Raising the Bar: Michael Cibella has always been drawn to criminal justice
Growing up in Dyker Heights in the 1980s, Michael Cibella didn’t know it, but he was watching the downfall of organized crime in South Brooklyn. Looking back, he tells the Brooklyn Eagle, that time made a profound impact on his decision to get into the legal community.
“When I was growing up there it was the ’80s, and not that I knew it then, but the feds were cracking down on organized crime
“There was always a lot of activity on 13th Avenue when I was growing up,” Cibella said, referring to both criminal activity by organized crime members and federal prosecutors trying to bring them down. “You saw early on that you could be on this side or you could be on that side. The people I was seeing on the wrong side were ending up dead or in jail.”
Having no lawyers in the family, though, left Cibella with few influences and the Xaverian graduate pursued a business degree at the University of Albany assuming he’d become a banker or something similar, like his father. However, an internship at Bear Stearns made him realize that the business world wasn’t for him so he enrolled in law school.
“I showed up on the first day of law school with no plan,” Cibella admitted. “Everything clicked pretty fast, though, because at the end of that first semester we did a mock trial for my criminal law class. That was the first time I ever got to cross examine a witness. I didn’t have the slightest idea of what I was doing, but I knew it was fun. From that day on I knew I wanted to do criminal law because I wanted to be in court.”
In law school, Cibella interned for Kings County Supreme Court Justice Joel Goldberg in the Criminal Term. In his first summer, the judge did four trials and had Cibella help him write his decisions.
His next internship was for the Brooklyn DA’s Office under then-DA Charles Hynes. The assistant district attorney he was assigned to work with contracted mononucleosis which forced Cibella to take on more responsibility than interns are typically saddled with.
“I was essentially running this guy’s caseload [in the Criminal Court Bureau] for like two or three weeks,” Cibella said. “It was great. I got to see what I could do and everyone took notice. Then the second half of the summer I was in the homicide bureau, I got to second seat a homicide.”
That homicide was an especially notorious one, working with Jeff Levitt, Cibella helped with the prosecution of Joel Rifkin, a serial killer who eventually was sentenced to 203 years in prison in 1994 for the murders of nine women although it is suspected he killed many more.
Cibella eventually became a full-time assistant DA in Brooklyn and worked in the office for nearly five years before he decided to try his hand at commercial litigation.
“I looked at a commercial litigation firm as a step up into the civil world and where I thought I’d want to be, and to this day what I did makes up a part of my civil practice,” Cibella said. “Fairly quickly, I realized that environment really wasn’t for me. It couldn’t have been more different from my time in the DA’s Office.”
Cibella liked cases where he felt like he was having a big impact on the local community, and most of all he liked being in a courtroom working on a team. Some of his colleagues from his time in the DA’s Office are still involved in his life professionally as a criminal defense attorney and with the Kings County Criminal Bar Association.
So after one year as an associate at Fischbein Badillo Wagner and Harding LLP., and another two years at Ellenberg & Rigby, LLP., Cibella decided to start his own private practice.
Cibella started the Law Offices of Michael V. Cibella in March 2004. His firm handles mostly criminal defense cases with some civil litigation and commercial transactions. It was this step out on his own that led to his first step of being involved with the bar associations locally.
After going out on his own, he ran into Andrew Rendeiro, who was soon to become president of KCCBA. Rendeiro invited Cibella to a KCCBA meeting and it wasn’t long until he was invited to join the board.
“He really went out of his way to help me to start making inroads back into this community,” Cibella said of Rendeiro.
For the last two years, Cibella has served as KCCBA president. He’s very proud of his work and the bar association, which is the only countywide criminal bar in the state that has defense attorneys, prosecutors, legal aid, judges and other court staff as members.
As president, Cibella has been able to host an annual charity golf outing which raises money for scholarships. He has also worked with Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez, one of the board members of the KCCBA, has partnered with the KCCBA on projects such as the Begin Again program, which wiped out old convictions, and a suit drive to help recently incarcerated people find jobs.
“Getting to stand up at trial, just trying to make sure that your client is getting a fair shake, it’s not very different from that day I stood up in that moot courtroom.”
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