Benjamin Brafman is arguably the most prominent criminal defense attorney in the country. Having taking on thousands of cases representing celebrities, property moguls and other big names, the founder of the Manhattan law firm Brafman & Associates has become famous himself. He defended the rapper Sean Combs, also known as Puff Daddy, against weapons charges in 2000, represented Dominique Strauss-Kahn in his 2011 attempted rape case and briefly worked with Michael Jackson on the child molestation charges brought against him in 2004. All of those charges were dropped (though Brafman was taken off Jackson’s legal team before the final verdict). Brafman is now defending the embattled Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein against multiple charges of sexual assault and recently represented convicted “pharma bro” Martin Shkreli. He is also the go-to lawyer for many real estate bigwigs who end up in serious legal trouble — from Charlie Kushner to Steve Croman. Brafman, who turned 70 this summer, began his career working for the criminal defense attorneys Robert McGuire and Andrew Lawler and spent four years as an assistant district attorney under Robert Morgenthau before setting out on his own in 1980. Today his firm employs 12 people, including six other attorneys.
Where did you grow up? I grew up in Brooklyn and then in Queens. And I’m still growing up.
Was your family well-off? No. My father worked in a lingerie company as a cutter, and my mother was a housewife. I began working when I was 12 and have worked since then.
Your parents survived the Holocaust. Did they talk about that much when you were growing up? My mother’s family was murdered in Auschwitz, and my parents never completely recovered. My father came to the United States and was immediately drafted into the U.S. Army and then fought as a combat sergeant in the Philippines against Japan for three years. It was a difficult time, and I think my mother lived in fear her whole life that someone was going to come and take her family again.
Do you think your family’s history has impacted the choices you’ve made in your own life? I think many of them, yes. I’m proud of my heritage. I’m committed to my religion. I try to honor the memory of my parents and my grandparents, and the fact that they were put to death having committed no crime and violating no law has been front and center in my own mind for a long time. It’s not why I became a criminal defense lawyer, but it helped forge some of the things I feel strongly about.
What kind of student were you? I was a terrible student as a kid because I was more interested in running around and playing ball and being in the street. I went to a very strict religious school, and I did not fit in well there. And then I went to college at night. If someone had told me when I was growing up that I would one day be at the top of my profession, very few people — including me — would have believed you.
How did you meet your wife, Lynda? I was introduced to her by her maternal grandmother, who belonged to the same synagogue as me. I think I was 19 and she was 15, but we didn’t begin actually dating until two years later.
Do you still live on Long Island? I live on Long Island. I just don’t really want to put my exact address in The Real Deal, because a lot of people would love to know where I live.
I can imagine. Do you have any other homes — holiday homes? No. I travel a lot to Israel and my son has a home there, and we stay with him when I go. But it’s his home.
It’s never appealed to you to get a house in the Hamptons? I’m not a Hamptons person. I have no interest in being surrounded by people who are just going to annoy me with questions that I wouldn’t want to answer anyway.
Aside from a big house and nice ties, do you own anything extravagant? No. I went through a stage that I think all of us do when you become a little bit successful: I started getting watches as gifts. I started buying expensive watches, but then we suffered a bad burglary about 15 years ago and everything was gone, and I thought to myself, “Wow, this was stupid.”
You and Lynda have two children together. What do they do now? My daughter, who lives close by, is a housewife. She’s also a very talented artist and has six children who keep her very busy. My son, who lives in Jerusalem, is a rabbi and a school principal.
How often do you visit Israel? I visit Israel the way other people will go to New Jersey for a weekend. I’m a strong advocate on behalf of the state of Israel. I will leave on a Thursday night and I’m back in New York 5 a.m. Sunday morning, and I get to see my kids for a couple of days. I get more work done on the plane going and coming than if I had stayed home, so it’s a win-win.
Why did you want to become a criminal defense lawyer? Criminal law was the only area of the law, period, that I enjoyed. There’s something to this day that’s a little bit overwhelming when you see a person’s name in the caption of a charging instrument and the opposing party is the United States of America or the People of the State of New York. I thought it was a terrific challenge, and I liked it. I didn’t know how hard it was going to be.
How many hours a week do you work? Well, it depends if I’m on trial or not. I’ve often said the fact that I observe the Sabbath has kept me alive, because for 24 hours I sort of slow down, rest or at least pay attention to family matters — not business. But when I’m on trial, I could work 18 hours a day.
What keeps you working at that pace? I don’t play golf. I don’t want to just sit home and get old. I like being relevant, and I like the action, if you will. But I really hate the pressure. The pressure is constant, and it’s also that I have the only job where my adversary is basically 30 or 35 as I get older.
In your early years, you represented a few alleged mobsters. Were you ever worried about your own safety? Years ago, if you wanted to become a trial lawyer, the only people going to trial were people who the government alleged to be members of organized crime. And the greatest criminal defense lawyers of my generation were the people trying those cases. Working my way into that league was great. It was flattering. I was personally never worried or afraid because with respect to certain clients, I was able to keep my distance.
You represented Charlie Kushner 14 years ago in his witness-tampering and tax-evasion trial. Did you become friends with him? I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to talk about the case, but Charlie is one of my closest friends today. I think he’s one of the most extraordinary people I have ever met and, to be candid with you, he used bad judgment in an isolated occasion 14 years ago. He was a man about it, accepted responsibility, moved on, and he is now one of the most successful people I know, but also one of the most generous, philanthropic. I love him and I’m not embarrassed, and I think if you asked him, he would say the same thing about me.
Do you ever celebrate with clients when you get them acquitted? I did celebrate with Puff Daddy after he was acquitted. We went out to breakfast the following Sunday morning. I know he had an extraordinary celebration, but it was on a Friday night and I opted to go to temple and not to his party. When I came into Puff Daddy’s life, here was this short Jewish white guy suddenly telling everybody what had to be done and what they shouldn’t do. It was quite an adventure.
Have you stayed in touch with him since? He calls me whenever he needs me, just to straighten out some nonsense that goes on in his life from time to time, through no fault of his own. He tells me he prays for me and his mother every day. And I’m the only white guy in the Five Towns who wears Sean John T-shirts on the weekend when I work out.
You represented Steve Croman last year. What did you make of the outcome of that case? Residential housing is a very highly regulated area, and you could really get in trouble even if you’re an honest person. There are a lot of tenant advocacy groups out there that don’t necessarily play by fair rules, and they have a constituency that they need to address. I’m not suggesting that none of them do good work, but I’ve seen some really terrible accusations made against prominent real estate figures in New York who I have represented. Sending somebody to jail for an issue involving a real estate or a housing authority violation just doesn’t make any sense — especially when some of these allegations are just not true.
Your counterpart in the Croman case was Eric Schneiderman. What went through your head when you heard about the sexual abuse allegations against him? I was surprised, and I was also saddened. I’m stunned when allegations are made and 20 minutes later — before there’s a trial or before there’s even an arrest or prosecution — your career is finished. That’s one of the problems with the way we are today: You make an allegation and a person’s life is over. Look at all the people who have essentially crashed in the last 12 months. Many of them have not been charged with a crime: Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Kevin Spacey.
They face very credible accusations. That’s not the point. The point is that we are in a country that is supposed to be run with what we refer to as due process. You get the benefit of the doubt. You are not guilty unless and until you are proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
You’ve said in the past that it’s important to humanize your clients. How do you do that with someone like Harvey Weinstein? I don’t think it’s hard to humanize someone who’s been vilified in the press. I think movements are generally dangerous. He’s certainly one of the most brilliant movie producers in my generation. I also think there are people who have made allegations who I don’t think have been truthful. If we allow your vilification in the media to decide your fate, we’ve come to a very dangerous point in a democracy, where it was supposed to be a nation of laws, not a nation of headlines.
So do you think the #MeToo movement has been mostly a force for good or a force for bad? I think in moderation, it’s probably a force for good. I think it helps level the playing field for women who work in industries and professions, and just in their personal lives. But I also think [there’s] a point where it gets a little bit nuts if you allow it to essentially so dominate the conversation that you have to be careful in almost anything you say. I’ve had cases involving very prominent people in real estate who were being extorted, plain and simple, by a woman who had the ability to destroy their life — not over criminal conduct, but maybe inappropriate behavior.
But Harvey Weinstein is accused of raping women for decades. I would suggest that the people stay tuned. I’m not so certain at the end of the day, once all of the facts are vetted, the allegations of rape come out as acts of rape.
You’ve represented people who stood accused of pretty heinous crimes — murder, dismemberment, rape. Do you draw a line anywhere? I think if a real terrorist was referred to me and wanted me to represent them in an act of terrorism, I would probably pass. I think given my family’s background, I don’t want necessarily to be defending someone who indiscriminately looks to commit acts of mass murder, or just commits murder out of hatred or pure evil. I think they need to have very good criminal lawyers. I just don’t think it needs to be me.
You were reportedly fired by Michael Jackson in the early 2000s. What happened there? I wasn’t fired. Both Mark Geragos and I sat the family down, and to be perfectly candid, my concern was that Michael Jackson was going to be dead soon. So I was hoping that I could convince him to get some help, and he did not want to hear that. You know, I came back to the hotel and the crawl on the CNN TV screen had me replaced. It wasn’t a discussion I ever had: “You’re fired. Go home.” I just found out about it on CNN. It was just terrible to see him die at such a young age, and sadly I wasn’t surprised when it happened. So you pushed him to get help and he… I tried. There was resistance. Do you think that’s the reason you got fired? I think it’s one of the reasons. I also think the fact that I was in New York and not in L.A. was another reason. I’m a very strong person. I’m not a yes man. I’ve dealt with very, very, very big celebrities, and I’ve made it clear that until the case was over, I needed to be in charge. Some people react better than others to that, because some people who reach such a high level of celebrity status develop a sense of entitlement.
One hundred years from now, when people look back on your career, how do you want to be remembered? As a really good criminal defense lawyer who understood the responsibility, worked very hard, practiced honorably and saved a lot of people who were worth saving.
—Edited and condensed for clarity