Attorney for the Defense
Neal Sonnett believes every American deserves the right to a fair trial. “Our country was founded on the rule of law and we must never forget our constitutional freedoms,” says Sonnett, a nationally respected trial lawyer, and key advocate for the American Bar Association on civil, constitutional and human rights issues.
For more than three decades, Sonnett has defended high-profile clients as diverse as MetLife, Jack Abramoff, and Panama’s General Manuel Noriega, as well as major corporations, banks, CEOs, attorneys, physicians, and political figures.
Sonnett, a member of the American Bar Association Board of Governors, past chair of the ABA Criminal Justice Section, and former president of both the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the American Judicature Society, has written extensively on trial practice and testified before congressional committees on issues related to criminal justice and constitutional rights.
Today, his Miami-based law firm, Neal R. Sonnett, P.A. concentrates on the defense of corporate, white collar and complex criminal cases throughout the United States.
“Neal is an inspiration to me,” says attorney Scott C. Cox, partner, Cox & Mazzoli in Louisville, Kentucky, who was a co-counsel to Sonnett on a recent case. “He is a tremendous attorney and it was an honor to work with him.” In the Kentucky case, a husband and wife were accused of defrauding an heir to the Jack Daniels whiskey fortune. “Neal came into the case shortly before trial and quickly knew the facts,” Cox says. “Without question, Neal was the best lawyer in the courtroom by far.”
In addition to his trial skills, Sonnett also demonstrated excellent computer skills, according to Cox. “Motions are filed electronically in federal jurisdictions,” he says. “One time we went to the bench with a motion for the judge to entertain. When the judge asked how long it would take to prepare the motion, Neal said, ‘Your honor, I filed it five minutes ago.’ He had drafted that motion without missing a beat in the courtroom — and it was very thoughtful and well-composed.”
While Sonnett doesn’t like to talk about the details of his cases, he feels the federal jury in Kentucky got this one right. “My client was charged with fraud and I felt it was a trumped-up case,” he says. “When the jury came back with a ‘not guilty’ on all nine felony charges, that was a hugely satisfying feeling.”
An Aspiring Actor and Singer
But Sonnett’s career could well have taken another direction — to Broadway rather than federal court. Back in 1949, Sonnett’s family moved from Brooklyn to Miami because his twin sister had bronchitis and the family felt it would be better to live in a warm climate. Sonnett grew up in the slower-paced Miami of the 1950s and early ’60s, earning his bachelor’s and his law degree from the University of Miami.
“When I was a kid, I wanted to be an actor and a singer,” Sonnett recalls. “I did local theater and went to New York and auditioned for a TV show. I got a contract with CBS to play a role in a soap opera and even got a part in the original Broadway production of ‘Auntie Mame,’ but then my parents put their foot down and brought me back home. They wanted me to be a normal kid, not a child actor.”
In college Sonnett enjoyed speech and debate, winning several oratorical contests. He also would go into Miami courtrooms and listen to other lawyers. In law school, he made money as a part-time singer with a jazz band at Miami’s Playboy Club on Biscayne Boulevard. “I worked with comedians like Flip Wilson and Rich Little,” he says. “My friends from law school and college would come to see me, and we’d have a great time.”
But Sonnett’s destiny lay in a different direction. In law school, he met U.S. Attorney Bill Meadows, who was serving as a judge in a state moot court competition won by Sonnett and his debate partner, Barry Richard. Meadows remembered him and hired Sonnett as a federal prosecutor. “I tried my first case alone 20 minutes after I took the oath,” he recalls. “Bill was a wonderful mentor who taught me the right way to be a lawyer and a public servant. Every year all the assistant U.S. attorneys who worked for him still get together for a memorial luncheon to celebrate his life and what we learned from him.”
With only eight attorneys in the prosecutor’s office, Sonnett began working on major federal tort claim cases, but soon turned exclusively to prosecuting criminal cases and then became chief of the criminal division. “I enjoyed white collar federal criminal law,” he says. “I never tried street crime cases and only worked on two murder cases, both of which involved white collar crimes.”
After leaving the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Sonnett opened a criminal defense practice with colleague Donald Bierman and never looked back. “I’ve done some civil trial work, but not much,” he says. “For me, it’s all about the criminal courtroom.”
Being a good defense lawyer requires courage and dedication, Sonnett says. “You have to enjoy it or find another way to make a living. Preparation is key, and you have to work very hard on your cross-examination skills and on preparing your opening and closing arguments. Most of all, you have to believe in the case, in due process and in the fundamental fairness of our justice system. My job is to make sure the government is put to its burden of proof and that my client receives a fair trial.”
Regulations Can Pose Traps
Today, Sonnett says the growth in federal rules and regulations in fields like banking and healthcare pose “traps for the unwary.” All too often, a legitimate business can run afoul of the law and face criminal charges, says Sonnett, who also handles healthcare fraud investigations, compliance-related matters and similar issues.
“Much of the work I do outside the courtroom is advising businesses and executives to try to keep them out of these problem areas,” he says. “In some cases, my role is to convince the government that a case under investigation is not a criminal matter. If I am successful, the investigation is closed and my clients can go back to their normal lives.”
Sonnett says he enjoys being at a point in his career where he can pick and choose his cases. He can spend more time with his wife Pat, his son and daughter-in-law and their two children. “I used to play a lot of golf, but now I do a lot of reading. My hobby is really my work — particularly since I’m actively involved in issues outside my law practice.”
After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Sonnett became more active in issues related to national security, the scope of government surveillance, and the rights of defendants under U.S. laws. He has served as chair of several ABA task forces on issues like domestic surveillance and the treatment of enemy combatants, and he has traveled to Guantanamo, as the ABA’s official observer for military commission trials. “In the quest for security, the pendulum has swung against the rights of defendants,” he says. “But we must insure respect for our basic constitutional freedoms. Our founders knew that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, and we must always be on guard to protect the rule of law.”
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