the Times’ current description of a Court Street lawyer did not begin and end with pleasantries.  The closing sentence of the December 2014 New York Times article notes that: “Not every lawyer is Clarence Darrow or Thurgood Marshall; some just come from Court Street.”

“It goes without saying that some of the best lawyers in the state are right here on Court Street,” Bonina said. “And we even have some incredible lawyers who graduated from Ivy League schools.”    

Famed Brooklyn Attorney George Farkas called the Times’ description condescending.  “It’s insulting.  It’s profiling without any substantive indication that it is accurate,” Farkas said. 

Farkas, who has had an office on Court Street since leaving the District Attorney’s Office in 1976, adds that Brooklyn lawyers should not be pigeon-holed by monikers that were created in the past. 

“When I categorize an attorney, I don’t say he’s a Wall Street lawyer or a Court Street lawyer or a K Street lawyer,” said the former prosecutor. “Instead, some lawyers are flashy, some lawyers are intellectual and well worth their reputation, while others are empty suits. But I would not want to be described as a lawyer with a ‘strivers’ dream simply because my office is on Court Street.” 

And as the Times notes that Court Street lawyers do not necessarily possess an Ivy-league degree and “Not every lawyer is Clarence Darrow or Thurgood Marshall; some just come from Court Street,” Farkas adds that as a lawyer with an office on Court Street, “I do not have an Ivy league degree but I have won cases against lawyers from Harvard, Yale and other prestigious schools.

“Some of the greatest trial lawyers are on Court Street.”

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