Meet This Month's LAWYER OF ATLANTIC COUNTY #LOAC
Modeled after the infamous HUMANS OF NEW YORK (#HONY) Site, the ACBA Young Lawyers Division has started LAWYERS OF ATLANTIC COUNTY (#LOAC) to foster a deeper, more personal connection among members of the Atlantic County Bar. Each month, ACBA Young Lawyers Division chooses a different attorney to be featured here as that month's Lawyer of Atlantic County. Attorneys are nominated by members of the ACBA and YLD.; any attorney who is nominated by not chosen for a given month will automatically be put back into the running for each subsequent month until chosen. Interview questions focus on the attorney's professional and life experiences.
Joseph A. Levin, Esq.
Atlantic County Bar Association, President Nov. 11, 2015
Did you always know you wanted to be a lawyer?
I always knew I wanted to be a lawyer, even from a young age… After Atlantic City High School, my parents made a deal with me that, if I went to a state undergraduate school, I could go to any law school of my choosing. In accordance with the deal, I selected all undergraduate schools in California, because I was liberal and wanted to be in a state that I envisioned as liberal. But when I picked out undergraduate schools in California, my parents revised the agreement and said I could go anywhere except California. They thought I would go out there, follow the Grateful Dead, who were based in the Bay Area, and never come back.
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By: Julie E. Nugent, Esq., Chair
On November 8, 2015 I had the opportunity to sit down with the current President of the Atlantic County Bar Association, Joe Levin, and interview him about his life and legal career. I met Joe at one of his local favorite spots - No. 7311 - the boutique coffee shop and bakery in Ventnor owned and operated by Cookie Till and Kim Richmond. (For those who have never been, I highly recommend it!) Thank you, Joe, for opening up with the YLD for our first ever #LOAC Interview!
Are you originally from Atlantic County?
Yes, I was born and raised here…I grew up in Margate and went to school in Margate. I attended Atlantic City High School.
While in high school, Joe was a member of the Model United Nations
"Justice includes fair criminal laws and fair punishments."
"Joe and his wife, Kirsten, started dating on June 14, 1997 at The Greenhouse in Margate.
"SPOILER ALERT! Will the Law Offices of Joseph A. Levin, LLC be changing in the future?
"Joe suggests watching the movie Sliding Doors (1998) for those who haven't seen it!
"Joe has been to over 100 Grateful Dead shows ... so far
"Joe's Music Recommendation: Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, Song: Nothing But the Water
So where did you end up going?
What ended up happening was I went to the University of Arizona for my undergraduate career and then I went to University of California Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. After being out West for 8 years, between undergraduate and law school, it was important for me to come back East to be near my family.
What did you study while you were in undergrad?
I started as a political science major, but was somewhat bored, so I decided to double major in political science and philosophy. I liked philosophy so much that it was the only time in my life that I ever considered pursuing a career other than law. I even told my parents that I was considering going to philosophy graduate school and getting my PhD in order to become a philosophy professor. They said that would be fine, but that they wouldn’t pay for me to “philosophize”…so that “gentle financial coercion” pushed me towards law school. It was the right decision.
Were you always interested in criminal law? Or is that something that just happened for you?
I always knew I wanted to be a criminal defense lawyer. I always have been passionate about being a criminal defense attorney for philosophical reasons. When I was really young I saw a television show about criminal defendants being appointed counsel, which obviously was a good thing. But then I was shocked to see the lawyers were real estate lawyers and other disciplines that had no knowledge of criminal law. The criminal defendants’ liberty and freedom were on the line. It did not seem right. So, I chose to become a criminal defense lawyer for three philosophical reasons: One, I wanted to provide quality representation for indigent and non-indigent persons accused of criminal offenses. Two, I wanted to protect persons, both those accused and all of society, from unwarranted governmental intrusions. Criminal defense lawyers are the ones that defend many of our fundamental rights set out in the Constitution and Bill of Rights. And, three, I wanted to fight against unjust laws and punishments, such as the death penalty, mandatory-sentence drug laws, and the like. From a practical standpoint, it also is more fun to be in court arguing than sitting behind a desk all day.
Your background reads very liberal, so it makes sense that you ended up doing criminal defense work. So you say always wanted to be an attorney, but where did that come from?
From a very young age, my parents always talked to me about becoming a lawyer or a doctor; being a Jewish boy from Margate, those were the career options presented to me. But, I always found the law interesting. Growing up, I always found the news stories about the law the most interesting and I always found the shows about the law, although they were overly dramatized, the most entertaining. I can remember in high school, the show at the time was ‘L.A. Law’ – way before your time – and in law school it was ‘The Practice.’ These days, I cannot watch those types of shows because they are too unrealistic.
After law school, what was your career path leading up to present day?
After law school, I was a Public Defender in Philadelphia from 1995-1999, and I worked my way into a unit that tried high profile jury trials in Philadelphia. I tried one high profile case as a young PD, in which my client was accused of a gunpoint carjacking of a University of Pennsylvania student. My client was acquitted of all charges. As a result of that trial and the publicity, I think it impressed, for lack of a better word, the Philadelphia legal community and I was pursued by some of the big firms, including Morgan, Lewis & Bockius. I interviewed there and was hired. I only stayed for three months, however. I was not in court at all. I was doing document review and other menial work. I was working at 10:00 p.m. on a Friday night, when I decided it just wasn’t for me. I called the First Assistant Public Defender and told him that, if he could get me back into court trying cases, I would return immediately after my two weeks notice. He said they would take me back whenever I could get there. So, I gave my two weeks’ notice and returned to the Public Defender’s office. I stayed at the Public Defender’s office for another year until 2000, at which time my wife, Kirsten, became pregnant with our first child. When that happened, we knew we had to make the decision of whether to stay in Philly and establish our careers there or come back to the Shore. We both really liked the Shore, so we moved back and I got job at Jacobs & Barbone. After two years there, which was an excellent learning experience, I decided to open my own firm.
What made you decide to open your own firm?
Well, while at Jacobs & Barbone, there was a period during which I had worked for 17 days in a row with a low-grade fever. I passed out while working at the office and I was rushed to the ER at Atlantic City Medical Center. I remember they didn’t have enough beds, so I was just lying on the floor of the hospital. I remember looking up at the ceiling and that’s when I knew that as much as I enjoyed Jacobs & Barbone and the people there, if I was going to work that hard, it was going to be for me. Shortly after that incident, I gave my notice and opened up a firm with a few partners from Philadelphia, who had all been at the Public Defender’s office with me. We had a firm from 2002-2006, with my office in Atlantic City being the satellite office. Then, in 2006, I opened up my present firm – Law Offices of Joseph A Levin. My wife, Kirsten, works part-time. She does an unbelievably excellent job as an attorney and an even better job raising our three children, which obviously is much more important. Melissa Rosenblum-Pisetzner, who also is an excellent attorney and good friend, joined the firm in 2009. Jenaya Brown, our outstanding paralegal, has been with the firm since 2006. Ed Armstrong, my crack investigator, has been with the firm since 2002. We really have a family environment, which pleases me. We will see if the firm remains this way going forward, as there may be some movement in the works, but we will see.
If you could give the young attorneys of the world one piece of advice, what would it be?
(Thinking hard) Love what you do in life. If you are lucky enough to have a loving family at home, loving friends, and interests that you love, you are way ahead of the game. If you can top it off with having a job you love, then you will live a happy life. To use an old Beatles’ lyric, “All you need is love.” Ask me again, though, next time I’m in trial (laughing).
If you could do one thing differently on your path of life, if anything, what would it be and why?
I will answer your question this way: I wouldn’t change anything. It’s not because I never made mistakes, I definitely did make mistakes, and I still make mistakes, probably on a daily basis; but, if you change any one thing in your life, it has the effect of changing the entire course of your life. I am extraordinarily happy and blessed at home, with Kirsten and our three kids, and in my legal career, with my friends and colleagues in the legal community, all of whom I cherish. Knock on wood, I like where my life is and I don’t want to change anything about it.
Kind of like the butterfly effect, where they say a small change, like a butterfly flapping its wing, can have a large impact on the linear course of history?
Exactly – have you ever seen ‘Sliding Doors’ with Gwyneth Paltrow? It’s a really good movie, you should rent it if you haven’t seen it. Basically, Gwyneth Paltrow is trying to get on a train that has sliding doors, and in one scenario she makes the train and in another scenario she misses the train, and the movie shows the parallel paths of her life.
What is the best thing about practicing in Atlantic County, as opposed to other counties/states?
Well, Atlantic County is really a small community and everyone who practices here knows each other. For the most part, everyone tries hard to get along and always do the right thing, and everyone does so in a professional and, even, affable matter. There’s generally no raising of voices, legal threats, or negative conduct towards one another. For these reasons, to me, Atlantic County is really a nice place to practice.
I would agree with that. Now, moving onto some fun questions. Everyone who follows you on Facebook knows you are a big Grateful Dead fan and still go to concerts – how many concerts have you been to?
Well, actually, I see a lot of bands, not just the Grateful Dead – for example, Ben Harper, Dave Matthews Band, Phish, Allman Brothers, Santana, and more. I probably have seen between 250 and 500 concerts. Before Jerry Garcia died, I think I saw 56 Grateful Dead shows. After Jerry Garcia died, I have probably seen at least another 50 shows of the different offshoots of the remaining band members in their different incarnations. In fact, just this past Thursday, I went to see Dead and Company with John Mayer playing lead guitar in Philadelphia. My friend got me tickets in the pit, and I had such a good time that when my friend texted me on Saturday afternoon saying he had last minute tickets to see Dead and Company in New York City that night, I decided to go see them again. I left for New York at 5pm on Saturday, saw Dead and Company from the pit at Madison Square Garden, and then went to an after-party where another Dead band was playing. We basically stayed out all night, which I haven’t done in a while! Anyway, I go see a lot of different artists – the one adult thing that takes me away from all of my worldly stresses is music, so I go to a lot of concerts.
Do you play any musical instruments?
I do not. My dad is a musician and can play the saxophone, clarinet, and flute, and he plays in a jazz band. My wife’s father is also a musician; he runs the music for the Boys & Girls Club of NYC. I’ve been around music my whole life and I have a guitar, but never had time to learn it. I enjoy listening though!
Ok, so now I am going to rapid fire three random questions:
Favorite movie? Hard question! For years I said it was Annie Hall. I like comedies that can take you away – Old School, Wedding Crashers, Hangover, things like that.
Favorite TV shows? I’ll give a quick rundown – The Daily Show, Bill Maher, Rachel Maddow, Seinfeld, and Curb Your Enthusiasm
Favorite Band? Beatles, Grateful Dead, Santana, Dave Matthews, Ben Harper, and recently Grace Potter. Have you ever heard of her? If not, check out anything of her online where she is playing live, especially the songs Nothing but the Water and Paris.
Last question: what is your dream job?
Do I have musical ability?
You can have whatever ability you want – it’s a dream job.
I would be a musician. I would spend time with my family, play with the bands that I like, and tour non-stop. Unfortunately, I was not blessed with any musical talent, so I guess I will stick with the law.
Grace Potter and the Nocturnals performing 'Nothing but the Water' Live at the 2014 Deeproots Festival.
Lawyers of Atlantic County
was created in 2015 by Fahran Zahid