Column

What makes Eddie Greenspan run

Barbara Amiel February 15 1999
Column

What makes Eddie Greenspan run

Barbara Amiel February 15 1999

What makes Eddie Greenspan run

Column

Barbara Amiel

The first time I wrote in Maclean’s about criminal lawyer Eddie Greenspan was 20 years ago. He was defending a juvenile charged with the rape and murder of an 80-year-old woman. What will your defence be, I asked Greenspan. “Our position will be,” he dead-panned, “that she was lying about her age.”

You could divine Greenspan’s love of publicity even then, but that would utterly miss the point of the man. These days, Greenspan, 54, is analyzed through the lens of his high-profile clients and, currently, he’s had two in a row: former Nova Scotia premier Gerald Regan, and theatrical impresario Garth Drabinsky.

Out have come the easy clichés: Greenspan, we are told by various profilers, is the criminal lawyer for the Tiffany’s clientele; he has as much “charm as his clients have... venality”; he’s the bully who “reduced a group of women to tears as they mapped out serious charges of rape.” Sure, he’s the brilliant workaholic lawyer who really knows his law. But even there one finds a grudging quality, as if the writers feel that were they only to sacrifice “quality time” with their children or choose a profession where, as a journalist recently wrote, one “hangs out with a bad crowd,” they too could be as famous as Greenspan.

Hard work is probably a necessary component of anyone who achieves in any endeavour. Greenspan also has a passion for what he does. For him the law is not a job. Whether it is jurisprudential ideas or the nuts and bolts of courtroom tactics, he is enamoured of and fascinated by it. He reminds me of oncologists who talk of “beautiful tumours.” The intangibles of his personality most certainly include “charm,” but the most important quality he has is instinct. That can’t be taught in law school or charm school or any other school. But his most telling quality—rarely, if ever, noted—is that Greenspan actually listens. The most gifted and talented people, and especially lawyers, are so full of themselves that they literally don’t hear anything unless it comes from their own brain. Like a lazy crocodile in the sun, Greenspan sits, eyes half closed and listens to his clients and to his adversaries with inexhaustible patience. This is so rare as to be virtually unknown.

The Greenspan story intrigues me. Why is this man such a lightning rod for envy or faint praise? Part of the answer is that you cannot be a criminal lawyer without some of your clients being criminals. Some of the abhorrence we rightly feel for criminals will rub off on the defence lawyer. More important, from the ’50s to the 70s, we excused criminals, blamed ourselves for their failings and surrendered society to crime. It was super-liberalism run amok. Naturally, a backlash followed and we are now attacking the best aspects of our criminal justice system, such as the presumption of innocence and the rights of the accused, the very principles that

No one wants kudos more than he does. Given the choice between a huge fee and a TV profile, he would choose the profile.

are a bulwark of freedom against an oppressive state. The backlash has also hit criminal lawyers.

Finally, we live in an egalitarian society where a central moral lever of our beliefs is envy. The minute we see someone who is more prominent or has more money or is better looking or any combination of the three, the “unfair” semaphore starts blinking. Any advantage is equated with unfairness. This notion is bought into unthinkingly by journalists who feel this cuts against the notion of equal justice for all. In fact, being a celebrity can be a disadvantage when it comes to bail or parole (as Alan Eagleson knows) and money may buy the most expensive lawyer, but not necessarily the best— as anyone knows who has dealt with expensive painters or doctors. The idea that Greenspan has largely rich celebrity clients has been so widespread that he himself almost accepted it until he was asked to name his 50 most interesting cases. Until Regan, only a handful of them involved a celebrity. Most of the criminals he defends are nobodies—until they commit a notorious crime.

Criminal law is in a way a socialist institution: fees according to a client’s means. Probably 80 per cent of the people any criminal lawyer, including Greenspan, defends can’t pay full fare. Greenspan adjusts his fees so he can take cases that interest him. Who would have known when the investigation of Gerald Regan began that it would take five years? A client can’t be dumped or ruined because a case works out that way.

But, Greenspan has never cared much about money. What Eddie loves is the limelight. I know no one who wants worldly recognition and kudos more than he does. Given the choice between a huge fee and a television profile, I think Greenspan would choose the profile. His Achilles heel is this hunger for what society offers—the applause that Yiddish calls naches. He is touchingly grateful for the honourary Doctorate of Laws he is about to receive from The Law Society of Upper Canada; he was thrilled to give the first Charles Dubin lecture on The Art of Advocacy last fall.

But, I don’t believe Greenspan will ever be offered as major a judicial appointment as a Supreme Court of Canada seat (Greenspan will only say that he was honoured to have some overtures made). The reasons are clear: he has refused to go along with the political correctness that characterizes many achievers in the legal profession. When a section of his autobiography criticizing feminist changes to certain procedures in the law was titled “Justice in High Heels,” his nervous publisher asked him to change the title. Greenspan refused. Intellectual integrity triumphed.

Though he knows that he would benefit from pretending not to notice that the emperor has no clothes, he cannot do it. And when you ache, as fervently as Greenspan does, to be part of the emperor’s entourage, that integrity is what you go to heaven for.