Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Summer of '83

It was short commute, thirty minutes door-to-door. I hopped the A-train at 42nd Street and emerged at Chambers Street to join a sea of grey and blue flowing in waves towards the city’s financial, business and legal centers.

One Hogan Plaza housed the offices of Robert Morgenthau, District Attorney for New York County since 1975. It was the summer after my first year of law school and I had been hired as an intern by Morgenthau’s office, a position that paid little but offered opportunities to delve into the law and observe trials. This was my first job within my chosen profession, and would help shape later decisions in my career.

I had been assigned to “Rackets,” a division housed by young, ambitious and idealistic professionals with the unenviable task of attempting to control the city’s organized crime. I was one of three interns with the Division. The others were Lisa, a pretty first-year student from St. John’s who, for some reason, spoke with a British accent despite her Brooklyn upbringing, and Jerry, a second-year student from Brooklyn Law, whose father was a judge in a civil division. We worked together in a common area, researching legal issues and helping the ADA’s prepare for hearings and trials.

“Rackets” was an elite division within the D.A.’s office. Most divisions were trial-oriented, its attorneys assigned to particular judges. ADA’s in trial divisions had virtually no down time; they moved from one trial to the next, with little time to prepare, relying on secretaries and interns to fill in gaps. “Rackets” was different. Trials were few, and preparation abundant. The ADA’s worked with investigators to prepare their cases and only filed charges when cases were ready.

Investigations often involved field work, and one of the highlights of my summer was a visit with an ADA to a temporary surveillance center in the basement of a building across the street from a target, a seller of furs suspected of trading in stolen merchandise. The center was everything that I imagined: televisions screens depicting activity inside the target’s store, detectives watching the screens and listening over earphones to selected conversation, with audio and video recorded for further analysis. I would later spend time reading through transcripts of audio recordings, highlighting those portions that would help make the case.

Because trials in “Rackets” were scarce, I was given the chance to observe trials in other divisions. I selected a second-degree murder case involving guns, drugs and adultery. The trial lasted three days and the jury deliberated less than two hours before returning a guilty verdict. Later that day, as I related my experience to one of the senior members of “Rackets,” he smiled and nodded. “Convicting the guilty is simple,” he said. “Only the great ones convict the innocent.”

When I think back over my career, I can attribute my decision to become a litigator to my experience that summer. I pictured myself standing before the court, putting on evidence, cross-examining witnesses. I imagined the adrenaline, the rush that every litigator experiences when a trial begins, and I knew that is what I wanted.

I told this to Jerry, my fellow intern, over lunch one day. Jerry was an expert on the local cuisine, having learned of the best places from his father, who presided in a nearby courthouse. We ate that day at what Jerry referred to as “the Chinese McDonald’s,” a small basement restaurant on Mott Street decorated with police photographs and memorabilia. It was a favored destination of the NYPD and featured the best Sesame Noodles in the city. Jerry and I spoke of our experiences, our goals and ambitions, all-the-while dining on Chinatown’s best.

After lunch we took a shortcut through a small alley to Baxter Street and walked south towards One Hogan Plaza. As we approached our building the crowds suddenly appeared, men and women in suits, walking briskly in every direction, heading back to their offices while lost in thought. The revolving doors to our building offered refuge from the waves, thousands of people pondering life, love, and future, lost in a dance of perpetual motion in the shadows of the World Trade Center.

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