For lawyer, life is a debate

The 1966 Silver Knight for speech and debate has worked as a prosecutor, speechwriter in Washington and ran for president in 1972

03/14/2008 3:01 AM

09/08/2014 5:33 PM

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.


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.)

An appellate lawyer doesn't argue at trial over the facts of a case but over matters of legal procedure, jurisdiction and the interpretation of statutes or the Constitution.

In theory, at least, this is rare air, briefs written in isolation and arguments presented before a three-judge panel, untainted by the hyperbole of a jury trial.

Which is not to say it's nice.

``You're saying the other guy's argument is stupid, it stinks. You have to be forceful and back that up.''

It is, Perwin said, ``exactly like debating. Like I haven't stopped debating since my first year of high school, in 1963.''


He had a mild existential crisis four years ago. He had had one 15 years ago, which he thought had been resolved after he called up his best friend, a man he'd barely seen in years, and convinced him to go on a cattle drive in Montana, something they still do yearly.

This time felt more serious. He wasn't sure if he was doing a good job at living.

``I'd been doing the same thing for 22 years, driving to the same place every morning, hanging out with the same people.''

Maybe he should have stayed in Washington. He knew people there doing neat things with their lives. Maybe he shouldn't be a lawyer at all. But he was no cowboy.

Perwin quit his firm and went into business for himself, sinking some money into the DuPont building office, fixing it up with marble and old wood and little statues of horses.

He has one employee, a legal secretary with superhuman organizational skills.

Some clients followed him from Podhurst, and new ones have come: Ecuadorean shrimp farmers suing DuPont over alleged pesticide runoff, the drivers of Florida suing the government of Florida over selling license information to telemarketers, the government of Belize, locked in an abstruse high-stakes battle over its telecommunications industry.

When business is good, it's great. When it's not, there's no one to fall back on.

''I'm working like crazy,'' Perwin said. ``It's tough when you're working on your own -- you don't ever want to say no, because you don't know when the next case is coming in. I'm working day and night . . . I don't think I'll ever stop. I don't know what I would do.''

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