Stephen Weinstein looks and acts like the reasonably cool rabbi at a bar mitzvah. The 67-year-old is quick with a smile, a slap on the back, a self-effacing quip. And everyone calls him Skippy.
Which makes it hard to believe that some people shudder at the sight of him. To the prosecutors and corporate attorneys he faces in court, he’s not the gregarious presence known to most. He’s a pit bull.
Ask Chuck Socha, of Denver-based Socha, Perczak, Setter & Anderson. Socha is defending a pharmaceutical company against charges of neglect brought by a brain-damaged child’s family that Weinstein represents.
“He’s incredibly tenacious,” Socha says. “He just keeps coming at you. He’s friendly, but in the courtroom it’s no holds barred. He hits as hard as he can, and that means you have to hit him as hard as you can right back.”
For his hard work Weinstein has received his share of awards. He is a fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers. A trial courtroom at his law school is named after him. But perhaps his greatest source of pride is the fact that when other lawyers need counsel, they come to him. He’s the lawyer’s lawyer.
“Do I represent a lot of lawyers? Yes, I do. Do I represent a lot of judges? Yes. I represent their families,” Weinstein says in the Morristown office that bears his name.
Fifty or so years ago, Weinstein would have been the last person to predict the successful career he has had. Born to an educated family in Newark, Skippy (he took his name early in life from a beloved friend’s dog) was the son of an ear, nose and throat doctor. He showed no interest in academics. Instead, he spent as much time as he could on the streets.
“I wanted to work rather than study so that I could earn some money,” he says. “I just didn’t go to school. I can’t blame my parents or anything. I was hanging around with the wrong group.”
Weinstein doesn’t like to discuss the details, but at age 15, he left school and was sent to
a work farm for juvenile
“Sometimes we make bad choices in our lives,” he says.
Life on the work farm was tough, but Weinstein took to the strict lifestyle with gusto: Up at 4:30 a.m., work in the fields till 5 p.m. and dinner at 6 p.m.
“I worked with the cows and on the fields,” he says. “I loved the concept of a farm. That was not looked upon as being cool. I remember getting beaten up not infrequently.”
Weinstein returned home to the Jersey area at age 17 a different person.
“I really don’t know how he started going wrong,” says childhood friend Carl Greenberg, now a lawyer in Short Hills, N.J. “All I know is that at some point in time Skippy went away and fortunately he came back, and when he came back he was on track. He doesn’t talk about what happened when he was away, but I know it had an extraordinary impact on his life. For want of a better description, he became a mensch.”
Weinstein had always wanted to work, and now, while other kids his age were preparing for graduation, he got to do it — installing air conditioners and loading trucks for a company in East Orange and Hillside, N.J.
“At that point I wasn’t as weak and fat as I am today,” he says with a laugh. “One day, an air conditioner fell on me and a guy I worked with lifted it up and I got up and just continued to work. Late in the day, he said, ‘Why are you doing this? You’re smart. This is all I’m going to do, but you can be something.’ So I went to school to get my GED.
“And I failed,” he adds. “It was devastating.”
That was in late 1956. Weinstein went back to loading trucks, but after a while he tried again. He passed in June 1958.
Weinstein may not like to talk about his troubled teenage years, but he realizes their value in his life. They lit the fire in his belly. They’re what made him a fighter.
“If a confession were required of me, I’d silently tell myself that it was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he says. “It gave me the impetus as well as the tenacity to want to prove to myself that I had value.”
Weinstein enrolled in the only college that accepted him — Fairleigh Dickinson. There he met his future wife, Nancy, and became interested in politics. He still wasn’t a great student, but his natural bonhomie got him elected student-body and class president. When U.S. Rep. James Roosevelt of California, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s son, taught a course on government at the university, Weinstein made sure he was the person driving Roosevelt and his wife to and from the airport. Mrs. Roosevelt and Nancy, by then Weinstein’s fiancée, became fast friends, and Roosevelt became Weinstein’s mentor. He encouraged Weinstein to go to law school and arranged an interview for him with the dean of admissions at Washington College of Law at American University, in Washington, D.C. But even with the powerful congressman’s friendship, Weinstein was hardly a shoo-in. After what he thought was a disastrous meeting, Weinstein put his chances of acceptance at nil.
“I told my interviewer that my C’s and D’s would launch into a career that would make the school very proud,” Weinstein says.
He was admitted to American on probation in 1962, after being turned down by 12 schools. Afterward, the dean told Weinstein that he was impressed with the New Jerseyan’s honesty about his academic record, and admitted him as a favor to Roosevelt. Weinstein absorbed that incident as a lesson to always be a straight-shooter.
“There’s no bullshit when you deal with him,” says Thomas Campion of Drinker, Biddle & Reath, a Florham Park, N.J., civil litigator who’s worked both with and against Weinstein. “He says what he means and means what he says.”
After graduation Weinstein returned to New Jersey. He had a two-year stint as an assistant prosecutor in Morris County and hung his own shingle in 1968. He now has 13 employees, including three associates, and has handled a daunting variety of cases, from personal injury, product liability and medical malpractice to murder. Of the 15 murder cases he’s brought to verdict, 14 of his clients were found not guilty of murder but guilty of a “significantly lesser” charge. He loves to tell the story of a client tried for attempted murder. When the jury came back with a verdict of not guilty, the defendant, a frustrated opera singer, burst into an aria. “People came in from the halls,” Weinstein says. “The jury stood up and applauded him. It was absolutely the most bizarre thing I’ve seen.”
He attributes his success to two things. First, an almost compulsive tendency to over-prepare for cases that stems from insecurity about his childhood. His meticulous attention to detail took Conway Mangullo, now 70, by surprise. Mangullo was director of public works for Paterson, N.J., under 12 different mayors and thought he knew lawyers inside and out. In 2003, Weinstein represented him in a federal corruption case in which Mangullo pleaded guilty to extortion and received three years of probation.
“It was phenomenal,” Mangullo says. “He called me on every little point, even when there was just some little change — he’d call me immediately. Constant telephone contact, constant faxes.”
That kind of work ethic is what makes Weinstein successful, Nancy Weinstein says.
“His motivation is to prove to himself that he’s worthy of his life,” she says. “He had to work hard for whatever it is he had, and he doesn’t feel entitled to anything. One of the things that he took away from his childhood was that he was always trying to catch up with what happened; he didn’t finish high school properly, he was always at a disadvantage, and to play catch-up he had to work twice as hard as everyone else.”
The second thing that sets Weinstein apart is his fabled charm, that ability to read and relate to the jurors. In court, Skippy’s the guy who rolls his eyes at his own witness’s technobabble. Skippy’s the guy who sympathizes with the jury about how boring, stodgy or intimidating a courtroom can be. Skippy’s regular folk.
“I always use the word ‘us,’” Weinstein says. “I say to a witness, ‘Can you explain to us what it is you’re saying?’ I find lawyers in openings or closings can have questions that are multifaceted, and that presentation to a jury can be frightening.”
Sometimes, he confesses, he can be a little frightened himself.
“I remember one really well-publicized murder case, the first time we had advanced the defense of a battered wife,” he says. “I was called upon to issue my summation and I stood up and looked around at all the TV cameras, the newspaper reporters there, and I thought, ‘You know, schmuck, you should’ve been a neurosurgeon.’ I was absolutely petrified. But then I opened my mouth, and I started off by saying, ‘You know, ladies and gentlemen, no matter how many times you’ve been doing this, you always get nervous.’” Weinstein overcame his anxiety and convinced the jury to find his client not guilty of murder one; she served a year for involuntary manslaughter.
Weinstein confesses to having a bit of a chip on his shoulder. His humble beginnings motivate him whenever he takes on lawyers with more august pedigrees.
“When I [oppose] some of these lawyers from these big firms — [graduates of] Harvard, Yale, U. Penn, Stanford — they give me this arrogant look,” he says. “That fires me up. I absolutely love it.”
It’s when he’s up against the Ivy League types, or against the corporations with bottomless coffers, that Weinstein isn’t the awshucks everyman who rolls his eyes at a dry recitation of forensic facts — he’s the pit-bull. At least one opponent says he can go from driven to nearly obsessive.
“He’s a bit of a cowboy,” Socha says. “He can be unpredictable and is very good at working emotion, but if you’ve got him on the medicine or on a technical point or a legal point, then all of a sudden he’ll start arguing something that is beside the point. The judge can basically have driven a harpoon through the heart of his case and Skippy will be out in the hallway saying, ‘That was a pretty good ruling for me!’ He just never quits. He’s a sharp lawyer and will rein himself in, but at some point he may over-try the case.”
Weinstein has decided to cut back on his workload to 60 hours per week to spend more time with his family, his golden retrievers, his horse and his collection of cars, or at his Cape Cod house, where he plays racquetball with the same passion, competitiveness and sense of humor he brings to the courtroom.
“He doesn’t like losing,” neighbor and friend Billy DiLorenzo says. “When he beats me, he calls his wife and says, ‘I beat him! I beat him!’” But Weinstein doesn’t let his natural competitive streak betray the image he’s worked so hard to cultivate outside the courtroom. He’s still the nice guy. “Of course when it’s over we’re hugging each other,” DiLorenzo says.
Weinstein also spends time on his trusteeships and his charity work for cancer causes, and he makes a point of speaking at the grammar school in Newark that he left so abruptly.
“I tell them, ‘I’m not sure I should be here,’” he says. “‘I’m a high school dropout. But they must think I have something to teach you.’”
Weinstein won’t offer a guess as to what that something might be, but Greenberg has an idea.
“A guy can’t be a bad man if at age 65 he still calls himself Skippy,” he says, laughing.