What's Trim and Tanned and Hands Out Free Legal Advice?

Teetering on her high heels, Kathy Schafer has come to have a great problem solved by an even greater man. A silver lame handbag slung over her flower-print dress, the 85-year-old Miamian has endured a half an hour in the sweltering heat of Ellis Rubin's carport. "I'd come to the end of the Earth to see Ellis Rubin," says Schafer, a former exhibition dancer for Arthur Murray Studios.

She digs into her bag and draws out a small booklet imprinted with the legend Northeast Miami Women's Club. "This is our headquarters," she explains, pointing to the quaint home pictured on the cover. "It's right on the edge of Little Haiti. And I don't expect I have to tell you what's wrong with the neighborhood." Schafer pauses. "For some time we have been renting the headquarters to a group called the 'Universalist Unitarian Church.' A group of gays and lesbians. Their lease is up in September, but the president of the club continues to invite this, this, minority. They've even advertised for a coffeehouse at night with candles on the tables. The club membership has written a letter urging the president to sell the house and move, but she won't listen. She says if we cut the lease we could be accused of discrimination."

Schafer rolls her eyes at the gall of it all, sighs dramatically at the fate of her club, a literary society whose original 300 well-heeled members have withered to some dozen octogenarian holdouts. Plainly, her expression says, this is a job for Ellis.

"I grew up reading about Ellis Rubin," seconds Odus "Buddy" Rigdon, another woebegone layman who is standing nearby. "Far as I'm concerned, he's right up there with Roy Black and F. Lee Bailey."

Unlike the lofty Black and Bailey, though, Rubin is a man of the people. A man you can trust. A man who fights not so much for money -- though, of course, that never hurts -- as for a good cause. In 40-plus years of practicing law, Rubin's distinguished profile has become a familiar sight on the television screens of South Florida, thanks largely to his colorful defense of the region's more tawdry elements. He is also a familiar character to the Florida Bar, which has investigated the publicity-hungry lawyer half a dozen times over the years.

But to his adoring public, Rubin remains something of a folk hero. What other local attorney would celebrate his birthday by offering free consultations to all comers every Wednesday afternoon for the rest of the year? Schafer dives into her handbag again, this time fishing out a precious scrap of paper: the small ad Rubin placed in the Miami Herald on June 21 to publicize his pro bono efforts.

Never one to miss his cue, Rubin chooses this moment to pull up in his Jaguar convertible. Emerging alongside one of his star clients, hijacker-turned-anti-Castro activist Tony Bryant, Rubin smiles broadly, his deep tan accentuated by an ill-fitting white suit.

"It's too hot out here," Rubin announces, nixing his original plan to offer counseling sessions on his front lawn. "Why don't we head inside to the waiting room?" Schafer and Rigdon gather up their legal documents and bustle toward Rubin's office, a grand mansion that rises incongruously out of the seedy hinterland of NE 23rd Street off Biscayne Boulevard.

Rigdon, who traveled more than an hour from West Palm Beach for an audience, visits with Rubin for a full fifteen minutes, emerging with the beatific mask of the enlightened.

"He answered all my questions," says the communications specialist. "Basically, I needed to know if my not taking action now would mean I couldn't sue my employer later. Mr. Rubin explained that I have to exhaust all internal, administrative means of resolution before filing a suit."

His faith in the legal system revived, Rigdon heads off to West Palm, and Kathy Schafer, second in line, heads nervously toward the office, curtsying slightly upon meeting South Florida's Mercutio of the courtroom before being swallowed up by the great oak door to his office.

The same door swings open ten minutes later with Schafer still relating the tail end of her tale. Rubin nods patiently, then poses with Schafer for a quick photo. In the meantime, several new clients have arrived with more legal demons to exorcise.

For Samantha Samson the problem is her former lawyer, an unctuous fellow who gobbled up all her insurance money after an auto accident. Helen Gach, another pilgrim from West Palm Beach, was wrongfully terminated by a clothing store that has besmirched her employment record with a libelous send-off letter.

Rubin's response to both women: hire yourself a qualified lawyer! Even if it means calling his friends at the Florida Bar.

The notion of free consultations struck him, Rubin explains, while he was out jogging. He wanted to show his appreciation for all that South Florida has done for him. But, as usual, the gesture was intended to convey a broader message. "I wanted to show people that not all lawyers are money-hungry crooks," says the attorney, who was recently cleared of any criminal wrongdoing in the attempted sale of an X-rated videotape A depicting his client, Broward prostitute Kathy Willets, in flagrant action with a local politico -- to a tabloid television show. "Some of us are on the people's side."

It is this kind of integrity, presumably, that has led the masses to his door. More than twenty people showed up the first week, and since then the numbers have held steady at about half a dozen. Many, like Buddy Rigdon, hope to return: "If I do sue, I'll probably call Mr. Rubin back, 'cause I can't think of a lawyer I'd rather have on my case."

Should Rigdon call, however, Rubin will have to politely decline. "I cannot accept any case that comes out of these consulting sessions," explains the venerable litigator, who has been investigated -- and cleared -- by the Florida Bar three times in the past year alone, two of those times for allegedly charging excessive fees. "If I did, people would think this is just a cheap gimmick by Ellis Rubin to get new cases.


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