In the biggest trial of his legal career, Eric J. Dubin began his closing argument by apologizing to the jury.
If his questions sounded confusing, his objections seemed inopportune or his loud sighs and rolling eyeballs came off like theatrical stunts, he said, please don't hold it against his clients.
Representing the family of Bonny Lee Bakley in the wrongful-death lawsuit against actor Robert Blake, Dubin wasn't absolutely sure he was winning what some critics viewed as, at best, a disjointed case.
So he reached for the jury's soft side -- and found it.
On Nov. 18, the Burbank jury awarded Bakley's four surviving children a $30-million judgment against Blake, who had been acquitted of murder in a Van Nuys criminal trial in March. Members of the civil panel said it was Dubin's apology that helped give him credibility.
The attorney's ability to connect was surprising given how the 39-year-old solo practitioner from Orange County had been viewed during jury selection.
Several potential panelists openly said he looked like a lawyer trying to line his pockets and those of the Bakley family at Blake's expense.
The ending was all the more improbable, according to lawyers familiar with the case, because the idiosyncratic Dubin was up against a far more seasoned opponent, defense lawyer Peter Q. Ezzell, a 30-year litigator who in 150 jury trials had lost only five.
"It wasn't a fair match as far as lawyering skills go," said attorney Cary W. Goldstein, who represented the Bakley family before Dubin picked up the case. "But Dubin's lack of finesse may have worked to his clients' advantage, in that it may have evoked sympathy from the jury. The jury wanted to help. It wasn't about the lawyers, it was about the facts of the case."
In many ways, however, the civil trial reflected the unorthodox quality of Dubin's legal career, cultivated by hustle, chutzpah and, critics contend, a boundless thirst for self-promotion.
The attorney said his interest in the law was sparked by a field trip to the Detroit criminal courts from his middle school in Southfield, Mich.
He recalled intense arguments during a murder trial that ended with friendly exchanges -- and laughter -- between the prosecutor and defense attorney.
"It was like sports, where you could do your best but be friendly, be a human being," Dubin said. "That was my first taste of professionalism, and I liked it."
There was little of that esprit de corps during the Blake case, however, as the actor's defense attorneys openly displayed contempt for Dubin's lawyering.
"Having spoken to a number of people present during the trial and having listened to the statements of the jurors, it's clear that the civil verdict was rendered despite Mr. Dubin, not because of him," said M. Gerald Schwartzbach, who successfully defended Blake against the criminal charges.
Bakley was found dying in her husband's car May 4, 2001, shortly after the two had dined at Vitello's restaurant in Studio City. Blake told authorities he had left her while he returned to the restaurant to retrieve a revolver he had forgotten in a booth.
When he got back to the car, she had been shot, he said.
"Mr. Dubin's conduct during both the criminal and civil trials is evidence that he is consumed by the desire for public attention," Schwartzbach said.
Dubin, who attended the criminal trial almost every day and was a fixture on newscasts and cable television shows, sloughed off the criticism as sour grapes.
"We've gone 12 rounds," he said, "and there is a clear winner."
Dubin, who came west to attend the University of Arizona and California Western School of Law, began his career at a large downtown Los Angeles firm taking hundreds of depositions -- asking questions of witnesses who are under oath -- in cases in which he defended businesses and individuals.
A turning point came when he attended the trial school of famed defense attorney Gerry L. Spence.
Spence's best advice to the group, Dubin said, was "that being completely honest" and willing "to expose your flaws to a jury can be extremely powerful. If you want people to open up to you, you have to open up to them."
The experience gave Dubin the confidence to strike out on his own.
In 1996, less than five years out of law school and with $5,000 in the bank, he opened his own firm in Irvine.
He handled personal injury cases but began to gain a public persona when he landed on a legal advice radio show that aired for about a year.
Margerry Bakley was having a bout of insomnia when she tuned in to Dubin's 6 a.m. program in June 2002, a couple of months after Blake had been charged with the murder of her sister Bonny, who had had daughter Rose with the actor and later married him.
Dubin said to the audience, " 'Give me a call if you have a case,' " Margerry Bakley recalled. "I thought, 'He sounds young, eager and aggressive and he's up at 6 a.m.' I liked that."