Long before he argued in front of the Supreme Court or wrote speeches for the vice president or went to Harvard (magna cum laude, national debating champion) and Harvard Law (cum laude, Law Review), and years before he won the 1966 Silver Knight Award for speech and debate, Joel Perwin could not get a word in edgewise at dinner.
Debate was passionate in the Coral Gables home where he grew up: the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Bay of Pigs, Great Society, for or against, show something.
''It was my mother, and my sister, Cindy -- she was two years older and brilliant, smarter than me,'' Perwin says. ``I wanted to prove -- I wanted to play. You had to grab the opening -- make it short and pithy, smart -- and strike.''
Otherwise, ``people would go on like you'd never talked. That's where I developed my verbal skills. I sort of kept doing that for the rest of my life.''
By his junior year in high school, Perwin was the top debater at Coral Gables High, where the team was one of the best in the country. He spent afternoons practicing and weekends traveling to tournaments, winning best speaker at a national tournament held at Georgetown University.
''Debate was sort of like football, in those days,'' Perwin said. It's hard to imagine a crowd of debate fans filling a stadium, even in Coral Gables, in 1967, but for a certain crowd -- the top students at a handful of public schools in what was still a relatively small county -- debate was consuming, and a means of distinction beyond good grades, which everybody else had.
Winning the Silver Knight, Perwin said, was "one of those highlights you experience very rarely.''
He felt partly surprised when the names of the winners were called, then partly relieved when, finally, his was called.
''You really go in there with absolutely no idea of how you're going to do,'' he said. ``You think you've been successful in your area but you know other students are just as good and just as smart and successful.''
Today, Perwin is 60, one of a dozen elite lawyers in South Florida specializing in appellate law.
He came into the field after eight years as a prosecutor and speechwriter in Washington, writing for Vice President Walter Mondale, Sen. Edward Kennedy and Sen. Edmund Muskie, favored to win the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972 until he wept, famously, responding to a newspaper's attacks on his wife.
''I wrote him a speech and he got on back of a flatbed truck and started crying,'' Perwin said. ``If he'd just stuck to my talking points, he might have been president.''
The hours were grueling. Jean, Perwin's wife, was a lawyer with her own practice. They could have stayed and seen their two children raised in day-care but decided to leave.
BACK TO MIAMI
In 1981, Perwin returned to Miami, joining the firm of Podhurst, Orseck.
There he represented the owner of Joe's Stone Crab, Jo Ann Bass, who spent more than a decade and millions of dollars fighting charges she discriminated against female waiters at her restaurant. (She eventually lost, paying a penalty that amounted to a fraction of her legal fees.)
He was on the winning side of a suit to allow families of three men killed in the Cuban shoot down of Brothers to the Rescue planes to collect about $38 million from frozen U.S. bank accounts belonging to telephone businesses owned by the Castro government.
(One of the two cases he argued before the Supreme Court -- over the proper venue for a lawsuit filed by Miami-based Burger King against one of its Detroit franchisees -- lacks that human drama, but is taught today in civil procedure classes across the country.)