He Worries So You Don’t Have To

Prisoners at Guantanamo are glad Arnold Natali sweats the small stuff

Published in 2008 New Jersey Super Lawyers — April 2008

Arnold Natali is a mad-dog trial hound, the kind of lawyer who can relentlessly shake a case until it goes limp in his jaws. The Newark-based McCarter & English partner is renowned for his pro bono work and, in particular, his work on behalf of three Saudi nationals who were detained at Guantanamo Bay. "It was clear the allegations against these men were just boilerplate and beyond hearsay," he says. With no formal charges, it was difficult finding out anything. Natali's strategy: File habeas corpus petitions and keep pushing.

Natali and colleague Jeremy Hirsh eventually secured the release of the prisoners, who had been held for three years. In the end it appeared there was little evidence they had posed any threat to the United States. They may simply have been ratted out by people looking to collect U.S. rewards for naming terrorists.

"What struck me was how young and scared they were," Natali says. "It was a very, very sad situation. They had pretty much given up."

The firm invested about 1,000 hours in the case, with Natali contributing nearly 200.

"I like a challenge," says Natali. "I want to help people who really need help the most."

Natali learned perseverance and determination early on. The only son (along with four sisters) of a first-generation American of Italian extraction who ran a dye house in Paterson, he was drawn to wrestling; by 14, he was a state champion. Halfway through high school he'd had enough of the deprivation and body-wrenching practices, but by then wrestling's lessons had been seared into his soul.

"I know I wasn't the strongest or the fastest but I gave every inch of myself," Natali says.

A graduate of Fairfield University, he earned his J.D. at Seton Hall. By the time he finished clerking for the late Mitchell H. Cohen, then district judge in New Jersey, he knew he didn't want to work in New York City; there was not enough trial work and too little time to spend with his family. And working as a prosecutor in Essex County, which was his first choice, would be a rewarding job but wouldn't pay enough. He researched some firms and found McCarter & English intriguing. The level of legal talent in its hallways was intimidating at first. "There are people who are admittedly brighter than me," he says, "but it is true that rising tides do lift everybody and everything up."

A few years ago Natali, Andrew Berry, chairman of McCarter's executive committee, and others from the firm teamed up to try an insurance case in Beaumont, Texas. It was a jury trial and they were working with a local attorney, a native who seemed to know everybody. Jurors said howdy to him and asked about his family. None of this was surprising because Beaumont is relatively small and folks down there are genuinely friendly. When it came time for the counselor to introduce the McCarter attorneys, he saved Natali, the Italian from New Jersey, for last. "And now," he said with a smile the size of Texas, "I want to introduce you to a friend of mine: ‘Tex' Natali." The courtroom broke up and McCarter won the case. To this day you can still occasionally hear somebody call out, "Hey, Tex," in the hallways.

The Beaumont trial was a good example of the type of cases Natali handles. A breach of contract and declaratory judgment action, the case involved every insurance coverage issue you could name: fraud, rescission, expected and intended defenses, lost policies and more. Natali and McCarter were representing Bristol-Myers Squibb. The company had filed to recover the costs (defense and indemnity) related to its breast implant liabilities. It involved dozens of insurers, hundreds of insurance policies, more than 100 depositions taken throughout the United States and Europe, and a lot of science.

"Because of the amount of litigation we were doing, [Arnold] got a lot of trial experience early on," says Berry. "So he became a person who could not only manage cases but try them."

Natali works no less than 65 or 70 hours a week. He's one of those people who look like runners, but aren't. "I just worry a lot," he says. "I don't eat too much and I worry."

Paul Leodori, of Medford-based Leodori & Whelihan, has been up against Natali only once—way back in '94—but he has vivid memories. The case involved recycling debris that caught fire and burned so intensely that sections of Route 78 in Newark were destroyed. Leodori represented the insurance carriers for the recycling company, which was charged with dumping dangerous debris. Natali's client was the person who leased the property to the recycling company. The case involved many entities and many new, and somewhat liquid, environmental issues-and Natali wasn't long out of law school. But Leodori remembers his being unafraid to go toe-to-toe with "big dog" lawyers.

"There is a sequence I remember," says Leodori. "One of the senior attorneys was trying to get in a piece of evidence ... and Arnold kept objecting and the judge kept sustaining. It went on for 20 minutes but it felt like three hours." In the end, Natali won most of those admission arguments, along with Leodori's respect, though not the case.

"We were in different foxholes and basically shooting at each other but we developed a rapport, and we still laugh about that [exchange] today," says Leodori.

Success and service seem to have been wired into Natali's family. Of his four sisters, one is an accomplished artist; another is a Ph.D. in political science who teaches in Kurdistan; a third is a Ph.D. candidate in biology; and the fourth is an elementary school teacher in San Diego. After staying home to raise her children, his mother went on to earn a Ph.D. in theology and teach at a seminary near Baltimore. His roots in social justice run deep.

"It's a rough world out there sometimes," Natali says. "You have to find those moments where you do a little good. And when you do, they can't take that away from you."

His leadership at McCarter has resulted in a near tripling of the pro bono hours at the firm (which gives associates full billable hourly credit for pro bono hours) from 7,820 in 2003 to almost 20,000 this year.

Natali's pro bono perseverance may best be exemplified by his work on behalf of Ibrahim Badrawi, who fled to the U.S. after he was beaten and harassed in his home country, Algeria, for converting from Islam to Christianity. When he arrived, he was detained at the Elizabeth Detention Center, where authorities began the process of sending him back home—where he expected to be executed. Natali argued that he should be granted political asylum, which was denied by the Immigration Court, the Board of Immigration Appeals, a U.S. magistrate judge and a U.S. district judge. After more than three years, the 3rd Circuit reversed the decision. Natali calls it one of his most satisfying cases. And Badrawi? He's now risking his life for the country that only reluctantly accepted him: He enlisted in the U.S. Army and is serving as an interpreter in Iraq.

"Ibrahim was in jail for four years," says Natali. "The only difference between him and me is where we were born. I think we did right by him. There were probably 50 opportunities to give up and we didn't do that."

Natali has worked on or supervised about a dozen political asylum cases for impoverished immigrants seeking protection from religious and political persecution in the Ivory Coast, Rwanda, Somalia and Angola—including a case where a Rwandan man witnessed the execution of members of his immediate family by government forces. Deportation was avoided in every case.

"Arnold leads by example," says Berry. "We have a death penalty case out of our Philadelphia office that has cost huge amounts of money. The Gitmo guys were very expensive. I think Arnold's personal commitment had been a good example for everybody at the firm."

Natali defines himself as an existentialist, working hard to make his profession and his personal life mean something in a world that doesn't always add up.

"I know I will never be the brightest, or the biggest producer of business," he says. "You just have to try your best to do something better." 

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