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Martin Luther King Building & U.S. Courthouse in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo: Ron Coleman.)

The O’Toole Chronicles: Lawyers with that Winning Edge

By Kevin O'Toole, August 31 2021 12:01 am

In addition to my various public positions, I have practiced law for more than 30 years, giving me the opportunity to interact with all types of lawyers.  Fortunately or unfortunately, I have interacted with literally thousands of lawyers.  I have seen some brilliant lawyers and some not so brilliant.  Whether it be as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee (where I interviewed hundreds of lawyers who were vying for a judgeships), as one of the two managing partners of a dynamic law firm, or as chair of the Port Authority, I get to work with a lot of the region’s very best lawyers.  On any given day, I speak, argue, message, or counsel with a dozen heavyweight lawyers. Candidly, it is during those days that I tell myself that I really do not belong in that class, but it does afford me a first-row seat to some of the brightest and most effective attorneys in the area.

It got me thinking – What does it take to be regarded as one of the best lawyers of our time?

Great question –

How do I answer it?  I thought it best to pull together a list of legal power players who have made a consequential and lasting impression on me.  The list that I compiled below is only of lawyers who I have encountered in my lifetime.  I limited it to those in private practice and those who practice primarily in the Garden State.

The list contains a cross-section of professionals who are extraordinary in our craft, they might be brilliant tacticians, out of the box thinkers, exceedingly connected, masterful people managers,  exhaustingly hard workers, relentless advocates, or a combination of some or all the above.  The truth is some on this list I like, and some I really detest, but for purposes of this list, I didn’t want to make a distinction (at least not on this list).

So no one is too carried away, I have decided to make the list alphabetical.

Lawyers with that Winning Edge

Rosemary Alito – A highly sophisticated attorney representing employers in those tough labor/employment cases — she represents the best of the very best.

Christine Amalfe – Have a very difficult labor and employment issue – pick up the phone and get Christine on the job – the top in her field.

Jon Bramnick – Nothing is funny about Jon’s serious intensity in the courtroom—personally oversees each case and that is why satisfied plaintiffs give him top marks.

Domenick Carmagnola – Besides being President of the New Jersey State Bar Association, Domenick leads a boutique firm handling big-time labor and employment matters, all without fanfare or publicity. An absolute pro.

Craig Carpenito – After achieving extraordinary success as our U.S. Attorney, Craig was lured to the national powerhouse law firm of King & Spalding (of FBI Director Chris Wray and Sally Yates fame, to name a few).  Craig’s reach on both sides of the river is massive and growing by the minute.

Chris Carroll  — You have a sophisticated coverage issue – call the Coverage Guru – every smart General Counsel and all top carriers speak with him weekly – tops in this arcane field.

Jeff Chiesa A former United States Senator, New Jersey Attorney General, and Chief Counsel to the Governor, Jeff is universally admired in the profession and at his top-tier firm.  Everyone’s favorite.

Anthony Coscia – The Chairman of Amtrak for the past eight years and the former Chair of PANYNJ, no one carries more clout in the transportation, real estate, and development worlds.

Patricia Costello – Former Assignment Judge in Essex County, the state’s busiest court, now with a top firm, Judge Costello is a go-to mediator for attorneys in the State.

Max Crane – While many of the powerhouse law firms of the last century have fallen by the wayside, Max has retained the luster and footprint of Sills in the image of Clive Cummis. Ultimate consensus builder.

Michael Critchley – When the feds come knocking, head to West Orange and meet with the powerhouse lawyer with the best courtroom presence of them all.

Edward Deutsch – Ed has run this top law firm for decades and is not letting up. Well connected and his glass smooth exterior with tough inner workings makes him a top-level player.

Patrick Dunican – The steady hand that guides the mighty Gibbons law firm, Pat has a political and business acumen that is second to none.  The wizard behind the law firm’s velvet curtain.

John Garde – Mr. Product Liability for the last three and a half decades – enough said

Angelo Genova One of the top connected Democratic lawyers, he knows how governments work (or do not) and has The Who’s Who in Democrat land on speed dial.

Peter Harvey – Pivoting from his tenure as Attorney General, he was selected by the federal court to serve in the critical role of monitor of the Newark Police Department and has excelled in this position.  A class act.

Angela Iuso – A true trial lawyer who has held significant positions in all aspects of the practice, including a current Executive Committee member of her powerhouse law firm.

John Keefe – Former State Bar President who quietly upgraded the quality of our judges – smart, dynamic and a mirror image of his dad— retired Appellate Division Judge Keefe — old world justice in the land of class actions and all things plaintiff.

Lynne Kizis – While enabling the money-making side of the firm to continue, Lyn has elbowed her way near the top of the management in the once great firm that gave birth to the name Wilentz (think David, Robert and Warren).

Jose Linares – The proud Cuban-born former Chief Judge of the federal court, he is called on to mediate the most high-stakes cases.   Post-judge life is modeled after the universally loved and respected Judge Politian.

Barry Mandelbaum – Quiet, unassuming, and a distinguished gentleman who has the respect of many and leads one the best corporate law firms.

Kevin Marino From George Norcross to George Gilmore, he is called on by some of the State’s most influential power brokers because of his tenacity and courtroom skills.

Bruce Nagel – Bruce operates like a person with a chip on his shoulder –  well because he has one — a cinderblock sized one that only grows larger by the day.  This blue collar, Clifton born laborer, never forgets his roots as he takes on the very biggest cases in the State. Beyond being a bell ringer plaintiffs’ lawyer, Bruce is recruited by the best blue chip corporate folks who need a relentless street fighter.

Evelyn Padin – Past President of the New Jersey Bar, Evelyn has broken ground for Puerto Rican and Latina attorneys on so many fronts, including as the managing partner of her own firm.

Chris Placitella – Chris is a quiet unassuming lawyer who is bright beyond bright – and is the owner of some of the largest verdicts and settlements in New Jersey. Chris has a monstrous national network and a huge heart to match. Chris can teach the rest of us to be much more charitable.

Chris Porrino – Chris has held some of the most important jobs in government – Chief Counsel and Attorney General, and came out with a reputation of being friendly with all sides – Chris sees the big picture and acts.

Tom Scrivo It is not just me saying it, Tom possesses an unparalleled brilliance, coupling elite intelligence with uncanny street smarts. He works 24/7 and personifies what our profession should be. You will find Tom representing parties in some of the most complex matters on the dockets. The former Chief Counsel has made more judges than all others who preceded him and is the most sought-after trial counsel and top-flight consigliere to the Fortune 100.

Nick Scutari – Nick is a very skillful, extremely successful and well-respected plaintiff’s lawyer who rarely loses. Every judge is very familiar with Nick’s first name — Senate Judiciary Chairman – and that cannot hurt.

Michael Sirota – The Dean of the bankruptcy bar, this big-time player is held in the highest regard by all federal judges in the District.

Nancy Erica Smith When you receive a complaint signed by Nancy – get out the checkbook and settle immediately – tough as nails and gets the very best results.

William Tambussi An extremely tough and skilled trial attorney, with street fighter skills and connections that run very deep.

Patrick Toscano – Calling all in need police officers, priests or difficult clients, Patrick is the go-to lawyer — laser focused as he gives adversary and judges agita.

Karol Corbin Walker – Groundbreaking in so many respects, including as the first African American woman President of the State Bar, she is in her fearless pursuit of justice and fairness, and is highly accomplished in the courtroom.

Liza Walsh – Have an important federal court matter?  There is simply no one better.  She is called on by CEOs and general counsels in bet-the-company cases.

Scott Weber Scott cut his teeth working alongside Michael Chertoff on the New Jersey Senate’s racial profiling matter and has served many distinguished positions since, including general counsel to a Fortune 200 corporation. In private practice, Scott has a platinum Rolodex of the top corporate decision makers in the country. If a major deal is being made, chances are Scott is in the room.

Elnardo Webster – This former NFL player has never lost his competitiveness.  One of Senator Booker’s closest allies, he is a leader in land use and environmental litigation.

The list reveals that attorneys can thrive with any combination of strengths and weaknesses, but each has found their niche and uses it to propel them to the top of this very difficult and sometimes maligned profession, a life that we have all willingly chosen.

I conclude this list knowing full well that I will get emails and calls from some disagreeable individuals asking who did I leave off and why?  Well let me just say – this list isn’t the Bible, it is only the collection of my life’s experiences and observations in my two professional fields of the very best in our great practice.

Hope you enjoy the read.

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