Joel Hirschhorn of GrayRobinson (J. Albert Diaz)
They called him “Diamond Joel.”
The first time was in an introduction at a legal convention.
“My ego was such in those days that I really thought he was referring to my skills as a lawyer,” Joel Hirschhorn said.
It wasn’t. Surely many would agree that the legal legend was, and is, brilliant. But the nickname referred to his signature diamond pinkie ring, diamond tie tack and diamond-bezeled Rolex — all the fruits of defending a variety of accused drug smugglers, dealers and dons.
He was, in those heady days of cocaine cowboys and “Miami Vice,” a member of an elite cadre of criminal defense lawyers.
“The crown princes of the white powder bar,” he said. “We’d wake up in the morning. The Miami Herald would report who got busted. We’d all go to our offices waiting for the phone call.”
It was a far cry from his middle-class Brooklyn and Connecticut roots. His father owned a furniture store. Hirschhorn was following in his footsteps. Literally.
“I was sweeping the floors and polishing furniture,” he said. “I started when I was in the sixth grade — 25 cents an hour.”
His eighth-grade English teacher said, “Joel, you got a big mouth. You really should become a lawyer.”
“My mother was not pleased with the story,” Hirschhorn recalled. “But she instructed my father to set up an interview with his lawyer.”
When they met, the lawyer told Hirschhorn what it was like to practice law, and he liked what he heard.
“I left that interview determined to be a lawyer,” he said. “That’s really what launched my interest in law.”
He moved west to Wisconsin for law school. He started clerking for a local attorney his first summer, making $1 an hour. By the time he graduated, he was making $1.50 an hour. It wasn’t enough to keep him in Wisconsin after he passed the bar.
He moved to Coral Gables, bought an $80 suit and business cards, and launched his practice.
His first break came through a pawnbroker.
“I introduced myself and he said, “Well, I just had the city of Hialeah Police Department seize 23 gold coins I took in pawn. Why don’t you see if you can get them back for me?’ “
Hirschhorn filed a writ of replevin in small claims court and argued his client had no way of knowing whether the coins were stolen. “And the judge actually ordered the coins returned to us.”
The pawnbroker put him on retainer at $10 a month.
More importantly, he referred a pornography and obscenity defense client to Hirschhorn, the young attorney’s first, sending his career in a whole new direction. The man’s brother was “the largest publisher of single male posed nude magazines that were being prosecuted all across the country.”
Hirschhorn wound up representing the publisher for the next six years, traveling across the country to argue First Amendment obscenity cases.
“That’s where I honed my trial skills,” he said.
That led to more cases, including notorious ones representing the producers of the classic porn films “The Devil in Miss Jones,” “Behind the Green Door” and “Deep Throat.”
That cemented his reputation as a constitutional lawyer and led him to taking on drug trafficking cases.
Business was booming. South Florida was on the front lines of the drug war, awash in cocaine and cash. He was paid lavishly — in dollars, jewelry, art and land as well. He bought a 40-foot sportsfisherman, then traded up for what he called “the boat that dope bought.”
Its name: A Quit-All.
Eventually, the drug cases dried up. Hirschhorn transitioned again. His bread-and-butter became white-collar fraud cases.
“I had gone from porno lawyer to drug lawyer,” he said. “Now I was doing white-collar.”
In all, his firm biography notes, he has defended more than 370 jury trials to verdict in 45 federal districts and 34 state courts, and has argued more than 160 federal and state appeals across the country. He has represented members of the Medellin cartel, U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings and Hare Krishnas, and was responsible for a Florida Supreme Court decision that forced courts to select jurors randomly. He argued before the U.S. Supreme Court against permitting cameras in state courtrooms.
And he continues to practice and will as long as he can. He has a deal with his longtime partner, Brian Bieber,
“I’m still having a lot of fun. And as long as I have a lot of fun I’m going to continue doing what I do,” he said. But, he added, “the day he gets a phone call from a judge that says, ‘Hey, Brian. Joel lost his way in court,’ I’m going to stop going to court, and I’m going to stay in the office and do his motion work. Until the day he calls me in and says, ‘Joel, you can’t do it anymore.’ “