Dogged lawyer saves the case

Published May 26, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - For much of Murray Silverstein's 25-year career, he's avoided the media. And even as the highest-profile case of his career drew to a close this week, the St. Petersburg attorney kept his mouth shut.

Silverstein stood silently in the background behind his clients Steven and Dorreen Couture Tuesday as Hillsborough County prosecutor Pam Bondi announced she would end her fight to keep the St. Bernard she'd adopted after Hurricane Katrina. She'd return him to the Coutures. Silverstein had also helped negotiate the return of the Coutures' other dog, a shepherd mix.

The only time Silverstein's name was mentioned was when Dorreen Couture spoke up: "We can't say enough about what Murray Silverstein has done to help us."

And for Silverstein, a commercial and real estate lawyer, that was just fine.

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In a case of high-profile legal professionals, Silverstein was the unknown and understated one. In her job, Bondi was already frequently in the spotlight, a telegenic, young and confident prosecutor; her attorney in the case, Barry Cohen, the criminal and civil litigator whose million-dollar settlements garner headlines.

But Silverstein is no legal neophyte. His peers, through the Martindale-Hubbell Peer Review Rating, have given him the highest rating, AV.

Silverstein, 50, had never heard of Bondi before he got a call from the Community Law Program seeking a pro bono lawyer to help the Coutures. In the civil legal realm where Silverstein usually practices, his clients are companies or investors. Not hurricane survivors, misplaced families and their pets.

"I've had far more cases with far more important legal issues with more significant consequences for more people, but no one really cared," Silverstein mused in an interview this week.

And he initially underestimated what he was in for, thinking the case would be over and done with in a matter of days much like the other Community Law cases he'd taken for people on the verge of foreclosure or battling creditors.

Silverstein had documents showing that the Coutures always owned the dogs.

"I thought the two ladies would be sympathetic and return the dogs," he said. When they didn't, we knew we had a battle on our hands."

In the end, Silverstein's firm would spend more than 500 hours, including traveling to Louisiana. In June 2006, he filed a lawsuit on the Coutures' behalf, asking the judge to force Bondi and the other adopter, Rhonda Rineker of Dunedin, to return the dogs they had adopted in October 2005 from the Humane Society of Pinellas.

He also filed suit against the Humane Society, charging it was negligent in adopting the dogs out, saying it knew owners existed. The suit against the society, which seeks compensatory damages for the Coutures' cost and travel, is still pending.

He normally makes $300 an hour. But he will make nothing in this case, one of 16 he has done for the Community Law Program, whose board he sits on.

"Once we realized all the publicity and circumstances around the adoption of the dogs, we realized that we didn't have the resources to handle it," said Kimberly Rodgers, executive director of the Community Law Program. "I chose Murray because he rarely says 'no' when we ask him to handle a case and because we know he has a soft spot for dogs."

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Silverstein grew up in St. Petersburg, graduating from Lakewood High School. He attended Stetson University for both undergraduate and law school. He married his high school sweetheart, Kim, 28 years ago. They have two grown daughters; a pair of golden retrievers and a Yorkshire terrier.

His first boss out of law school was Clearwater lawyer Louis Kwall, then the consumer fraud prosecutor for the Pinellas-Pasco District. Now Kwall is representing the Humane Society against the Coutures, but the animosity isn't personal.

"He's an excellent lawyer," Kwall said. "Hard working, serious, all the things you like in a lawyer and a person. ... He and I just have a different take on this case."

Other colleagues say Silverstein's aversion to publicity is characteristic. In court, his voice is a steadily controlled baritone. He's not a grandstander before a jury, but methodical and organized.

"He just has this way of putting things that aptly describes a situation," said attorney Brian Cummings, who assisted with the case. "He knows how to be assertive without stepping on people's toes."

That's on purpose, Silverstein said: "I just don't see much good coming from drawing undo attention to yourself."

Demorris A. Lee can be reached at 445-4174 or dalee@sptimes.com.