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.
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
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, "...to 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,
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
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."