The Best Defense

Attorney Albert Brault's telephone rang around midnight. The caller wanted to ask a couple of questions about the trial that would be continuing the next morning. It wasn't a client or co-counsel on the other end of the line. It was Brault's opponent in the case, attorney Brendan Sullivan. "That was something I never experienced before or since," says Brault.

"Brendan worked late, got up early and was always fully prepared. He would get a transcript of the morning session at lunch and take a transcript of the afternoon session home with him in the evening. He had incredible stamina."

The two attorneys were involved in a complicated estate case which lasted nearly four weeks. They agreed early on that this law suit would be conducted with the civility and professionalism by which lawyers should always abide and to which their respective clients were entitled. "We walked away shaking hands," says Brault, "in the true tradition of a well- presented trial." The trial judge who decided that case came to regard it as the greatest trial ever to have taken place before him, largely due to the manner in which the lawyers conducted themselves. "Brendan can conduct a trial without being nasty or vindictive, [rather] by being a perfectly appropriate gentleman," says Brault. "As you can tell, I admire the man."

Brendan Sullivan admits that, in his youth, he never intended to be a practicing lawyer and claims to have enrolled in the Georgetown University Law Center because he didn't know what else to do. After law school, he fulfilled his ROTC obligation by serving two years' duty as a captain in the U. S. Army and was assigned to defend a group of soldiers who had been involved in a protest, sitting down with arms entwined, singing songs in the prison yard at the Presidio in San Francisco. When they refused to disperse, they were split into groups and charged with mutiny. "The first six were convicted and sent to jail for 18 years," Sullivan recalls. "When I saw how outrageous the government could become in treating young kids in the military, it turned me on to the concept that, yes, lawyers were needed to protect people from government abuse. These were 18-year-old kids. That sufficiently upset me [to the point] that I saw a purpose to my law degree. Being thrown into a courtroom and arguing for a person's rights and freedom, I thought a worthy career."

The only non-JAG military officer on the defense side, Sullivan would do bold things, such as issuing subpoenas to three-star generals, in relentless defense of his clients. In 1969, with only six months left in the service, Sullivan was suddenly ordered to Vietnam, " get me out of the courtroom," he says. "Two senators stepped out and demanded a congressional investigation of the 'punitive transfer of Capt. Sullivan.' Walter Cronkite got hold of it and for two or three nights they ran a 'Where Is Capt. Sullivan' kind of thing." On the eve of his scheduled departure to Vietnam, Sullivan's orders were cancelled by the secretary of the Army.

It was that kind of notoriety that prompted a Georgetown law professor to introduce Sullivan to legendary trial attorney Edward Bennett Williams. Sullivan joined the prestigious Washington, D.C., law firm of Williams & Connolly LLP in 1970. Over the last 30 years, he has been lead counsel in major criminal and civil cases and is now a senior partner. There were 18 lawyers in the firm when Sullivan came onboard; there is now a cadre of approximately 200.

Sullivan is recognized for his involvement in many well-known cases, including the successful defense of the highest ranking military officer charged in the My Lai massacre case, representation of internationally-known lawyer Clark Clifford in litigation involving the estate of Averell Harriman, representation of FBI agents under investigation in the Ruby Ridge matter, and the defense of HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros.

In July of 1987, Sullivan was called upon to defend a Marine Corps lieutenant colonel before the congressional Iran-Contra Committee. "As a trial lawyer, it was a very unique moment in history," Sullivan says. "The whole Reagan administration was in jeopardy. Congress called my client to Capital Hill and I was required to do my job for six days on national television. Never before or since have the American people been so spellbound by a piece of history and the story that would come from Ollie North." Sullivan's stellar performance during those hearings won him international acclaim and the title, "ABC World News Person of the Week." After a five-year legal battle, all charges against Lt. Col. Oliver North were dropped.

North will readily affirm that Sullivan's skill is exceeded only by his integrity. "I have no closer friend on planet Earth," he says. "My son is an attorney today because Brendan Sullivan was such a role model---the finest," says North. "His work ethic is beyond reproach and his family values are to be revered."

The first morning of the hearings as the two were walking in, North recalls, "He said, 'Don't get distracted by anything in there. Just look at the stuff in front of you, answer the questions, tell the truth, don't volunteer anything. Just answer their questions honestly.'" Despite the long hours and the intensity of his work, Sullivan notes, "I still have time for three wonderful kids, ages 22 through 27, and a darling wife of 31 years who gave up law to raise a family."

In his leisure time, Sullivan enjoys sailing, particularly the trips from his home in Annapolis to Newport, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket and Maine. Oliver North has sailed with him many times and says his friend is a great sailor except for one thing. "I maintain he doesn't know diddly about diesel engines," says North, "and it is dangerous when he goes to sea without me. After years of my instruction, he has finally learned to bleed air out of a fuel injector."

A former client, who wishes to remain anonymous, describes Sullivan as the best lawyer that ever lived. "A lawyer must have multi-faceted characteristics to be truly superb. He must be a good human being so that he can work honestly, sincerely and openly with clients. He must be a litigator who is feared by his opponents and whose cross examination techniques are unequaled. Finally, he must be a master strategist to put together a plan of action that is successful. That is what he promised. He delivered even more."

To Sullivan, every trial is a big challenge. "There are so many different things to know and learn," he says, "not like a surgeon who performs the same heart surgery 250 times. Heart surgeons don't study Sunday night to be ready for Monday morning. Lawyers study documents in the case, witness depositions, interviews, facts."

A good lawyer should always put the client first, Sullivan says, and he believes that 95 percent of lawyers do that. "Lawyers get a bad rap because of the 5 percent who don't," he says. "I guess, like Avis, we try harder. We are relentless. It's quite a great feeling when you have saved someone or handed them back their life. Their families are affected for the rest of time."

Sullivan is not at all offended when others describe him as aggressive. "Aggressiveness to me doesn't mean nastiness," he says. "It means never letting up, never giving up. In a trial lawyer's world, that is a compliment. Every courtroom decision comes out of a conflict between two sides and each side has different views of what the evidence is and different views of who is being truthful. That is what our system is. Out of the conflict of two parties comes the truth. I have been called those things but I see them as complimentary terms. After all, isn't that what someone wants in their lawyer?"

When speaking to law students, Sullivan recommends two books which he found to be particularly moving, A Lesson Before Dying and Snow Falling on Cedars. "I tell young lawyers that if you want to determine if you have the heart or the guts to be a trial lawyer, read those books. If they bring you to tears, you can be a trial lawyer because you care enough about people. If you are not so affected, go into corporate law and be general counsel for the FAA."

For Sullivan, the reward in all of this is having a law practice where clients come to him with their most serious problems and depend upon him to resolve them. "That is what the accomplishment should be. That is what law practice should be," he says, "not self aggrandizement, not going on television and telling the story about how great I am. I hate that kind of stuff. I never intend to write a book. I will never go on TV and tell about my clients because there is always something inherent in that tale that implies the client must be wrong and just had a good lawyer."

It is Sullivan's devotion to his clients and his willingness to do everything possible to win their cases that keep him going up to 18 hours a day, for six months at a time or for as long as it takes for the preparation and then the trial. He brings to the table experience, strategic and tactical thinking and the ability to persuade. As Oliver North put it, "When Brendan speaks in a courtroom, everyone listens."


What event in the Annapolis area are you most looking forward to in 2006?

Powerboat Show
Sailboat Show
Renaissance Festival
Seafood Festival
County Fair

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