In the television series “The Defenders,” Jim Belushi played Nick Morelli, who was based on Michael Cristalli, managing partner of the law firm Gentile, Cristalli, Miller, Armeni & Savarese. In addition to working in the spotlight for TV and radio, as well as arguing high-profile cases involving the murder of Ted Binion and the legality of medical marijuana, Cristalli focuses on the more mundane but equally important task of teaching future lawyers about the business.
What are your greatest accomplishments so far in your career?
Growing up with a mother who was a judicial secretary for a New York Supreme Court Judge, I watched and interacted with many judges and lawyers. However, I was drawn to the trial lawyer who gracefully and persuasively articulated his clients’ cases before juries. It is the advocacy of the trial lawyer defending his clients’ positions passionately and zealously that inspired me. To become known and recognized as one of them has been one of my greatest accomplishments.
Also, in 2007, I, along with several others, developed and participated in a documentary, “The Defenders,” highlighting injustices in the criminal justice system. The documentary resulted in the development of the docudrama series that aired on CBS. My involvement was a fulfilling experience. Consulting on each script with the idea of entertaining while also educating the public was extremely rewarding. When you defend a client, you are influencing that one case, but when you highlight the inequities of the entire judicial system in a TV series, you are communicating your position to 10 million viewers each week.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
Business and law do not marry well. If you got into the law business exclusively for money, you got into it for the wrong reason.
Making money is important to a successful practice. It allows you to service your clients better by matching your opponents’ resources. However, the balancing act of how many clients to take, and how many is too many, is a delicate analysis. Tipping the scales disproportionately toward generating more revenue could compromise the services you provide.
You host two radio shows. Why?
There is a freedom associated with presenting your views to an audience without objection. However, that freedom is not without challenge. The audience is the barometer for the value of the topic and the dissemination of your thoughts.
As an adjunct professor at UNLV, what advice do you give students?
In my class, law practice management, I try to give a practical approach to the business of law. There are many facets of the business, such as creating budgets, handling trust accounts and other economic considerations that have nothing to do with handling a case. Students must understand how to price a case, and balance the eagerness to bring a case in with the amount of resources it takes to handle the case competently.
When I began practicing law, the legal community was smaller and more collegial. Today, there’s a more irreverent attitude toward the practice. Lawyers are not always considerate of each other, and I see a level of disrespect among the profession that did not exist when I started. Lawyers are officers of the court and should always remember the oath they took when they were sworn in. Despite the adversarial nature of the profession, a lawyer should maintain decorum as a representative of the court.
What was the most high-profile case in Nevada you have litigated?
In 2004, I handled the retrial of State vs. Rich Tabish and Sandra Renee Murphy. The state charged Rick Tabish and Sandy Murphy with the murder of casino heir Ted Binion. The case was one of the most high-profile cases in the history of Nevada. I represented Sandy Murphy.
After seven weeks and close to 100 witnesses, the jury returned a not-guilty verdict to the charge of murder. After being convicted and sentenced in the first case to a 20-to-life sentence, Sandy Murphy was a free woman.
Sandy now is married and has two young children. She and her husband own an art gallery in Laguna Beach.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Protecting the constitutional privileges afforded to people is the essence of my being. It is who I am and what I want to continue to be.
What are you reading right now?
I enjoy reading The New York Times as well as our local news publications. I am a fan of the Huffington Post, where I get everything from politics and sports to gossip and entertainment. For pure enjoyment, I usually have a James Patterson or John Grisham book somewhere close.
What do you do after work?
I spend time with my wife of 22 years, Kristyn, and my two teenage boys, Michael and Christopher. Our days are consumed with watching them play baseball. Both are accomplished players, and it is pure enjoyment to watch them play. I also like to golf and ski.
Blackberry, iPhone or Android?
Only Apple everything. I am an addict. I love the interaction between the devices to keep me constantly connected — which may or may not be a good thing, but it is definitely my thing.
Describe your management style.
I am definitely not an autocratic manager. I would say I apply a persuasive democratic style of management. I like to think I persuade my colleagues and staff into reaching consensus.
What is your dream job, outside of your current field?
A writer. It would afford me a similar vehicle as that of a lawyer, wherein I can articulate a position persuasively to my audience.
When I was creating “The Defenders,” I worked with many accomplished writers. Neils Mueller and Kevin Kennedy, the two co-creators of the show, taught me a great deal about the craft. I definitely would like to do script writing. I love the production process and collaboration that goes into developing storylines and then seeing them on film.
What is your biggest pet peeve?
Unopened emails drive me crazy. It doesn’t matter where I am or what I am doing, if I get an email, I have to open it.
What is something people might not know about you?
I am an only child. People seem surprised when I tell them. But I grew up in a large extended family with many cousins, so I really never identified myself as an only child.