Joel Hirschhorn

updated 08/26/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/26/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Pong! The ring of aluminum bat hitting baseball stirs the sleepy Dade County park league crowd as Douglas Hirschhorn, 13, belts an RBI double to put Liberty's Last Champions into the lead over Goldstein's Fencebusters. Proud father and team sponsor Joel Hirschhorn Esq. puts down his federal statute book and applauds, his two-carat diamond pinkie ring flashing in the Florida sun. "Hey, you get a raise!" he shouts facetiously to the team's coach, fellow attorney Bob Dickman. But Dickman isn't hurting for cash. "He's had six verdicts and six settlements of more than $1 million in medical malpractice and personal injury suits," Hirschhorn tells a visitor.

That isn't envy talking. When you compare earning power—which Hirschhorn is more than willing to do—he is in the same league with the coach. Yet he is so low in the social standings that he won't pose in the team picture lest the players be stigmatized. "Some parents would say, 'Ugh, that dope lawyer,' " he explains.

Here he is, Joel Hirschhorn, recognized at 42 as one of the nation's most successful criminal defense attorneys, and just because some of his clients happen to import enormous quantities of illegal drugs, he is shunned by Miami society. Granted he's an avowed idealist who sincerely believes that defense attorneys are indeed "liberty's last champions." But why is he willing to subject himself to the community's disdain? "The money's good, for one thing," he says.

For a simple matter involving the importation of, say, 100 pounds of cocaine, it's going to run you $75,000 just to get Hirschhorn to walk through the courthouse door. Keep his meter ticking through a long trial, and you'll be looking at a tab of a good $25,000. If you're convicted on one or more counts (and Hirschhorn says even he is doing well if he wins a complete acquittal in one case out of 10), an appeal will lighten your wallet by another $25,000 or so. "I earn a good living," he says—more than $1 million a year.

It shows. There's the pinkie ring, given him by a grateful friend of a client who was caught with 30,000 pounds of marijuana and got off with probation. There's the mandatory gold Rolex, a status symbol so common locally that the watches are known as Miami Timexes. There's the gold chain bracelet thick enough to anchor a 40-foot boat. There's the 40-foot boat, the sport fisherman A Quit-All. There's also the lakefront summer house in Wisconsin; the five cars, including the red Corvette he gave his wife for her birthday; and the rambling four-bedroom, five-bath ranch house with pool on two and a half acres just south of Miami.

"But you know what?" Hirschhorn says, stabbing the air with his finger. "I'm not ashamed of the fact that we live in a nice house and drive decent cars, that my wife wears nice clothing, my kids go to private school and I wear jewelry that some people might think is ostentatious. It's not like I stole the money. I worked for it. I don't approve of drug smuggling, but isn't there some social utility in making sure that every man's right to a fair and impartial trial is assured? The lowest of low human beings is entitled to the best defense he can afford."

Not that Hirschhorn traffics with the lowest of low human beings. "From a personal moral standpoint," he says, "I've decided not to employ my talents in heroin cases. Heroin is the most destructive of all drugs. In '76 I represented a major heroin dealer in federal court in Maryland, and the experience I had with some of the witnesses...." He shakes his head. "The exploitation of the user was beyond imagination."

He specializes instead in cocaine and marijuana smuggling cases. "Some of my biggest cases in the drug field have involved some of the most intelligent, stimulating people I've ever known," he says. Many of his Colombian clients—such as Roberto Botero, now appealing an eight-year sentence (he'd been facing 120) for currency-law violations in the course of laundering $57 million through a Florida bank—come from that country's most aristocratic families. "For the most part, they are sophisticated, upper class and genteel," Hirschhorn says.

Some were not so genteel, however, as to stop short of threatening Hirsch-horn's life when one of his first Colombian clients was convicted of possessing 800 pounds of cocaine, an outcome that an emissary from the defendant informed Hirschhorn was "unacceptable." Inspired, Hirschhorn worked around the clock for six weeks on a successful motion to set the verdict aside. He took pains thereafter to ensure that his Spanish-speaking receptionist-interpreter made it absolutely clear to clients that acquittals were not guaranteed.

His wife of 19 years, Evie, 40, is the daughter of retired defense attorney Charles H. Finkelstein, who, during the Prohibition era, represented Louis "Lepke" Buchalter, the head of Murder, Inc. She doesn't relish the risks but wouldn't think of pushing Joel into a quiet little practice. "Joel does what he does because he's driven to do it," she says, sitting cross-legged in their glass-walled octagonal living room. "His main motivation is what's inside of him, and I guess it comes from..." she hesitates, her green eyes gazing down at her long, beige-painted nails. "He had a really horrible childhood. His parents never gave him any credit for anything he ever did. So Joel drives himself, whether to prove to them that he can accomplish or to prove to himself that he can."

As a youngster in Norwalk, Conn., where he was voted most likely to succeed in the high school class of 1960, Hirschhorn worked summers in his father's small furniture business, polishing the merchandise and making deliveries for 25 cents an hour, half of which he was required to plow back into the business and never saw again. Other family connections haven't paid off either. Hirschhorn explains that his great-uncle Joseph Hirshhorn ("He dropped the 'c' after he made his first $50 million") disliked his eldest brother, Joel's grandfather. So when Joseph waxed philanthropic after striking gold on Wall Street and in Canadian mines, the Smithsonian Institution got the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and Joel Hirschhorn's family "got bupkes," says Joel. The erstwhile poor relation now has a foundation to dispense his own philanthropy—a couple of small scholarships awarded to students at the University of Connecticut and the University of Wisconsin.

"I think the money is a symbol to him that he's accomplished something," says Evie, who has a thriving little business of her own, called EveLINES. For $300 she will write, according to her business card, "Poems for parties drawing nigh/Poems to cheer or just say 'Hi!' " Evie says, "The material things aren't the things I care about or like so much about Joel. He's a very devoted, sensitive, lovely person. He can be in the middle of the greatest pressure and he'll still call me."

In fact Joel relies heavily on Evie's advice on trial strategy. A team from the moment they met at the University of Wisconsin 20 years ago, they seem to complement each other like Jack Sprat and his wife. She's athletic; he's sedentary ("I run three miles a day. Joel runs his mouth"). She's a gourmet cook; his favorite meal is franks and beans. He defends accused criminals; she defends him. "People think that because of what he does, he has no morals, no feelings, no sensitivity," she says. "I don't agree with everything he does, but I agree with the principle behind his work. I couldn't live with him if I couldn't separate how I feel about murderers and rapists from how I feel about defending them."

And what about the fact that her husband's efforts help protect the flow of drugs into the community where her own sons, Douglas and Bennett, 16, are growing up? "If my kids were involved with drugs, I would not be able to live with the fact that Joel really put his everything into that," Evie says. "I don't think he could either."

The drug problem has yet to strike home, so far as Joel and Evie know. (Hirschhorn raised his children from the cradle not to snitch on each other; any attempt to tattle was always rebuffed with the admonition: "If you want to be an informant, join the FBI.") But how does one keep kids away from drugs in south Florida, where, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration estimates, 70 percent of marijuana and cocaine enter the country?

"They learn, number one, by example: My wife and I don't do drugs," says Hirschhorn, who admits only to an occasional Valium on the night before a closing argument. "Second, I will not tolerate their use of drugs, and they know it. I have a responsibility to try to bring them up to respect the law. That's why I call the Coast Guard when I see marijuana floating on the water."

Hirschhorn and family were three miles out aboard the A Quit-All last November, when they saw a couple of marijuana bales—or square groupers as they're known thereabouts—floating past, apparently having been ditched in a smuggle gone awry. Hirschhorn radioed the Coast Guard. When a patrol boat arrived to haul in the catch (55 bales, worth more than $1 million), who should be on board but a slew of reporters with Florida Gov. Bob Graham, who was putting in a photo-opportunity day with the Coast Guard. What a story! Dope Bigs' Barrister Bags Bales.

People prefer to hire lawyers they've heard of, and Hirschhorn's knack for publicity has not hurt his career a bit. In 1969 he was a struggling lawyer with a small law firm, when he chanced upon a client with a pornography problem. Hirschhorn made the papers and liked it. "So I set up as a solo practitioner, and within two weeks the Dade County state attorney's office went on an antipornography pogrom. They made 60 cases in two weeks, and I picked up 50 of them. It was fun because nobody liked what I was doing. I mean, pornography was unpopular."

Though he denies any abiding hostility toward authority, Hirschhorn, like many defense attorneys, finds that "the more unpopular, the more odious, the more heinous the crime," the better he likes it. Happily for him, the publicity from the porno cases brought him drug cases. "And," he notes, "one good drug case is worth 10 porno cases from a financial standpoint."

Hirschhorn's enthusiasm for publicity verges on indiscretion, and some of his fellow attorneys find him offensively flamboyant, though none find fault with his ethics. He does speak rather freely of his clients, present and past. Of Deep Throat star Linda Lovelace, for instance, who has written a book claiming that she was coerced into her blue-movie exploits, he says, "In all the time I represented her, she never said word one about being forced into doing any of those things." Then again, most of his clients don't seem to mind notoriety. Says one: "The publicity doesn't matter, as long as he wins."

And win he does. But how? No scholar, he got only a 480 out of a possible 800 on his law school entrance exams (after four years at the University of Connecticut) and was a low-C student through the first half of law school at Wisconsin. But he is willing to "work a little harder than the other guy," and he doesn't mind letting his clients know it. "I have a rule that if I'm in trial and I'm fretting and worrying and I get up in the middle of the night, I will immediately go and call my client. If I'm up at 4 a.m., he's going to be up too." Hirschhorn brings passion to his work: Just talking about the art of cross-examination, he says, "I can actually feel my body temperature go up." And he is a ruthless advocate: "If there's a rule I have to go by, I will. But I will bend it to the breaking point."

What if the rules were changed and drugs legalized? Then a gram of cocaine that costs $3 to manufacture wouldn't fetch $120 on the street, and a lot of criminals, and maybe some lawyers, would be out of business. Hirschhorn's not overly concerned by that prospect. "I think if they legalized marijuana and cocaine, taxed it and controlled it the way they do alcohol, we could balance the budget, lower taxes, provide better educational opportunities for our children and reduce crime." But he doesn't believe drugs will ever be legalized, because "the corruption is so widespread."

At the bottom of the ladder, Hirschhorn explains, "It's hard for a cop to resist the opportunity to earn $10,000 just by not patrolling a particular section of beach one night." Higher-ups in law enforcement also get involved: An FBI man and a DEA agent have been convicted of drug-related corruption in Florida. "J. Edgar Hoover's position was that he never wanted the FBI investigating drug crimes," Hirschhorn says. "He felt the money was so big it would corrupt his people, and he was right."

Despite the pervasive corruption he says drug prohibition engenders, Hirschhorn opposes legalization for the simple reason that "scientific studies show drugs are harmful." But didn't the money from those harmful drugs buy the 70 pairs of shoes in Evie's closet? "It doesn't bother me," Evie says. "Joel earned it. I think where the money comes from is not Joel's problem."

The government thinks otherwise. U.S. prosecutors have begun using new federal laws to seize legal fees paid with drug money. In June Hirschhorn was forced to cough up $8,000 in silver ingots that he'd received in payment in a marijuana case, and he is already shifting his practice away from drugs. "If the government wants to push me into another field, okay," he says, rising to the challenge. "I know I'm a good enough lawyer that I can go into another area. What are they going to do, legalize tax fraud?"

Ultimately, if he can't beat the government, he would not be averse to joining it, provided the right job came up: "I would love to be Solicitor General of the United States." Then, perhaps, Hirschhorn would feel comfortable posing with his son's ball team.

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