The Lawyer’s Lawyer

Why Andrew Jay Graham believes any case can be won

Photo by: Luigi Ciuffetelli

Published in 2009 Maryland Super Lawyers magazine

By Bill Glose on December 19, 2008


From his corner suite on the 26th floor of One South Street, Andrew Jay Graham, a slender man in his mid-60s with thinning gray hair, can look down upon Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and see his townhouse jutting out on one of the piers. As a principal partner at Kramon & Graham, he just doesn’t get to spend much time in it.

“The intrusion on your time is substantial,” he says. “But if I could have my druthers, I wouldn’t spend less time [practicing law]; I would just change the 24-hour day to a 36-hour day so I could get enough sleep.”

He adds: “The old saw is true: The law is a jealous mistress. But if you want to do it well, you’ve got to put in the time.”

Graham, a soft speaker who weighs his words carefully, has worked cases from minor pro bono matters to high-profile media affairs—representing priests accused of sexual abuse and high-ranking state officials charged with illegally spending municipal funds. He’s also the recipient of that ultimate professional compliment: He’s the lawyer other lawyers turn to when they need representation.

“I get calls regularly,” Graham says, “from different lawyers saying, ‘Let me give you a hypothetical that really relates to my own situation. Do you think I can stay in this case or can’t I? And what do I have to do if I want to clear this conflict?’

“I’m constantly dealing with the Maryland Rules of Ethical Conduct,” he adds. “You’ve got to follow [those rules] or you can suffer career-altering consequences, and a lot of lawyers just aren’t that familiar with them and can even run afoul of them unintentionally.”

“These are lawyers whose licenses are on the line,” says Dolores Ridgell, with the Attorney Grievance Commission, who has often battled Graham in court. “[He’s] quiet-spoken but never flustered. … He’s always on top of everything and has a complete and thorough understanding of all the issues.”

“He is a lawyer’s lawyer,” says Wilhelm Joseph, executive director of Maryland Legal Aid. “But he’s also a wonderful, down-to-earth guy.”

Joseph credits Graham, the current chair of the Equal Justice Council—which raises funds for Legal Aid—with significantly increasing the council’s fundraising efforts, in some cases getting firms to donate more than 10 times the goals set by the council. “The amount of work he does in terms of telephone calls, letters and follow-ups,” he says, “is almost as though he was a full-time employee of Legal Aid. He doesn’t have to do this. He does this on his own.”

“Helping other people is the right thing to do in a moral sense, an ethical sense,” Graham says. “But it also makes you feel good to help other people, and that’s what you do as a lawyer. In private practice you’re also being paid, but fundamentally you’re helping other people.”

You’ve just got to put in the time.


On the wall of Graham’s office is a framed poster of the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers, a bittersweet reminder of bygone days. “They were my heroes as a kid,” he says. “Brooklyn had nothing going for it but the Dodgers. And you know their story: they finally won it all in ’55 and then they left town. It was heartbreaking.”

The oldest of three children, one of Graham’s winter jobs was tending the coal furnace in the basement of the family’s four-story brownstone in Brooklyn Heights. From the top of the building you could see the Statue of Liberty just across the East River. His father bought the house in the 1940s for $36,000; today it would sell for millions.

“Brooklyn Heights is now a very fancy neighborhood,” says Graham. “Back then it was not. It was a very mixed neighborhood. Mixed in terms of income and every other way. … But it was very safe. The worst thing that would happen is some guy punches you in the nose if you went on the wrong street. I spent a lot of time out of the house, always out in the street. … It was a great way to grow up. Kids came from all kinds of different families and what determined your place in the pecking order was how far you could hit a ball in stickball.”

One of Graham’s oldest friends, Albert Keck, attended school with him from kindergarten until prep school. They led adventurous lives, playing games in the street and occasionally roller-skating through the city. One time they skated across the Brooklyn Bridge through Manhattan and into Harlem, then back home again. Keck describes Graham as competitive but fair, adventurous but not reckless, 100 percent trustworthy and steady as a rock.

“His mother died of cancer when he was 16 or 17,” Keck says. “That was a very hard time for him. And his father could be a handful, too, to be honest with you. His father did not behave as maturely as one would want. I’m giving you the bald truth now. Andy, given all these things, he had an amazing presence of mind and a peaceful disposition. Through troubling times he remained pretty peaceful and together.”

Graham’s father was a trademark and copyright lawyer, but, Graham says, “Growing up, I concluded that was the last thing I wanted to be. It looked like very serious stuff. I think my father found it real interesting, but it didn’t look like it was fun. So I was pretty sure I didn’t want to be a lawyer.”

Instead, Graham went to Yale with the intention of becoming a writer. He studied English literature and wrote short stories, one of which was published in The Minnesota Review. But as his 1965 graduation neared he was compelled to stay in school. “At that time you had the draft for the Vietnam War, and the choice was between going to Vietnam and going to law school. I had some reservations about going to law school. I can’t say I went there very enthusiastically.”

Steve Gillers, one of Graham’s classmates at NYU School of Law in Greenwich Village and a current law professor there, says Graham’s skill at creative writing is an asset. “Every dispute is a contest between dueling narratives,” Gillers says. “Andy is able to strip away the nonsense and the excess baggage from litigation and quickly identify what will make a difference in the courtroom. It’s almost a literary skill in telling the story. And he can talk to people in language they understand. He’s a very good lawyer. He understands the complexities of the legal rules. But he has no problem talking to lay people on a jury or to clients. He’s able to use ordinary language and ordinary examples to make his arguments very clear, paring down the dispute to its bare essentials that will ultimately decide how it’s resolved.”

The thrill of litigation changed Graham’s opinion about practicing law. “When we got into moot court exercises,” he says, “as soon as I got into the competitive aspect of it—trying to win your case and representing one side, even though it was obviously a moot court and there were no real parties—I really liked that. That was fun.”

After law school, Graham clerked for one year with a federal judge and then went on to a big New York firm, Shearman & Sterling, where he did corporate and securities work. His favorite memento from that time is a four-inch thick tome that contains the legal work he did for the initial public offering of Wal-Mart. “I was this 26-year-old kid and they sent me out to Bentonville to go through all the corporate books and ledgers and minutes to make sure everything was fine,” says Graham. “And the first person I met in Bentonville was Sam Walton. I had to push his Jeep out of the snow—it was in a snow bank—and he took me to lunch at a fishing and ammunition store.

“[Wal-Mart] was a chain of a few five-and-dime stores at the time, but they were going to go public,” he adds. “They had raised some money. The next time I heard about him, he had risen to become one of the wealthiest people in the country.”

Graham was eager to get into the courtroom and kept pestering his firm until they put him with the corporate litigation group. But they rarely tried any cases on Wall Street in the ’70s, so he took on pro bono divorce cases in East Harlem on his own time. That was fine—until he compared notes with Ken Gribetz, a close friend from his days at NYU. “He’d gone on to the D.A.’s office in Manhattan,” Graham says. “I’d be researching and doing memos on corporate litigation issues, and when we’d meet occasionally to have lunch in Chinatown he’d tell me about trying first-degree murder cases in front of juries.”

So Graham applied to the U.S. attorney’s office in Maryland and was hired by U.S. Attorney George Bell. “First day I got there,” Graham says, “they show me the office and this big file cabinet in back. I asked, ‘What’s in there?’ and they said, ‘Files.’ I opened it and there were about 50 files of cases in various stages of development. I said, ‘What do I do?’ ‘It’s up to you. Indict them, dismiss them, take them to the grand jury, investigate them further, whatever you think.”’

His immediate thought? “This is great.”

Graham fondly recalls the first case he prosecuted. A couple of drunk guys had come into possession of oversized photographs of U.S. currency and, convinced they had actual value, tried to sell them in a bar. Graham’s peers suggested he move to dismiss, but he was too eager to let it go. The judge on the case, C. Stanley Blair, had just taken the bench and the court-appointed adversary, David Mitchell, was also just getting started. “So none of us really knew what we were doing,” says Graham. “Somebody would object and Judge Blair would say, in his stentorian voice, ‘Gentlemen, approach the bench.’ Dave and I would come up there and he would say, ‘What do I do now?’ And we’d say, ‘Judge, you can either sustain it or overrule it.’ And he’d say, ‘Fine, fine. Overruled. Either of you gentlemen like a mint?’

“Fortunately, that guy was acquitted, which he should have been. I think it was the only case I lost.”

Graham quickly became expert in arguing in front of judges and juries. “It’s all learnable,” he says. “I think that was really what I learned. No matter what your level of experience, what your age, if you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and do the work and grab hold of the case, you can do it.”

It was an exciting time. The Maryland office indicted Vice President Spiro Agnew, the Maryland governor and multiple drug kingpins, several of whom Graham personally handled. “He accepted all of the responsibility thrown in his direction with willingness and enthusiasm and imagination,” says Bell. “My first recollection of our collaborating was our investigation of the attempted assassination of Governor [George] Wallace in May of 1972. Andy and I immediately supervised the investigation of that shooting with the FBI, the Secret Service and the Laurel County Police. So he cut his teeth as a young prosecutor on a case of national notoriety.”

Bell adds: “I don’t think he went to bed for two or three days. He just worked around the clock.”

At the U.S. attorney’s office, he became friends with fellow prosecutor Jim Kramon. “We came on within two weeks of each other,” Graham says, “and we were the two guys from New York, so we sort of immediately bonded and ultimately decided we’d start our own firm.”

Graham did a short stint with a private firm before they made their partnership a reality in 1975. “We were two 31-year-old guys with one secretary and no work,” he says. “We took almost anything that came to us and figured we were capable of doing it. … You’d think it would be scary but it really wasn’t. My thinking was that the worst conceivable case was that we don’t make any money somehow and close the shop up and go back to a firm. I mean, they didn’t kill you if you didn’t succeed.”

One of Graham’s first defense cases in his new firm was a court-appointed case that seemed like an open-and-shut victory for the prosecution. His client, Vernon Lee Knight, had confessed to robbing a bank. There were pictures of him in the bank holding a shotgun and the money he’d taken and spent on clothes had been traced and identified by authorities. “The defense was essentially that, yeah, he did rob the bank, but without criminal intent,” says Graham. “He expected another guy he knew to come into the bank to help him rob the bank and that would give the authorities the opportunity to arrest this bad guy. But the bad guy never showed up and never did enter the bank … [The prosecution] called this other guy as a witness to debunk all this, and he was a nasty guy and a thug. So I cross-examined him and made him look pretty bad, and I think the jury decided that between my guy and this other guy, the other guy was worse. In any event, we got a 6-to-6 hung jury and he was never prosecuted a second time.”

Graham pulls a 30-year-old exhibit photo of Knight from his desk drawer. In the picture, he’s holding a shotgun in the bank and looking off to one side expectantly as if waiting for his partner to appear. Graham taps the photo and says, “This is to remind me. It’s never impossible. Any case can be won.”

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