Public Interest Lawyer Profile: Gregory Antollino

13 Jan 2016
Author: Robert Precht

"I consider myself a trial lawyer first, a litigator second. I represent victims of employment discrimination, other civil rights violations (wrongful arrests, wrongful prosecutions and police brutality), and clients harmed by neglectful or dishonest lawyers. Since 1994, I have represented hundreds of individuals in these areas against some of the biggest corporations and biggest law firms, as well as agencies of the City and State of New York.  I have been been asked to give educational sessions to lawyers on various issues pertaining to trial practice, such as opening statements, direct examination, and punitive damages, as well as LGBTQ discrimination, police misconduct against transgender individuals, and Ethics and the Constitution.

I got my law degree from NYU in 1993, was honored there to be elected to Law Review,and studied under many legal luminaries who shaped my thinking, including Anthony Amsterdam, Burt Neuborne, Sylvia Law, Chet Mirsky, Pamela Karlan, Sheila Birnbaum and Barry Berke.  My undergraduate degree I received in history from Northwestern University, where I participated in intercollegiate debate and had two professors who made me see the world differently, Joseph Epstein and Garry Wills - two writers from the opposite sides of the political spectrum who looked at life, literature and history healthily askance. (Each gave me a B+, a grade I hated, but in retrospect I'm glad I was exposed to these thinkers at any grade.)

After college, I did not want a typical job, so I traipsed and plodded an unusual eye-opening gig as a caseworker for the child-welfare agency in New York City. I worked with mostly poor families trying to stay together and receive the services to do so. After almost three years of that, I entered law school, during which I worked for a former federal Judge in San Francisco, Fern M. Smith, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Brooklyn, and the Federal Defenders in Manhattan.

After getting my JD, I worked at the litigation department at a large law firm, Weil, Gotshal and Manges, LLP, where I won an award (and obtained publicity) for my Pro Bono work. Yearning for something different, I left Weil and saw the other side of the legal profession at the Legal Aid Society, Juvenile Rights Division, and practiced in Family Court in the Bronx and Manhattan. At the latter, I made frequent appearances before Judge Judith Scheindlin, aka "Judge Judy." She never embarrassed me as she does people on TV, I am lucky to say, and once told me in a moment of candor "not to be a Kunstler-like obstructionist." I think that advice was a gift, though misplaced; William Kunstler was not an obstructionist - he was a criminal lawyer who knew exactly how far he could go to protect his client. I took her advice as a signal that I should cooperate with the bench where possible, so I choose my battles, but have always admired attorneys like Kunstler who went as far as he could to win for his clients. For example, promptly after Judy left Family Court for Hollywood, I got her reversed on appeal, because she had made one big mistake and I knew I could use it to get my client's charge dismissed or reduced. (It was in fact later converted to a misdemeanor after being sent back to the lower court). Matter of Efrain R., 228 A.D.2d 303 (First Dept.1996).

Mostly owing to my curiosity and desire for freedom, after my stint at Legal Aid, I struck out on my own, and I have never (well, rarely) looked back. In 2003, I wanted to learn what lawyers rarely learn in law school, if in their careers: how to be communicate to a jury. I began to insist on taking cases to trial; I had had many trials in Family Court, but they were always before a judge. After three losses a hung jury and two big wins, I applied and was honored to be selected to attend The Trial Lawyer's College, a three-week seminar, followed by graduate programs, in DuBois, Wyoming for experienced plaintiff's attorneys run by the renown trial lawyer, Gerry Spence. I've also attended lawyers' trial-practice programs at the National Criminal Defense College Trial Practice Institute in Macon, Georgia, and the Upright Citizen's Brigade Theatre Improv Skills Program in New York. Most cases – mine or any other lawyer’s – settle, but I crave a case that I can take to trial if the client is not happy with the settlement offered.

As a lawsuit comes into my office, and as it crawls into life, I think about how a jury would perceive my client and the evidence and imagine myself giving a closing argument, developing a theme, a story, and learning to love the case. Between 1998 and 2015, I have had two hung juries, but of the cases that did not settle and went to verdict, every jury but one that has rendered a decision in my client's favor has given my client more than what he or she (or I) expected.

My winning streak was broken - at least temporarily - where I lost a hard-fought trial for discrimination against a gay man that I took to federal court in Suffolk County, even though my client had died just before trial. It was an easy decision not to give up, knowing that justice had been denied, when a man (my client) was fired for saying at work that he was gay. I couldn't walk away, and decided to carry forward, despite the relative distance and the disadvantage of not having anything but a transcript to put on the stand. It was a wonderful experience because it was such a challenge. My client had lost his career over this termination. I respect the judge who tried the case, but I don't think my client's estate got justice. I am currently working on an appeal for a retrial - one that asks to expand the law for the greater protection of gay Americans. I may lose, but I would feel worse were I not to try."