New York-based attorney Ameer Benno is a true crusader for civil rights. As a passionate advocate for his clients, Ameer knows that civil rights aren’t limited to select disenfranchised groups; everyone is entitled to civil protections and their Constitutional rights, regardless of public opinion.
What made you decide to practice law and specifically civil rights?
In college, my suitemate was shot and killed. I attended the court proceedings, but truthfully, it was very hard to follow what was taking place and I felt totally ignorant. The desire to really learn, from the inside out, how our criminal and civil justice system functioned is what led me to attend law school.
I sort of fell into my current practice area. After law school, I worked as a prosecutor at the Manhattan DA’s Office. After several years there, I decided to transition to the civil side, and I took a job with a very reputable plaintiff’s firm that had been around for about 40 years. In order to help me get over the learning curve, the firm assigned me with all of the false arrest and police brutality cases – the idea being that handling civil cases that had a criminal law component would help make the transition to civil practice easier. It was a brilliant idea, and it worked! Not only did I learn the ins and outs of civil litigation, but I also found out that I had a passion for civil rights cases.
What are your thoughts on the importance of Constitutional law practitioners in our current society?
I can’t overstate how important they are. The erosion of our constitution is real, and must be fought tooth and nail. I can think of no other practice area as important or fulfilling.
Why did you decide to start your own practice?
Actually, it was not my plan to go solo. I expected I would remain with my firm, eventually become a partner, and that would be that. However, a couple years in, the firm ran into some financial difficulty and very suddenly decided to close its doors. I was blindsided. Two of the firm’s partners told me that if I decided to go out on my own, I could (with the clients’ consent, of course) take with me the cases that had been assigned to me without having to pay the firm back their disbursements up front.
Up until then, I had never even considered striking out on my own. I had just a couple weeks to figure out what I was going to do. The economy was in the toilet and many plaintiffs’ firms were going under or reducing their staff. Additionally, I saw that I was being offered the chance to start my own practice with a full inventory of cases that all were in various stages in the litigation lifecycle. It was an opportunity.
Don’t get me wrong. I was nervous. I had a two year old daughter and another on the way. But I knew that the more my family grew, the more reluctant I would be to taking on the risks associated with hanging out a shingle. So it really was a “now or never” moment for me.
Have you faced any challenges in building your own practice?
Who doesn’t? Finding a work/personal life balance is exponentially harder when you are building your own practice. You definitely need supportive family and friends to make it work. Cash flow can also be a major challenge when you’re getting started. Given the unanticipated closure of the firm I was with and the fact that I had not planned on starting my own practice, I was totally undercapitalized when I started. Attorneys who are considering going solo should start preparing for that well in advance – putting away money and figuring out a sustainable business plan.
What is one attribute that you think is necessary to be a solo practitioner?
To be a solo, you need to be resilient. To be a successful solo practitioner, though, you need to love what you do.
What has been your favorite experience as a lawyer?
This one is easy! I was representing a group of convicted sex offenders who had been unconstitutionally incarcerated by the state beyond the expiration of their prison sentences. Essentially, on the last day of these plaintiffs’ prison sentences (some had served 25 years or more), the state put these men into handcuffs and leg irons and transferred them from prison to an ultra-maximum security psychiatric hospital where they were civilly committed against their will and left to languish indefinitely. These plaintiffs’ crimes were undeniably detestable, but they had served their sentences. I was not defending their crimes, I was defending their trampled Constitutional rights.
I brought the lawsuits against the Governor and several of his commissioners – the highest echelons of state government. The litigation was hard fought, and eventually led to trial in federal court. It was standing room only. At the defense table was the governor and his commissioners. The judge then told us to stand up and introduce ourselves.
When I stood up and turned around to face them, it was an amazing moment. I had brought the highest level of government into court to answer to a jury for how they had violated the constitutional rights of convicted sex offenders – the most despised and lowly segment of society. At that moment, I felt that our Constitution and our justice system were working the way they were intended – that no one was above the law, and no one beneath it.
Why do you teach CLE programs?
It is extremely important that practitioners actually understand the law. So often, I see lawyers just stumbling along copying what others lawyers do and recycling other attorneys’ papers over and over. I can’t stand that. The more educated you are, the better lawyer you’ll be.
What actor/actress would play you in your life story?