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Benedict Morelli Feels Your Pain

What's an operatic Brooklyn-born personal-injury lawyer doing deep in Johnnie Cochran territory? He's taking on pin-striped pinup Christian Curry's $1.8 billion discrimination case against Morgan Stanley. So what if he never finished law school?


"I for one, am a little confused," says Benedict P. Morelli, his squared-off jaw jutting forward, his Brooklyn brogue set on purée. "I'm trying to figure out what trial I'm in. Is Mr. Davis on his deathbed -- or is he playing football? What about all that time in the hospital? What about all those surgeries? They're looking for a discount -- and they deserve no discounts, because they destroyed a man's life!"

The defense has already had its chance to sum up the Case of the Elevator That Went Haywire and Took Off a Man's Leg, and it was hardly ready for prime time. The elevator company's lawyer mumbled Members of the jury so often that he sounded Hebraic; the insurance company's lawyer began his summation by warning the jurors, "I don't want to bore you too much."

But in Benedict Morelli's wrap-up, all the requisite trial-lawyer motifs are in play: shameless bravado, unabashed empathy, pure showmanship. As soon as the compact 53-year-old lawyer starts talking, one juror starts nodding wildly. And four days later, the Bronx jury awards Willie Davis almost $2.6 million -- more than double the defense's first settlement offer. For Morelli, it went more or less according to script, and no wonder: He had spent 30 hours at home rehearsing his summation as his wife, Arlene, took copious notes.

This is what Benedict P. Morelli does, pridefully and profitably: He connects with a jury in a way that is the envy of other plaintiffs' lawyers. Watching him orate is like watching a Bensonhurst production of Inherit the Wind -- grand gestures, flailing, a stream of tears. So hardwired is he into the heartbeat of a jury that in the past twenty years, he has lost his way with jurors only twice, he claims, and both times had the verdict reversed on appeal. After leaving his law partner of twenty years in 1998, he even hired a publicist to let the world know about his record. "You can't beat me by trying to exhaust me," vows Morelli, back at his office. "That's why I work out. That's why I have the energy of a 30-year-old."

But somewhere along the line, while he was scoring the largest verdicts in legal history for blindness in one eye ($2.25 million), multiple fractures ($11.1 million), and the death of a pregnant woman ($41 million), Benedict Morelli made the decision to rise out of the personal-injury ghetto. Now he wants a shot at social-justice cases, white-collar-scuzzball cases, employee-discrimination cases -- change-the-world cases. He believes he's earned it. And soon enough, he believes, he'll prove it -- by championing a poor little rich boy who lost his Wall Street job after posing, penis erect, in photos that turned up in the June 1998 issue of Playguy magazine.

"He seemed to be the most aggressive," says Curry of the lawyer he picked out of "Page Six." "I needed a warrior. Somebody who will get dirty and deal with setups and cover-ups. Granted, I wasn't physically injured, but damage has been done."

"I'm not saying Christian Curry's a perfect guy," Morelli says of his new star client. "I've never had a perfect client in my life. But the fact that he made mistakes doesn't make him deserve to have his life destroyed this way."

Curry, of course, was the 23-year-old Wall Street whiz kid famously canned by Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Company just before Easter in 1998 -- ostensibly for some expense-account indiscretions but, curiously, just after some pictures of him done up as a shirtless, unzipped bike messenger appeared in Playguy. He is also the African-American Ivy League preppie from tony Chappaqua, New York, who claims that his bosses and co-workers at Morgan Stanley called him a monkey. But Christian Curry is also a young man with a credibility problem -- convicted for hurling a nightclub owner through a window near Fishs Eddy on Broadway at 19th Street in 1997; investigated by the Manhattan D.A. for conspiring to plant fake racist e-mails on his firm's computer system to build a case against the company; chastised by everyone, including himself, for sitting for risqué photo sessions on two separate occasions and signing release forms -- both times.

On many weekdays since last spring, Curry, a quiet, rail-thin young man, has wandered the pale halls of Benedict P. Morelli & Associates toting piles of legal documents. He looks out of place at the Third Avenue firm -- not just because of the color of his skin, which is light brown in a sea of Caucasian, but because amid all the double-breasted suits, he's inclined to wear a T-shirt and baseball cap.

It's just one of many cultural clashes permeating the Case of the Barely Clad Broker. There is Morgan Stanley's white-bread, frat-house trading culture, rubbing up against the discrimination claims of a well-born black man. There's the machismo of Wall Street, betrayed by photos of one of its own appearing in a magazine no trader would dare admit peeking at. And then there's the fleet of corporate lawyers -- reared on retainers and hourly fees and paperwork and deals -- going head-to-head against a guy who never finished law school: a personal-injury wizard who knows more about traumas to the cerebral cortex than about violations of a corporate expense account.

Morelli grew up in working-class Brooklyn, dropped out of college twice, and had to clerk for the bar before first coming alive in front of a jury. Now he weekends at his fourteen-room oceanfront house in Quogue and strides through courthouses in Brioni and Armani suits, custom-made monogrammed Paul Stuart shirts, and Zegna ties. "He's a dems-dese-and-dose kind of guy," says Glenn Dopf, who settled a $1.5 million malpractice case with Morelli. "He comes off as folksy but dressed very slickly -- kind of a folksy guy who made it big. He has a wonderful way of relating to jurors. He doesn't speak down to them. He speaks as if he's one of them." He also, these days, won't take a discrimination case worth less than $1 million.

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