He's a lawyer for underdogs

Cases: Joel Katz, who won freedom this week for a man wrongly imprisoned for seven years, has many reasons why he sympathizes and empathizes with struggling clients.

February 10, 1999|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

When Connie Bailey drove to the office of attorney Joel Katz, she had little hope he would be able to help her. She had already visited several attorneys, and they all had given her the same lawyer's verdict: Her case was hopeless, not something they'd take on.

Bailey's liver had bloated from 3 1/2 pounds to about 65 pounds. Her waist had expanded from 27 inches to 63 inches. And she blamed it on birth control pills from the company G. D. Searle & Co.

Katz took a look at Bailey and then took on the drug company. Against high odds, he forced the case to trial and won a confidential settlement -- "I got her what I wanted," he says -- just before closing arguments.

Such has been the pattern for Katz, 55, a Baltimore native and Annapolis attorney who this week beat the odds again, winning the freedom of a 31-year-old borderline retarded man who had spent more than seven years in prison for a killing he didn't commit.

"I seem to attract the types of cases that maybe other people don't want to handle for one reason or another," he says as a secretary tries to interrupt him with a phone call. "My motto is, only the individual who tries the absurd can accomplish the impossible."

Then he takes the telephone call, tells the person on the other end -- another reporter -- that he'll get back to her. And he will.

Since Monday, when he persuaded a judge to free Anthony Gray Jr., Katz has been contacted by almost a dozen newspapers and television and radio stations. With all the calls coming in, Katz has taken to talking to reporters on the telephone while bathing. Yesterday, he was preparing to be interviewed by British Broadcasting Corp.

The defining cases

The money he won for Bailey and the freedom he won for Gray represent the type of cases that tend to define Katz: They share a potential for big bucks for the plaintiff or big publicity for him. In the best cases, they provide both.

"Let's be real," he says. "I don't mind making money. I'm all for capitalism. But you really can't do this successfully if you don't care about your clients. I feel a degree of sympathy for them. I get to know them. I really do want to help them."

Easy enough to say. However, Katz has all kinds of reasons why he not only sympathizes with struggling clients but empathizes with them as well.

He grew up in the Forest Park section of Baltimore in a family that was far from rich. On Saturdays, he worked in his Uncle Jerry's drugstore in the neighborhood. "I'd get a penny for every fly I killed," Katz says, laughing. "These were the days before we had air conditioning -- so there was some money to be made."

His father owned a small trucking business. It didn't provide for much in the way of luxuries. When Katz was graduating from Forest Park High School, the business went under.

Katz blamed the failure on his father's poor legal representation. His father, Sidney, had sued a gasoline company he blamed for ruining his truck engines. He lost at trial.

"When I saw what happened to him, and what he went through, that was one of the impetuses that got me involved in helping people," Katz says. "I saw how devastated he was when he lost the case and lost everything, and I don't want that to happen to my clients."

He attended the University of Baltimore, graduating with honors and a law degree in 1966. He worked in a Baltimore law firm for a year, volunteering to take cases of indigent clients -- as much for the trial experience, he says, than for any notion of altruism.

A boater (his speedboat is named Loophole), Katz moved to Annapolis to set up his practice and found a following south, in Calvert County.

When new clients walk into his office, his associates are required to take their photographs and put them in their case file. He says he wants them to remember that they are representing people.

"I think coming from a background where there wasn't a lot of money in the family, and with what happened to his father, I think that has influenced him a lot," says his wife, Wendy, who also grew up in Baltimore. "The clients have always come first, which is good for them but can be bad for me. I think I've spent half my life waiting for him. If he's supposed to pick me up and he's talking on the phone to a client, I just wait and wait."

Tough in litigation

Other attorneys say Katz is a tenacious, tough litigator, sometimes to the point of being irritating. He's an attorney they'd rather not face.

"He's developed a reputation as doing good work and that's built on itself," said Joseph T. Touhey, an attorney in Glen Burnie. "He's aggressive, very thorough and willing to take all he can get from you for his clients."

The majority of the cases Katz takes are malpractice claims, but he reserves a portion for criminal cases. In the Gray case, he had represented Leonard Long, a young man Katz felt certain was being made a scapegoat for the killing of a Calvert County woman, Linda Mae Pellicano. Katz knew the Long family and agreed to take the case. Long was acquitted.

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