Ben Zicherman / Louis Goodman – Podcast Transcript
[00:00:00] Louis Goodman: Hello and welcome to Love Thy Lawyer. Where we talk to real lawyers about their lives in and out of the practice of law, how they got to be lawyers and what their experience has been. I’m Louis Goodman, the host of the show, and yes, I’m a lawyer. Nobody’s perfect.
He graduated from law school with a great deal of academic success. A cum laude law degree earned him an entry into the world of criminal prosecution, but he quickly moved to the defense side of the courtroom. He has used his outstanding litigation skills to fight for civil rights and the constitutional rights of the criminally accused. He is a passionate and zealous advocate on behalf of his clients. His level of preparation is second to none. Ben Zichererman. Welcome to Love Thy Lawyer.
Ben Zicherman: Thank you so much, Louis. I’m [00:01:00] really looking forward to being here and I do appreciate the intro. You’re making me blush.
Louis Goodman: Where’s your office located right now?
Ben Zicherman: I’m at Third and Broadway. So I’m about three blocks from Jack London Square. Just a cat’s corner from the Buttercup Grill.
It’s a wonder to me, I haven’t gained about 50 pounds being at this location.
Louis Goodman: How long you’ve been there?
Ben Zicherman: Two and a half years.
Louis Goodman: Where are you from originally?
Ben Zicherman: Berkeley, born and raised.
Louis Goodman: And did you go to high school in Berkeley?
Ben Zicherman: I did. Berkeley High.
Louis Goodman: How was that experience?
Ben Zicherman: You know, it was a very interesting experience.
I didn’t have, of course, anything to compare it to until I got to college and got out into the world. And, you know, I talk about my high school experience, especially things like Ethnic Studies and people from other parts of the country, just kind of looked at me funny, like, what were they teaching you there?
And it was like, you know, it was a very interesting place. It was very diverse, a lot of progressive ideals, you know, I thought it’s the normal.
Louis Goodman: So after you got out of Berkeley High School, where’d you go to college?
Ben Zicherman: In New Orleans
Louis Goodman: Well, that must’ve been a big switch.
[00:02:00] Ben Zicherman: It was, it was a very odd thing for me.
When I started applying to schools, I have three older siblings, all of them went to school in New York or somewhere on the East Coast. And I remember thinking I didn’t want to go that far away from home. I applied to schools up and down the West Coast. I got accepted to a bunch of schools in Los Angeles.
New Orleans was kind of a wild card that my High School advisor suggested I might enjoy. And as it turns out, when I visited all of these schools, that was the one I liked the best. And I still am very, very happy and proud to have gone there.
Louis Goodman: So what was that experience like being in New Orleans?
Ben Zicherman: It was a very interesting experience. You know how they tell us in Law School, look to your left, look to your right, the attrition rates amongst the freshman class. Tulane was insane. We lost fully a third of our class because these are mostly kids who hadn’t gone out and partied at all. And then all of a sudden they’re in the middle of New Orleans.
Most of them couldn’t handle it. And a lot of them just didn’t come back. The [00:03:00] interesting thing about Tulane was that it’s not a school that will ever push.
Louis Goodman: At what point did you start thinking about being a lawyer?
Ben Zicherman: Well, I think that it’s not a question of what point, it was kind of always there. I come from a legal family in the sense that everyone who raised me is involved in the law one way or another. So it was always kind of in the cards for me, but, you know, I wanted to get out there and explore other opportunities and think about it. But at a certain point, you know, I realized I had an experience in New York that maybe kind of focused on where I wanted to go. And law school was that.
Louis Goodman: How long was it between the time you left college and went to law school? Did you take some time off or did you go right there?
Ben Zicherman: I did. So I graduated with two degrees and two minors. I got to New York. It was, that’d be 2001. So we were in the middle of a bit of a recession.
I ended up in Marketing and did not like it at all. I need to go in roads [00:04:00] into my journalistic, uh, purchase, but in college I realized that our marketing and advertising was probably. More likely for me, but against the marketing and advertising world in New York and realized that I just did not enjoy selling people things they did not need the very kind of Hollywood system.
And so I decided to take some time off. And sow my wild oats and I became a bike messenger in New York. So I did that for two and a half years. And that was, if you want to so wild though, that’s about as wild as it gets.
Louis Goodman: Tell us a story from the bike messenger days.
Ben Zicherman: So in terms of being a bike messenger or how I got into it.
So what happened was after I kind of figured out that advertising and marketing wasn’t for me. I had a friend who was a Lead Chef at a particularly successful restaurant in the meat packing district. And it was on a little West 12th Street called Pasties and was wanting to keep McNally’s restaurant.
They hired me to be at the delivery point delivery boys where it’s like [00:05:00] this place was so successful. I got dental for being a delivery. Boy, go figure. Anyway, turns out I really enjoyed riding in traffic. It was fast. It was fun. It was serious, you know, and there were real consequences. And I really, really enjoyed it as I branched out and got to be a more proficient rider.
I started hanging out with people who were moonlighting during delivery. Like I was and started doing actual delivery, which is, you know, kind of a counterculture in New York. I’m not sure if it’s still there. I haven’t been back in a lot of years, but the whole messenger scene was exactly that it was seen.
And so I became part of that. And, you know, it’s a very exciting fringe sort of way to live. It’s kind of bordering on outlaw behavior. It’s always way overly aggressive, but it’s a real community that got shot at red hook one, you know, it’s something that I think everyone should do at least one.
Louis Goodman: How did you decide that you were going to leave the bike messenger business and go to law school?
Ben Zicherman: Well, as I said, I mean, while as much fun as it was, I was a serious [00:06:00] business in the sense that it was very dangerous. And in the space of three months, I saw one friend who was messenger, get very badly hurt. I saw another one get killed. And then I got hit by a cab. I was pretty lucky. I got three pins in my left hand, but it really kind of was time for me to figure out which way to go. And at that point, my other job at the time was I was working at a glass lab in Brooklyn called Urban Glass Blowing and Glass Casting.
And it was question of going to art school or going to law school, having observed the working artists and the kind of margins they worked off of. I knew that that wasn’t for me. And so I started studying for the,
Louis Goodman: Where did you ultimately go to law school? So you decided to stay in New York.
Ben Zicherman: Yeah. And Pace was at that point, it’s still a relatively young program.
I think when I was there, they had only been doing it for about 15 years. What was great is that the class size was tiny. I don’t remember ever having a class with more than 40 people. And that was by far the biggest draw [00:07:00] for me. I got to spend nothing but time with my professors, you know.
And what I learned in law school is that while you do get to learn Contracts, Property, and all that stuff, you’re really learning how to learn. You know, when you step out of law school, you don’t have any particular base of knowledge. It’s actually going to help the practice. But the framework that they teach you is there.
And I always believed it was essential to watch people who had done it better than you, which is, you know, your professors. So I found it to be quite remarkable programs in terms of its closeness and the availability of staff with students.
Louis Goodman: Did you enjoy your experience there?
Ben Zicherman: I really, really did. I had a great time there.
I met a lot of very interesting people. You know, most of them were very driven. It wasn’t an Ivy League School, so these were people who knew that they weren’t just going to get a job based on their degree. You know, they all had plans. They were all motivated and that helped motivate me.
Louis Goodman: When you got out of Pace, what was your first legal job?
Ben Zicherman: After I got done with Pace at that [00:08:00] point, my then girlfriend now wife had gotten a good job offer in LA. So I went to what we decided that was time to relocate in. You know, I had always kind of planned to come back to California. And so I was doing Freelance Jury Consultants and Mock Trials. And I did a Mock Trial for a Beverly Hills Title 7 firm called Catwalk and Silverstein, mostly Employment Law.
After the mock trial, they just asked me, you know, what you are doing, do you want to come work for us? I did. You know, I worked for them for about two years. It was a very good way to learn about civil practice and kind of what the shape of it is and what the flavor of it is. And after I kind of absorbed as much as I could, I decided to go on my own way.
I then got hired by Bruce Margolin to do Criminal Defense. That was my first paying Criminal Defense job. And then after that I started my own firm. Came back to the area. Let me just put this out there, because this is actually a good story from law school. So how I got involved in criminal [00:09:00] law was, as I told you, I was raised in a legal family, but with the exception of my stepmother, who, by the time I met her, she was out of the DA’s Office and was working for Fireman’s Fund, doing insurance defense.
You know, all the exposure I had law was civil law. And so that’s where I invariably I figured I’d end up going. So my second year of law school my Trial Lab Professor was a guy named Joel Seidman. He was a Prosecutor, lifelong prosecutor in the Manhattan DA’s Office, true believer.
And I really enjoyed trial. He said, this is the only chance in your life where you’re going to get to try to do a bunch of different things. You may have made up your mind that you think Civil Law is the way to go, but you owe it to yourself to expose yourself to some other things before you put on the golden handcuffs or whatever you think it is, you know, and that actually didn’t seem wrong.
So we helped them get an internship at the Queens District Attorney’s Office, where I stayed for the rest of Law School. It was amazing. I had [00:10:00] an amazing time there. It was regulatory, you know, the pace of it, the kind of the passion of all the players involved, the Judges, the DA, the Defense Bar, and, you know, the velocity was really something that drew me in.
Also one thing I found fascinating, which I’ve seen in every Defense Bar since then is the death. That humor that goes along with this practice. And the first time I ever got to see it, was at the Queens DA’s and it really stuck with me. Right. And so Queens DA’s was great. It changed my whole world around.
I have Joel Seidman to thank for that. But it definitely gave me some funny ideas about what Prosecutors were coming out of the gate.
Louis Goodman: Is that the courthouse in Jamaica?
Ben Zicherman: Yeah. Yeah. It’s over there off ——.
Louis Goodman: Yeah. I know it.
Ben Zicherman: They used to send me out to do ———– and they give me body armor do it.
It was pretty exciting sort of things.
Louis Goodman: What do you really like about practicing law?
And when I talk to you, when I see you, you always strike me as someone who just, you know, kind of really relishes being in [00:11:00] court and really doing the work.
Ben Zicherman: And this is something that I was talking about a little bit that I kind of started learning about as the Queen is, you know, I love the pace.
The pace of criminal law is necessarily very quick. So I love that sort of frenetic nature of it. I also love, you know, being on your feet. So much of it is you can put. Must and you should prepare a lot. A lot of it is your presentation while you’re on your feet, knowing your Judges, knowing your DA is if you’re in front of a jury, you know, matching their expectations.
And so I like that kind of on the spot and it’s about it. But also what I really liked is that Criminal Law, to a certain extent, it rewards people who are willing to well, look at things differently. If you can really absorb the case law on a specific issue and try to take it to that next step. You weren’t punished the way you might be in a civil case for overreaching.
You know, the organic growth of jurisprudence is very much so rewarded. And [00:12:00] I really liked that because there’s all these opportunities to be creative and your defense. No, of course you want to bounce that off of other people to make sure you’re not going too far off the goofball land, but at the same time, I think that we all have the ability to push the envelope and that can be rewarded.
Louis Goodman: Would you recommend to a young person as a career choice, who was just coming out of college, Criminal Law or being a Lawyer.
Louis Goodman: Well, let’s start with being a Lawyer and then let’s get down to Criminal Law.
Ben Zicherman: It really depends on kind of what their expectations for their life are. If they’re just in it to make money, then, you know, lawyering is a good avenue for that, but there’s always the question of what’s left.
I had a couple friends who went to the Corporate Law route and ended up at Skadden and Mofo and, you know, spiritually, it’s a very destructive process working at places like that. And at the end of the day, you know, the chase, the top is usually all that remains. And all you can think of is in terms of billables and that’s not great, but you won’t make the money.
If you are willing [00:13:00] to do the work and you are invested in doing something that matters, but also realized you will very rarely be thanked for it. Then I think it’s a good career, but that takes a certain type.
Louis Goodman: How is actually practicing met or different from your expectations?
Ben Zicherman: One thing that’s been really hard for me is running a practice.
The actual practicing I’m quite comfortable with, but running a business is nothing I’ve ever had any training in. It’s nothing that I feel like I’m terribly good at. You know, I’ve got enough to keep the lights on and keep my business moving. But the wearing two hats is something that was very surprising to me and something that I’m not terribly well-suited at, that I’ve done well enough that.
I have my ticket to ride and keep going to court. But the actual business end of it is something that was surprising to me and somewhat alien.
Louis Goodman: A lot of people feel that way. You know, when I came out of the DA’s Office and opened my own practice, I [00:14:00] really found out early on the business aspect of it takes almost as much time as the law aspect of it.
Ben Zicherman: Oh yeah. And you think about it, I mean, we’re trained have these intellectual and analytic abilities within a certain framework, we’re trained to get answers out of people that they don’t want to give. We’re not trained to do spreadsheets. We’re not trained to do marketing.
We’re not trained to do a lot of shameless self-promotion, which is all these things are required to run the business.
Louis Goodman: Tell me about a case that really went well for you, where you think that, you know, came out good?
Ben Zicherman: Oh, there was this great case out of San Francisco that I had where my client was Middle Eastern. He was in his car, minding his own business. A San Francisco cop come up and it’s clearly a racially motivated detention. And they started kind of going back and forth with him and talking to them. And you know, he wasn’t doing anything. He was sitting in a legally parked spot on his phone and his car and they [00:15:00] kind of knocked on the window and gave him the, what are you doing here, boy, is that alcohol we smell? So it turns into a DUI. Basically a string, the Superior Court Case, along until I could get as many people under the DMP to testify as possible. Right. So I got the cops to come in. What he said was nonsense. I get a security guard who saw the whole thing. You know, talk about how he hadn’t been doing anything and that these cops were harassing him for no reason.
And then I got a video to back it up. So I started kind of dumping all that on the DA and they’re hemming and hawing and doing this and doing that. Then I bring a Pitchess Motion. before the Pitchess Motion could be heard, the DA’s agreed to dismiss and give me a Hellmendollar. That one felt real.
Louis Goodman: Yeah.
That is a good result.
Ben Zicherman: That was one of those great cases where it really felt like the right thing happened.
Louis Goodman: What’s the best advice that you’ve ever received?
Ben Zicherman: The best advice I ever received, I believe it was my Property Law Professor who said, “Be very aware of what you don’t know.” And I think that that’s the most [00:16:00] important thing in our practice is that, you know, there’s so much case law you can know the broad strokes of every type of criminal case, but you can’t know, the nitty gritty, the most important thing is knowing what you don’t know. Cause then you can fill in those gaps for that case. If you can’t recognize the areas that don’t have a proper knowledge and then it’s a blind spot, they’ll never pick it up.
So be very cognizant of what you don’t know. I think that that’s very good.
Louis Goodman: What, if anything, would you change about the way the legal system works?
Ben Zicherman: You know, what I would change is I would change the stakes, and what I mean by that, and this is something, a conversation I often have with clients they’re talking about going to trial, or I’m talking to them about going to trial is that they have to understand that the DA’s have nothing to lose if they take a case to trial and don’t win. But the fact that the exposure and the potential ramifications are so lopsided has always struck me as a tremendous imbalance and something that makes the practice very hard, especially [00:17:00] emotionally for our clients.
Louis Goodman: Do you think the system’s fair?
Ben Zicherman: Boy, how much time you got? Look, I kind of take the Churchill approach to the legal system in America.
It’s the worst system of law, except for all the others. And the bottom line is that, do I think it’s fair? I think it has fair ideals. I think it’s strives to be fair. I think in practice, there are too many factors that come into play in terms of people’s prejudices, in terms of cultural decisions at DA’s office, you know, Judges making decisions that they may not realize are based in something other than the facts for it to truly be fair.
But then the question becomes what’s the alternative. And again, that loops back around to, with the worst system, except for all the others. I think it’s as good as it gets. Could it be better? Sure. But I do think that aspirationally it’s fair in practice on the ground. Not all the time, for sure.
Louis Goodman: How is, you know, mixing your practice of [00:18:00] law and your living with your family personal situation? How’s that been for you?
Ben Zicherman: Well, that’s actually been something that’s been evolving a lot in the last two years prior to them, you know, everything, I was married, my wife, she has her own business. We both just worked and worked and worked sort of what we did. And of course we had time together, but our primary focus was always on our work and that all changed.
Two years ago, we had a baby, I have a two- and three-quarter year-old son. And for the first time there was something that was as important, if not more so than my work. And so. I’m still working on how to juggle my priorities and, you know, it’s forced me to do a number of things, you know, really potentially schedule around weekends, but I’ll not come in because that’s the consistent family time we have, you know, I’ve had to learn to work from home, which is horrible.
I hate working from home, but that’s, you know what you have to do, you know, but I’m still trying to figure out the balance. I mean, with [00:19:00] the world on hold and everyone working from home right now, the silver lining is I haven’t gotten to spend that much time with my boy since he was born. So I wish I had a good answer and I wish I could tell you why I’d mastered the particular aspects of a work life, but I’m still working my way through it.
Louis Goodman: What sort of recreational things do you enjoy doing?
Ben Zicherman: Well? I’ve got two kinds of hobbies. One is a glass blowing, so I built a small glass blowing lab in my house. I make mostly marbles or figures. I love marble the obstacle qualities of them are just somewhat other worldly and you can get lost staring at them if you make the mind.
And so that’s one thing, I think the other thing, and what I really like about glasswork besides the final product, being this kind of very remarkable thing is that it’s singular in the sense that if you’re painting or taking pictures, you can split your attention and you might ruin the piece, but nothing bad’s going to happen to you.
The working temperature of Pyrex pirate glass is 2,400 degrees. You split your attention. You’re going to have [00:20:00] third degree burns before you even feel them. And so I do like in that particular art form that you really have to give it a hundred percent of your focus or it’ll bite you. And it’s a really great opportunity to kind of shut the rest of the world out and just be thinking about one thing, because you know that as practitioners with our own offices, you’re thinking about a thousand things at once. It’s the one time when all that goes quiet by necessity. And I really liked that. The other thing I do is IP tracking, which is, you know, amateur racing and that’s a lot of fun. Likewise, that’s a very kind of thing to where thing it’s you and your car and the track and the person in front of you and the person behind you.
And coincidentally, it’s a really good social distancing sport. So tuning my car and taking it to the track. Another thing I really enjoyed doing.
Louis Goodman: How about any travel experience? You’ve been any place interesting?
Ben Zicherman: Wow. Yeah, I’ve been to, let me see. I’ve been to Indonesia. I’ve been to Japan. I’ve been to Europe.
I think those points are pretty interesting. Now the most interesting way in the last couple of trips you were talking about work-life balance. It took my wife six [00:21:00] years to convince me that I can leave for a week and a half and that my business wouldn’t shut down. So we’ve only really recently started doing kind of traveled and then the baby came, but we’ve been to, we went to London, we went all over Japan.
And interestingly enough, one of my, kind of past times on these trips, I always go to Criminal Court just to see how they do things. And that’s always been fascinating. I had a Judge make fun of me in Tokyo about it.
Louis Goodman: What sort of things keep you up at night?
Ben Zicherman: In the last year or in general?
Louis Goodman: Well, let’s talk about the last year.
Ben Zicherman: Well, let me see. Global pandemic, social implosion, you know, complete degeneration of the social contract and reality political upheaval. You know, those are things that’ll keep you up. But, you know, in general, the things that keep me up is I tend to wake up and start thinking about my cases. And then I start, you know, just sort of, going back and forth.
And that keeps me up. Unfortunately, all you have to think of things that need to be done in the case or new theories on the case. And that makes it very hard for me to sleep beyond all the horrible things that [00:22:00] happened in 2020.
Louis Goodman: If you came into some real money, a few billion dollars, what, if anything, would you do differently in your life?
Ben Zicherman: Well, I still think I’d practice, but I wouldn’t be able to take cases where people could, you know, regularly take cases where people can afford it. So you know, have a much smaller case load, but I think I would be screening them with the idea of people who really need help that I could help with, but couldn’t necessarily afford my services. I had also, and this was sort of a bucket list thing, and I think it’s completely unrealistic, but I’d also like to build live steam, locomotive.
I don’t know anything about it. I know basic metalworking. But that’s always something I’ve wanted to do. So if I just had the money, I would have a small caseload and learn how to fabricate.
Louis Goodman: Say you had a magic wand, you could change one thing in the world, the legal system, or just the world in general, anything, what do you think that would be?
Ben Zicherman: I think that if I had my magic wand, that you know, my overall goal would be to kind of [00:23:00] increase the level of empathy that exists in our world.
Louis Goodman: So, Ben, earlier you talked about some of the humor that you began to see when you first started working in the Queens District Attorney’s Office and that same kind of humor going over into the Defense Bar once you got there. Can you talk about that a little?
Ben Zicherman: Well, I think it’s really something that’s very unique to Criminal Defense. A lot of times the subject matter from, you know, the view of a Prosecutor or of a Defense Counsel, sometimes it can be pretty awful stuff. And so I think that that is a safety valve. For all of our sanity, you know, that that’s something that really drew me in, and it’s something that I’ve seen be present in every Defense Bar I’ve ever come into contact with.
And I think that that builds a sense of community, which is something I really like.
Louis Goodman: Ben Zicherman. Thank you very much for talking to me today on the Love Thy Lawyer podcast, I really enjoyed our conversation.
Ben Zicherman: It was a pleasure. Thank you for [00:24:00] having me. And I really enjoyed it as well.
Louis Goodman: That’s it for today’s episode of Love Thy Lawyer. Many thanks to guests contributed their time and wisdom and making this show possible. Thanks to Joel Katz for music, Brian Matheson for technical support and Tracey Harvey. I’m Louis Goodman.
Ben Zicherman: And so I became part of that and, you know, it’s a very exciting fringe sort of way to live. It’s kind of bordering on outlaw behavior. It’s always way overly aggressive.