Mario Cuomo’s Brooklyn Years: the Smartest Lawyer on Court Street

Mario Cuomo graduated first in his class at St. John’s University School of Law School in 1956 but his job application was rejected by 50 law firms.  As Charles Hynes, the longtime Brooklyn District Attorney, put it: “in those days, bigotry was not confined to matters of skin pigmentation.”

This excerpt from The Atlantic in December, 1990 describes his years at the Brooklyn firm of Corner, Weisbrod, Froeb and Charles.

When Mario Cuomo went into private practice, he joined a firm in Brooklyn, becoming part of the throng of lawyers whose offices crowd Court Street to this day. The term “Court Street lawyer” has curious connotations in the city’s legal profession; it is used to refer to the mob of assembly-line attorneys who fill the borough’s personal-injury and nuisancesuit courts. (In one legal broil a professor at Brooklyn Law School actually countersued a colleague for calling him a Court Street lawyer.) Cuomo, as it happens, worked for Corner, Weisbrod, Froeb, and Charles, one of the two or three prestige firms in the area. But, as the firm’s first litigation specialist, he was not entirely separate from the contentious ambience of Court Street.

Going to trial requires a fantastic level of commitment. When court is in session, good litigators work round the clock in a state of meticulously controlled fury. Cuomo loved it.

It became apparent that he possessed what lawyers call confrontational skills. After just a few weeks at the firm, Cuomo was taken to lunch at the Brooklyn Club by Richard Patrick Charles, a tough Irishman who was a senior partner. In Cuomo’s recollection, Charles opened the conversation by growling, “You’re pretty good. What are we givin’ you?”

“Seventy-five hundred,” Cuomo said.

“Make it eighty-five,” Charles said grandly.

Cuomo quickly became a well-known presence at 32 Court Street. James Starkey, a St. John’s law school graduate who worked for another firm in the building, sometimes met Cuomo for a drink after work. “I noticed that something was occurring I was unused to,” he recalls. “I kept losing arguments.” Starkey’s brother, who had known Cuomo in college, asked if the new man was as smart a lawyer as he seemed to think he was. “My response was that he may be the smartest person I’ve ever met,” says Starkey, who is now a judge on the state court of claims. “Nothing that happened since has caused me to change that opinion.”

Cuomo won case after case and built up his firm’s litigation department. Nonetheless, in the opinion of Fabian Palomino, who had become Cuomo’s friend when they were law clerks together, the work was not, finally, satisfying. “Making other people rich wasn’t enough,” Palomino says.

When Cuomo began taking on jobs like the junk-yard fight, things became more interesting. “Fighting politicians, he learned that government had a lot of power,” Palomino says. “It could do a little bit of good.”