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Power of Attorney

For Blake Ballin, cases can be a matter of life and death.

photograph by Larry Kuzniewski

Television crime dramas paint people as good guys and bad guys for the sake of entertainment, but in the real world of criminal defense, there’s only what’s in between.

As a criminal defense attorney, Blake Ballin says he’s learned to see clients as multifaceted and courtroom adversaries as friends.

“Very rarely do I have clients who are completely innocent,” says Ballin, the son of Leslie Ballin and grandson of Marvin Ballin, all of whom work together for the firm of Ballin, Ballin & Fishman.

“They may have been charged with being a drug dealer and they’re really a drug user. The ones who really make you nervous are the ones who come in the door who haven’t done anything wrong. It’s all rewarding because you feel like you’re doing something good for people.”

Ballin, a partner with the firm, works in a 12th floor office in a smoked-glass high rise with a clear view of 201 Poplar. His office is a sparse collection of contemporary art and college sports memorabilia.

“Everybody gets in trouble,” Ballin says. “Republicans, Democrats, rich folks, poor folks, black people, white people. It doesn’t mean they’re bad people, but they all need help from people like us.” – Blake Ballin

He says while it was never assumed that he would follow in his father’s footsteps and join the family business, it was always somewhat likely.

“My mom always wanted me to be an orthodontist — no emergencies,” says Ballin. “I don’t think I was expected to be a lawyer, but my father and grandfather probably glamorized it a lot with stories around the dinner table. It gave me a nudge but not a push.”

Ballin graduated from Fordham Law School in New York and was licensed there, but on second thought came back to Memphis for the easier pace of life and the closeness of family. He’s been practicing with Ballin, Ballin & Fishman for the last eight years, taking everything from traffic ticket cases to one very notorious capital murder case.

“Dale Mardis is very intelligent and he certainly pled guilty to doing some things that were heinous, things that were indefensible,” says Ballin, referring to the Memphis man who was long suspected of killing code enforcement officer Mickey Wright, though a body was never found. “As a client, he was a complex and interesting individual.”

Mardis eventually settled his case in state court by pleading guilty to second degree murder and a sentence of 15 years. Later he was charged with federal civil rights violations for the same case, in which Ballin represented him. The case carried the death penalty and seemed headed for trial until it became clear that charges for another murder might be forthcoming. Mardis settled for life in prison instead.

Ballin has been asked more than a few times how he can defend people “like that,” and his answer is instantaneous.

“Everybody gets in trouble,” Ballin says. “Republicans, Democrats, rich folks, poor folks, black people, white people. It doesn’t mean they’re bad people, but they all need help from people like us.”

Nonetheless, it takes some finesse handling public perception in the case of high-publicity cases like the murder trial of Mary Winkler, which made national headlines, particularly after she was sentenced to time served — less than two years — for the shooting death of her husband.

For that Ballin looks to his father, who represented Winkler.

“My father certainly has a lot of experience dealing with the media, especially with the Winkler case,” says Ballin. “I’ve tried to watch him and the way he handles himself in front of the camera. There are some cases where you want to avoid [media coverage]. They’re so messy that there’s very little you can do to sway public opinion.”

“I don’t think I’d be any other kind of lawyer if I couldn’t be a 201 lawyer,” Ballin says, referring to 201 Poplar, the address of the county’s criminal justice complex. “I’d find something else to do. I’m not a huge fan of the research and writing. I’m more of a fan of being on my feet, talking, being in trial, and negotiating and interacting with prosecutors."

And well-known cases tend to lead to more cases. The firm currently has four attorneys doing criminal defense cases and three doing civil cases. Another two were recently hired out of law school and will begin practice after passing the bar.

Ballin’s father and grandfather began working together in the 1970s and were joined by Randall Fishman, whom Ballin says is like an uncle to him, in the 1980s.

In criminal court, he says, the nuances are subtle and finding the right “nugget” of information can cast enough doubt to cause the District Attorney’s office to drop charges or dismiss a case altogether.

“There’s a lot of creativity that goes into the work we do, and I think the effort we put into each case makes a difference in the outcomes,” Ballin says. “Sometimes it’s just persistence.

“Part of it has to do with the fact that over at the courthouse, the prosecutors are dealing with such high volume, you really just need a little bit of information — a legal issue, a fact issue — to convince them that they don’t have a slam dunk and that’s what you use to settle the case.”

For example, in another murder case, the prosecution had an eyewitness in the room when a man was murdered allegedly by two brothers. With the help of investigators, Ballin was able to find a crack in the witness’ statement which turned the case on its head.

“We finally got the eyewitness to admit that he wasn’t exactly sure that his identification was correct,” said Ballin.

The case was dismissed. 

Most, says Ballin, never make it to court. Though he says he loves trying cases for the chance of talking on his feet before an open courtroom, he only gets to trial with four or five cases a year. The firm only tries 15 to 20 a year out of hundreds.

“A lot has to go wrong before a case goes to trial,” said Ballin.

Once in court, the atmosphere is perhaps not as contentious as episodes of Law & Order would have people believe. A good criminal defense lawyer, says Ballin, knows how to cooperate.

“I consider most of these prosecutors to be friends,” says Ballin. “I see them every day. I negotiate with each of them on potentially hundreds of cases a year. It’s to everyone’s benefit to get along; it’s to my client’s benefit for me to get along with my adversaries. Even if it gets heated in court, we’re able to shake hands and have a beer afterwards.”

One thing he notices changing in recent years, though, is an increase in the use of audiovisual equipment by the prosecution, perhaps responding to a public which is centered around smart phones and iPads for hours every day.

“Seminars tell you about how visual everyone has become,” says Ballin. “I’m not as computer-savvy as I should be, but I hope my ability to connect verbally makes up for that.”

Recently Ballin attended a workshop in San Francisco in which he learned that in some jurisdictions, potential jurors are being researched on Facebook by prosecutors.

Still Ballin hopes to keep his practice as much a face-to-face practice as possible.

“I don’t think I’d be any other kind of lawyer if I couldn’t be a 201 lawyer,” Ballin says, referring to 201 Poplar, the address of the county’s criminal justice complex. “I’d find something else to do. I’m not a huge fan of the research and writing. I’m more of a fan of being on my feet, talking, being in trial, and negotiating and interacting with prosecutors. I’d rather do that than be behind a desk all day.”

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May 4, 2013 11:55 am
 Posted by  Anonymous

This SOB wouldn't even be in law if it wasn't for my family. I retained his services for an assault charge that I was UNJUSTLY facing. I told him about what had happened and that I had nothing to worry about. There was no way to prove that I had assaulted anyone, and the person allegedly assaulted was out of state. I spoke with him every morning before our court appearances and all he ever did was ask for a reset. When my final court day came and it was time to make my plea he didn't even show up. He had decided to go "on vacation", and I was stuck with Grey Bartlett, who had no idea what the details of the case even were. He (Grey Bartlett) told me that he had just spoke with the prosecution and they were willing to let me go on the grounds that I plead guilty to simple assault and if I tried to fight it I would lose. So there I am, my confidence crushed. I told Grey Bartlett that I wanted to take the case to trial, and he laughed at me telling me I didn't stand a chance. So I was forced to accept the plea agreement under duress. After asking others who have hired him before about his performance I have come to the conclusion that this wasn't an isolated incident, and unless you are facing murder charges or are "well-to-do" and have lots of money he WILL stand you up on plea day every single time.
This is highly unacceptable behavior from a person that you are supposed to have trust in.

Aug 4, 2013 12:15 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

To Anonymous who posted on May 4, 2013.
Where did you get education on how the prosecution proves a case when the victim is out of state?
My guess is that you don't have legal training so there is a possibility you may not be correct.
Was your case set for trial on the day you plead guilty to the charges against you?
My guess is no.
How much time did you serve?
My guess is none.
Did you tell Mr. Bartlett that you were not comfortable with him representing you in Mr. Ballin's absence?
My guess is no
Did he tell your case could not be continued so that Mr. Ballin because you did not want him to handle it for you?
My guess is no.
Who 'forced" you to to accept the plea agreement ?
My guess nobody, and that the decision was YOURS.
What type of duress were you placed under?
My guess is none, and that it was your conscience guided you to plead guilty because you knew you would be convicted.
Why didn't you go to trial if you were sure you deserved a better deal than the plea bargain Mr. Bartlett worked out for you?
My guess is the the pleas agreement was the most beneficial for you to conclude with YOUR criminal case.
My guess is that when Mr. Bartlett told you "you did not stand a chance" you KNEW he was right because of your own actions that lead to you being charged with a crime.
How many "well to do" people did you EVER see in the packed waiting room of the Ballin , Ballin and Fishman office did you see (assuming you can tell a person's bank balance by looking at them).
My guess is very few a very few percentage.
Why do you perceive that you would be treated any differently than anyone else represented by the Ballins?
My guess is that you were not, n fact treated any differently than anyone else.
THIS IS NOT A GUESS- The Ballins treat everyone fairly and equally and your perception is not based in fact, but in the gossip of malcontents.
MY GUESS IS THAT YOU HAVE TROUBLE TAKING RESPONSIBILTY FOR YOUR OWN ACTIONS.

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