A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Courtroom

Labe Richman’s monologue benefits the Immigrant Defense Project

Published in 2012 New York — Metro Super Lawyers Magazine

“I’ve always had a desire to perform,” Labe M. Richman says.

The 56-year-old criminal attorney appeared in high school plays and studied acting in college, and in 2003, he created the course “Effective Trial Communication Techniques: The Application of Advertising, Drama and Psychology to Trials,” which earned him an award from the New York County Lawyers Association for innovative continuing legal education.

Then there’s the courtroom itself, where Richman has made a living for nearly 30 years.

“The courtroom is something of a stage, and teaching provides the same sort of [outlet] that a theater or comedy performance might,” he says. “You spend a lot of time preparing for trials and your closing argument, and sometimes it all falls apart and you don’t get to do it. So teaching is a good way to get up there and perform for a couple of hours.”

But there’s nothing like the real thing. So on March 29, Richman performed his one-man show Law and Disorder: My Courthouse Stories at the Judson Memorial Church in Lower Manhattan to benefit the Immigrant Defense Project. The hour-long monologue is filled with observations worthy of Woody Allen, Spalding Gray or Larry David—albeit from the perspective of an attorney who has seen a lot more than most performers have access to, and who cut his chops working for a legal aid society in the Bronx.

An example from the monologue, inspired by true events: “I introduced myself to a client at Legal Aid once,” Richman says. “I said, ‘I’m your attorney, Labe Richman.’ He said, ‘I am the Lord your God.’ I said, ‘Considering who you are, I think I can expedite your case.’”

Richman, who describes himself as culturally but not religiously Jewish, says he tries to put a human spin on suffering. “Here these people are arrested, and not only have they committed crimes and deserve to be punished, but they’re in poor circumstances. It’s sad what happens to the victims and defendants, but there’s always some craziness and some way to put a funny spin on it. There’s always some funny connection you can make between the suffering and that which makes people laugh.”

Richman’s light delivery and deadpan demeanor suggest that, in another life, he might have had a career as a stand-up comic. He even tried it once. “I went to some of these open mics and it was just too hard. Not in terms of doing it, but in New York City there’s no shortage of people clawing their way onto stage. It’s astounding. I did it a couple times where they said, ‘Come and you’ll go on at 9:30.’ And I went on at 12:30. I had two kids and I lived in the suburbs and I’m a lawyer and I just couldn’t put in the time. I should have done it when I was younger.”

His clients are lucky he didn’t. Save for his yearly turn with Courtroom Follies, the annual show that he and his fellow attorneys and judges put together in the federal court of the Southern District, Richman devotes his energies to undoing convictions that can lead to deportations and other immigration issues. Still, part of his heart will always be in another spotlight.

“I’m interested in performance for its own sake,” he says. “I think it’s just fun for me to do it. I have this desire to be an artist, and to present these stories and emotions in a way that audiences can absorb and enjoy. I’m just gratified that I have a job like this, a job that gives me access to these issues that are so important.

“In a way, through some fortuity, I’m just happy that I ended up being a criminal lawyer.”

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