Kunstler & Kuby Law Firm Remains but Not Same Without Fiery Mentor : Activism: Ron Kuby joined forces with his idol 13 years ago. With Kunstler’s death, he’s trying to keep legacy alive--and a practice solvent.
The year was 1982, the month January, the time 8 a.m. Intern Ron Kuby, sporting a bad suit and a worse case of nerves, rang the Greenwich Village doorbell of his legal archetype and soon-to-be boss, William Kunstler.
“The door throws itself open, and there was this giant,” Kuby recalls, his voice rising, conveying a sense of enduring wonder. “He had his dress shirt on, his collar was up and he has his boxer shorts on. He grabs me and pulls me in, and gives me a cup of coffee.
“William Kunstler, my idol, half-dressed, asking me how I take my coffee,” Kuby says, sitting behind his desk in that same office.
Thirteen years later, Kunstler is gone--dead on Labor Day at age 76, ending three decades of headline-making and rabble-rousing. Kuby, 39, battles on, faced with the twin tasks of keeping a legacy alive and a law office solvent.
“The torch that Bill carried was too big for any one person to pick up,” Kuby says in an interview barely a week after Kunstler’s death. “I’ve loved Bill like a brother, like a father, like a friend--in every way I could possibly love a man.
“But I’m not gonna try to be him. I never tried to be him. It’s foolish to try. . . . I’m just going to continue to do the work that he did, fight the battles that he fought.”
Assuming Kunstler’s mantle was perhaps inevitable for Kuby, who walked into his mentor’s office that winter morning and never left. Their admiration quickly became mutual.
“I wish I was more like him when I was his age,” Kunstler once said of his young partner. They merrily took on pariahs as clients, reveling in the attention. They weren’t in it for the money; “pro bono” became the office mantra.
“You can’t do good and do well at the same time,” says Kuby, who still rides the subway to his court appearances.
But their pairing wasn’t preordained. Before there was Kunstler & Kuby--the firm will continue under that name--its junior partner worked as a barroom cook and a tugboat hand. He graduated from the University of Kansas, hardly a crucible of radicalism, with a degree in anthropology, hardly the credential for a radical lawyer.
“Radical anthropologist?” he jokes. “I wasn’t cut out to be an academician. I enjoyed the action.”
He’s had plenty of it. At Long Island Rail Road killer Colin Ferguson’s recent murder trial, Kuby logged scads of tube time explaining his proposed “black rage” defense--that years of institutional racism ignited the murderous spree.
The concept that white people turned Ferguson homicidally insane infuriated many, among them Ferguson, who fired Kunstler and Kuby. Acting as his own counsel, Ferguson cross-examined eyewitnesses to little effect; he was convicted.
Kuby shrugged and worked on. He was in Minneapolis to help Qubilah Shabazz, Malcolm X’s daughter, beat her murder-for-hire case. He’s represented the Arab defendants in the World Trade Center bombing.
When a homeless black man was grabbed by police after the Sept. 17 murder of a jogger in Central Park, Kuby took him on as a client--based on a single phone call from the man’s sister, who hadn’t seen her brother in a year.
Kuby’s cramped office, off Kunstler’s now-vacant one, is a bit like its inhabitant: rumpled and worn, but warm and welcoming. Although his public comments can be incendiary or hyperbolic, Kuby is more often friendly and personable in private. Visitors are greeted with a hug.
A photo of Bob Marley hangs on his office door. The walls hold a courtroom artist’s sketch of Kuby, a photo of Kuby with Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, convicted in the trade center bombing, and a picture of Kunstler standing behind a seated Kuby.
Framed pictures of his daughter abound; Kuby, although not married, speaks of his “wife” of nine years. Crates for legal files fill a fireplace. A file cabinet bears stickers for Amnesty International, Greenpeace and the War Resisters League.
“I was always an activist,” Kuby recalls between a constant barrage of calls from journalists, clients and court clerks. “I mean active as a liberal. I went to a Joan Baez concert when I was 7 years old, and we were all swaying--that kind of stuff.”
At his Long Island junior high school, Kuby was nearly expelled for publishing an underground newsletter about Kunstler and the Chicago 7 trial. At 13, he followed his father’s lead and joined the Jewish Defense League; he emigrated to Israel while a teen-ager, but returned convinced that the JDL’s brand of Zionism was too extreme.
Kuby eventually hitchhiked around the country before settling in Maine with a girlfriend. He followed her to college in Kansas, where two events led Kuby to law school.
The first came in 1980, when police broke his arm during an anti-apartheid demonstration. The second--something “sort of whimsical,” he says--came after university officials refused to endorse him for a fellowship, citing his condescending and arrogant attitude.
“So I went to the local bar, where I was working as the grill cook, and the bartender said, ‘You oughta go to law school. They like people like that there,’ ” Kuby recounts with a laugh.
Unlike the grandfatherly Kunstler, Kuby is a central-casting version of the leftist lawyer. He sports a long, gray-streaked ponytail, with a similarly tinted beard and mustache. His conversation is sprinkled with ‘60s argot.
“Be there or be square,” he advises a judge’s clerk calling to check a court date. He bids farewell to another caller: “We fight on.”
Asked what makes his law firm unique, Kuby explains: “Everyone will represent people for sitting in outside the South African Embassy. We’re one of the few offices that will represent people for blowing it up.”
Such cracks don’t come without consequence. Kuby, like Kunstler, is a frequent target of derision in letters to the editor and Op-Ed pieces. The Jewish Defense Organization, in a taped message at its Manhattan offices, calls Kuby “a boot-licking traitor and enemy to the people.”
Others view him as an anachronism in an era where lawyers charging $500 an hour queue up at the O.J. Simpson trough. This attitude truly puzzles Kuby, who expects the same clients who once sought his mentor to now reach out for him.
“I see these battles as so alive and so much a part of everyday existence,” Kuby says, his voice again rising. “And for people to sniff, ‘Oh, that stuff. What do they want now? Civil rights? My goodness--wasn’t that all taken care of in the ‘60s?’ ”