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“Baptism by fire” is an expression heard these days in water cooler talk at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, where young lawyers variously envy and admire a rare opportunity recently afforded Mara Cusker and Grasford W. Smith — namely, to be part of a sensational trial involving gun smuggling, shots in the night, bloodied prisoners and multimillion-dollar claims of negligence. One morning last month, on their very first day of summer associate duty, Cusker and Smith were plucked from the ranks to join their firm’s pro bono defense cause in Harris v. City of New York, 578/98. Two weeks later, after slogging through a typical round-the-clock trial work schedule, the law students had helped score a victory for New York City. Bronx Supreme Court Justice Alison Y. Tuitt granted a directed verdict dismissing the suit brought against the city by two male inmates of Rikers Island who claimed they were shot by an unknown assailant or assailants while sleeping. Although the jury never heard the juicy details of a case painstakingly researched in Skadden cubicles night after night, Smith and Cusker would not call their experience anti-climactic. “The fact that our side was so prepared every day for trial — that was the point,” said Smith, 22, a third-year student at New York University School of Law. “We came in thinking about all the issues, and the many ways that things could go differently, and trying to account for that. “You do your work on the basis of possibility. You come in with as many motions as possible. That’s the mindset we learned out of this.” Indeed, outwitting wily cons was the name of the game, according to Skadden senior associate Thomas E. Claps, who along with partner Mark Cheffo tried the case on behalf of the New York City Law Department. “When you’re in jail, you have a lot of time to think,” said Claps, 39, a graduate of Seton Hall Law School. “It was a well-designed conspiracy, actually.” THE DETAILS According to a report by the Department of Investigation filed with court papers, a female visitor romantically involved with one inmate sneaked a weapon past jail guards and handed it off to her lover. Whereupon, the report said, the inmate and his cohort wounded themselves as a means of creating evidence that Rikers officials failed to protect them. “It was sort of a crazy story for a civil case, said Cusker, 26, a third-year student at Columbia Law School. “We had a lot of colorful characters.” After several changes, the final firm date for the trial coincided with the arrival of Skadden’s summer associates. Accordingly, Claps asked for help from them. Carol Sprague, Skadden’s director of legal hiring, sent the pair, who had expressed a strong interest in litigation. “They basically gave us the rundown, and said the trial was starting tomorrow,” Smith recalled. “They said, ‘It’s going to be a whirlwind, it’s going to be fun for you guys.’” Fun meant sitting through jury selection and trial every day, then burning the midnight oil on case research, cross-examination outlines, medical causation, jury notes, exhibit preparation and inspection of the work of expert witnesses for plaintiff attorneys Emil J. Sanchez and Amelio Marino, who sought $150 million for each of their clients. “The attorneys taught us not to expect things to go our way. Plus, it was hard to read the judge,” said Cusker. “So we prepared by being over-prepared.” Certainly the plaintiffs had prepared. “It was a total scam, an attempt to defraud the city of millions,” said Claps, who picked up the case three years ago after two of the original four plaintiff inmates dropped out — and the girlfriend in question began cooperating with the city. “This case had dragged on for years — since ’96.” Speaking for the plaintiffs, Sanchez said the girlfriend had been spurned by his client and was seeking to “cut some type of deal on another charge.” He also said the city was engaged in a “coverup” to shift blame for the gun’s entry into Rikers from correction officers to the plaintiffs. “Without involvement of corrections officers,” he said, “it is very difficult to smuggle a gun into a prison.” Sanchez plans an appeal. EDUCATIONAL VALUE Whatever the eventual outcome of litigation, the educational value of Harris v. City of New York is affirmed. “Some lawyers go through their entire careers without ever going up before a trial jury,” said Cheffo. Of his summer associate colleagues, he added, “We gave them a real-life experience. They weren’t just spectators. “They were appreciative, and excited, and worked real lawyers’ hours you’d expect in a trial,” he said, adding, “And then by the end of it, they said they’d like to do more.”

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