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Great Moments

A Prince Among Men
Mark L. Dembert
From the Print Edition:
Denzel Washington, Jan/Feb 98

Litigation is war and, as the chinese military strategist sun-tzu once wrote, most wars are won before they are fought. in an era where business disputes are routinely resolved by the courts, the combatants must seek every conceivable edge.

A defendant appears at his criminal trial unshaved. The attorneys argue about his appearance. An exercise in tonsorial taste? Hardly. The defendant is Vinny "The Chin" Gigante, an alleged mob boss who the prosecution claimed had attempted to avoid trial by feigning mental illness. His courtroom demeanor, down to the stubble on his face, could influence the jury's evaluation of whether he was a cunning criminal or mentally ill, and neither side would give a whisker on the point. (He was found competent-and guilty.)

If a sixteenth of an inch of facial hair can influence a trial, is it unreasonable that a cigar can turn the tide in a multimillion dollar business dispute?

Cigars and lawyers have a long and close history. During an opponent's closing argument, Clarence Darrow would run a paper clip through his cigar, letting an enormous ash build, mesmerizing the jurors and, of course, diverting their attention.

As a young attorney, I interviewed Louis Susman, attorney and adviser to the Busch brewing family, through a haze of smoke. I took the deposition of Asher Edelman, once-corporate raider and now art collector, while he savored a Montecristo. Those days are gone, though, and they aren't coming back.

Or are they?

I was representing the plaintiffs in a business dispute involving a failed public stock offering. One of the defendants was a professional leveraged-buyout investor. He possessed uncanny business timing, $500 million and the ability to make himself invisible.

While preparing to take his deposition, I naturally planned to bring to bear every bit of knowledge I possessed about the case. I also searched the public record for any additional information I could find about his other business dealings and personal characteristics.

I could learn virtually nothing from the few details reported about this Spectre. There was, however, one picture of my opponent in the public domain, and from that picture, I hatched my plan.

He was smoking a cigar.

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