HACKENSACK, N.J. — Voice rising and arms emphatically chopping the air, the silver-haired lawyer stands before the bench in a courtroom, pleading for leniency for a sales executive with a history of DWI.
If the theatrical delivery and the red pocket square peeking from the sharp pinstriped suit seem familiar, they should. Frank P. Lucianna has been at this longer than most of his listeners, including the judge, have been alive.
“Your Honor, sometimes I wish they would throw all the laws out!” the 94-year-old says during a soliloquy in which he rails about mandatory sentencing, flatters the judge for being “assiduous in your pursuit of justice” and praises the “young prosecutor.”
Turning to his client, he goes on: “The only person who was harmed was the defendant himself! He’s a gentleman, in every sense of the word! A pure gentleman! There is no victim in this case except the defendant!”
Lucianna, a decorated World War II vet and an Englewood Cliffs resident, has defended everyone from killers to wayward politicians to thieves to lousy drivers during a 66-year career that has won him lifetime achievement awards and unofficial status as the mayor of the Bergen County Court House. Seemingly everyone stops him in the corridors to pay homage. “Hello, young man! … Hello, beautiful ladies!” the lawyer, guilty of gregariousness, is apt to call out.
Forty-five years ago, The Record anointed Lucianna “Bergen’s Busiest Criminal Lawyer.” Twenty-two years ago, the newspaper described him as a “consummate showman” and the oldest active trial attorney in the county, if not the state. Along the way, he was the first in New Jersey to use the battered woman’s defense at a murder trial, a gambit that won acquittal for a housewife who blew away her abusive husband.
That Lucianna is still practicing full time reflects an ironclad commitment. The law truly is his mistress, and his wife, Dolores, is OK with the arrangement. She long ago stopped begging him to knock off early on Fridays.
“I’m very thankful that I’m in love with this beautiful profession and the beautiful people in the courthouse,” Lucianna says, adding that his desire to assist people in trouble also keeps him going.
But it takes more than passion for a man nearing the midpoint of his 10th decade to plug away in a demanding field. Criminal defenders deal with difficult people. They have to think fast on their feet. Testimony must be followed and processed; arguments and objections, made. They also must be on their feet, schlepping to courthouses and jails and standing before juries and judges.
The founder of Lucianna & Lucianna in Hackensack is fortunate to be surrounded by a loving staff that includes his daughter Diane Lucianna, the firm’s managing partner. They support the nonagenarian in various ways, such as driving him to the county jail where he meets with clients, or to the courthouse when he doesn’t feel like walking the three blocks. Also, to augment his hearing, another lawyer is usually with him in court.
“He’s had me with him for 35 years and we keep an eye on him,” Diane says. “He’s had the same secretary for 30 years. Physically, we help him. Like, he was wearing shoes that were way too heavy. I said, ‘Dad, you need new shoes!’ So we took him to the orthopedic shoe store for a new pair. Little things like that. But mentally, he’s terrific. No one is covering for him.”
Indeed, Lucianna is a source of marvel in the legal community. Frank O’Marra Jr., executive director of the Bergen County Bar Association, and John L. Higgins III, Bergen County first assistant prosecutor, both pointed to his energy and active caseload. “He may walk a little more slowly these days,” Higgins says, “but don’t assume anything with Frank.”
Superior Court Judge Margaret M. Foti, before whom Lucianna argued on behalf of the DWI defendant (the man received a jail sentence likely to spring him after 180 days, less than what he originally faced), made clear that, where Lucianna is concerned, age is just a number. In a statement, she called Lucianna “an experienced attorney who regularly appears” in her courtroom, “on time, impeccably dressed, prepared and ready to proceed” and “an able and articulate advocate for his clients and a role model for young lawyers.”
One of those young lawyers is his junior partner Frank V. Carbonetti, whose prosecutor grandfather used to square off against Lucianna in court. Calling Lucianna “my partner, my teacher, my best friend,” the 43-year-old Carbonetti says he has learned from his boss “that if you love something, it keeps you going … and I’m ready to rock and roll with that plan.”
Lucianna, compact and solid-looking, is quite the specimen. The lifelong runner – he captained the Dwight Morrow High School track team and Fordham University cross-country team – stopped running just a year ago because of a fractured vertebra that put him in a back brace for a while but did not slow him down professionally. He credits his athleticism with giving him the stamina to soldier on.
He takes care of himself. “I’ve got to get rest at night; otherwise, it’s difficult to be in court,” he says. “I try to get to bed at 10, 10:30, and I’m up at 6:30. Eight hours of sleep. I need to get up early and get to the office early, because I’m the centerpiece here. I have to show everyone that I will be here on time and let them in.
“This is a very consuming profession and it has taken a lot out of my life. I am constantly involved in preparing cases, and it’s a tremendous strain, both mental and physical. Physical because when you go to trial in a case, your whole being is obsessed with trying to help the person you represent, and it places your body and mind under tension. I spend many sleepless nights … I still have that anxiety. My life is constant effort to maintain my stability.”
In a graying field – one in seven American Bar Association members are age 62 and over – Lucianna is among the grayest. Observers say he is 20 or so years older than the next oldest lawyer who appears regularly at the Bergen County Court House. Michael Jay Badger, a Seattle psychologist and organizational consultant who has written about cognitive issues faced by older lawyers and has assisted them, says he has encountered only three in the profession over 90. All were desk-bound and worked part time.
After watching a video of Lucianna in action in court, Badger declared the lawyer “remarkable” and the embodiment of the old cliché “use or it lose it.”
A native of Englewood and son of Italian immigrants, Lucianna hung out a shingle in 1951 after receiving a Fordham law degree. Two decades into his career, a Sunday magazine profile in The Record reported that he represented more accused criminals than any attorney in Bergen County – sometimes 50 cases a week. “I can’t think of anything else I would rather do. I never plan to stop until I can’t go on anymore,” he said then, in 1972. As it turned out, he wasn’t kidding.
The article noted a Lucianna courtroom trademark – a hunch of the back. “I’m trying to convey to the jury what a burden I have to show my client is really innocent,” he was quoted as saying. He still hunches, but now, age may have something to do with it.
Lucianna wondered whether his vintage works to his and his clients’ advantage. “Jurors could feel a little more sympathy to me because I’m 94. I had some case in Paterson, and the judge asked me, ‘How old are you?’ I said 94. And he said, ‘Well, I appreciate having you here, Mr. Lucianna!’ And everyone clapped. The case worked out fine. The guy didn’t go to jail.”
Could there be a halo effect?
“I can speak only from a prosecutor’s standpoint,” says Higgins, “but by virtue of his charm and his age, Frank Lucianna does not get a better deal than anyone else.”
Amazingly, Lucianna isn’t even the oldest active lawyer on Main Street in Hackensack. Albert Burstein has him beat by two months.
The former state assemblyman is a partner in the Archer law firm. Unlike Lucianna, Burstein works part time and focuses on estate law.
The 94-year-olds run into each occasionally. Burstein holds his slightly younger colleague in awe.
“The obligations Frank takes upon himself are astonishing and well beyond the norm,” he observes. “The norm is a guy like me sitting behind a desk, but to see Frank as a litigator is worthy of note and admiration – not only because he still has his intellectual capacities, but because of the physical element to the work he does. Even in my most athletic days, I would come back to the office exhausted if I had to be in court.”
Burstein says he still practices because he enjoys giving counsel and seeing clients. “It’s not that I don’t have other things to do,” he says, “but I have to say that if I felt I were losing my grip, as it were, then I would stop cold. The question is: Do you realize your limitations, or do you have to have somebody tell you?”
That’s a question Lucianna and his family have pondered. Diane Lucianna says she would prevail on her father not to go to court if she and others felt he was losing his mental acuity.
Frank Lucianna, who says he feels 64, gives mixed signals on the subject.
“He says he will never retire, that he will die in his office,” Diane says. But asked on separate occasions what the future holds, Lucianna says: “If it gets to the point where I’m crazy and don’t know what I’m doing, I’ll stop.” And this: “I hope God lets me continue doing this. I don’t want to retire. I don’t want to go to Florida. I just want to do what I’m doing.”
Besides, Lucianna is one senior who’s no fan of the Sunshine State. The busy lawyer and his wife had a place there but got rid of it because they hardly used it.
“Florida is inhabited by a lot of old retired people who, if you are living among them, are annoying,” Frank Lucianna says.
He prefers Hackensack. Specifically, the area around the courthouse.