Tony Norman: Pittsburgh lawyer's blunt ad to crooks has an appeal


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I've watched Pittsburgh criminal defense attorney Daniel Muessig's Internet ad more than a dozen times, and it never fails to crack me up.

Though it starts out as a cheeky parody of what successful defense attorneys do for their obviously guilty clients, it doesn't shy from the social costs of helping criminals beat the rap while asserting the constitutional necessity of providing a strong defense, no matter the perception of guilt.

It opens with Mr. Muessig descending courthouse steps while rejoicing with a client. Mr. Muessig, who is dressed in street clothes unbecoming any courtroom in this town, departs after a hug, while his client reconnects with two shady associates on the street.

Those associates return a wad of cash and a BlackBerry they had been holding for Mr. Muessig's client. All three men then turn to the camera, smile and say, "Thanks, Dan," while giving the thumbs up.

This "Thanks, Dan" scenario is repeated by purported burglars, armed robbers, drug dealers, masked conspirators, prostitutes and DUI suspects.

While the tone comes across as cynical, it is weirdly patriotic in how it sticks to principle, no matter how bad it makes Mr. Muessig look. Every defendant, whatever the perception of guilt by the public, is entitled to a strong legal defense. Mr. Muessig promises to provide it without judgment, even going so far (in the ad, at least) to dress like a thug to prove to his clients that he's not judging them.

He even drops a screeching American eagle a la Stephen Colbert into one shot to reinforce a less-than-subliminal message that the overwhelming prosecutorial powers of the state need a counterweight.

"Consequences -- they sure suck, don't they?" Mr. Muessig deadpans, while a neon "Real Defense Attorney" sign flickers in the foreground. "America was built on freedom. Not on a bunch of people with more money than you telling you what you can and can't do with all their stupid laws. ... Laws are arbitrary."

With his close-cropped hair, Mr. Muessig could pass for a bearded version of the young methamphetamine cook Jesse Pinkman on "Breaking Bad," though his shtick is modeled on the antics of Jesse's sleazy but surprisingly effective lawyer, Saul "Better Call Saul" Goodman.

After reciting a litany of crimes from murder to bank robbery to "funny throwback crimes like moon-shining and pick-pocketing," Mr. Muessig assures potential clients over superimposed images of Al Capone and other classic gangsters that he understands their psychology. An infectious hip-hop beat provides background accompaniment.

Conspicuously absent from this criminal lawyer's list are sex-related crimes, though he's likely to hear from all sorts of accused rapists and high-profile pedophiles as his notoriety spreads.

It's a myth that defense lawyers are obligated to turn off their brains and somehow believe their clients are truly innocent of the crimes they're accused of. A defense lawyer's primary responsibility is to mount a vigorous defense within the limits of the law.

"Trust me," Mr. Muessig says while looking into the camera with all of the sincerity he can muster. "I may have a law degree -- but I think like a criminal."

What's not to like about such audacity? As a newly minted lawyer still building his practice through word-of-mouth and social media, Mr. Muessig has to be aware that future jurors who see his ad will assume that his clients are uniformly guilty and will return verdicts accordingly.

News stories have already begun popping up nationally and internationally, sparking debate in legal circles about Mr. Muessig's tactics. His motto, "Pay me now, thank me later," plays into the worst stereotypes about lawyers being money-grubbing, unethical bottom-feeders. He has a lot of unhappy colleagues.

But like a clever chess player whose tricky opening gambit looks suicidal to a more conventional opponent, Mr. Muessig counters those who assume that he's undermined his future clients' presumption of innocence and his own credibility. He does so with a guarantee that he works harder than other criminal defense attorneys who "are just going to take your money and blow you off."

"I pick up the phone. I answer calls. I return letters," he says while looking into the camera. "And I make jail visits, because I'll probably be there visiting my friends anyway. I'm the Pittsburgh criminal defense attorney Pittsburgh criminals hire when they commit crimes."

Mr. Muessig may eventually regret the satirical bluntness of his ad, but until then, the only appropriate thing to say is: Thanks, Dan.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1631 or on Twitter @TonyNormanPG.

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