He has done just that. After leaving the public defender’s office a few years later, Findling started his own law firm in Atlanta. For decades, he’s been in the thick of high-profile cases, such as those involving former Fulton County Sheriff Jackie Barrett and NBA star Dennis Rodman. And he has gained fame nationwide as the go-to attorney for hip-hop stars in legal peril – from Cardi B to Gucci Mane – earning him a hashtag: #BillionDollarLawyer.
Now Findling, 63, has what could be the most consequential case of his career. He represents Donald Trump in the ongoing Fulton County investigation into possible criminal meddling in the 2020 election. A decision by District Attorney Fani Willis on whether to seek an indictment against the former president may happen sometime this spring. It would come on the heels of an indictment unsealed in New York earlier this month charging Trump with 34 criminal counts of falsifying business records.
‘POTUS pathetic once again!’
Findling seems an odd choice to be the former president’s attorney. He has criticized Trump publicly, harshly and repeatedly for years.
In 2017, when Trump fired the U.S. attorney in New York, Findling tweeted the termination was “a sign of fear that he would aggressively investigate the stench hovering over POTUS.” When Trump condemned the Central Park Five — Black teens wrongly convicted of raping a jogger — Findling called the remarks “racist, cruel, sick, unforgivable and un-American.” And in 2018 when Trump questioned NBA star LeBron James’ intelligence, Findling tweeted, “POTUS pathetic once again!”
But when Atlanta lawyer Jennifer Little needed someone to help her represent Trump in the Fulton County investigation she turned to Findling and his law partner Marissa Goldberg. Little was well aware of Findling’s liberal bona fides. She cared more about his courtroom skills.
Findling declined to discuss his conversations with Trump. But he said his law practice “doesn’t exclude or pick cases based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender or the substantive charge itself. ... We’ve represented every political party.”
“We’re not in the case for a political agenda, at all,” he added. ”We’re in the case because we are committed criminal defense attorneys, and we believe that there are some important issues that need to be litigated.”
‘Be John Adams’
Walking into the lobby of Findling’s new law office in Buckhead, a visitor can’t miss the three enormous color portraits painted by Atlanta artist Steve Penley. Two are of Supreme Court icons Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsberg. The other is of President John Adams, who as an attorney represented British soldiers after the Boston Massacre of 1770 because he believed every person has the right to counsel.
Findling said he, his wife and three children comprise a “family of left-wing liberals.” When asked how they felt about his representation of Trump, Findling relayed what his youngest daughter told him: “Be John Adams, dad. Be John Adams.”
Findling, known for his trademark sunglasses which he wears outdoors and occasionally indoors, was raised by a single mother who was a grocery cashier in Coram, N.Y., a working-class town on Long Island. So when Oglethorpe University offered Findling a track scholarship he took it. (Findling, who ran cross country and still runs today, was inducted into Oglethorpe’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2001.)
After Emory University law school, Findling joined a small civil law firm. But on Feb. 2, 1985, about six months into his new job, he read a newspaper profile of Fulton County’s new public defender, Vernon Pitts. At 9 a.m. sharp the next morning, Findling called Pitts, who offered him a job.
At the time, public defenders were paid just $19,000 a year, less than chicken feed. But Findling received something far more valuable: experience in the trenches. And those rough-and-tumble times put him on the road to a successful (and far more lucrative) career.
Only a few months into his new job, Findling and veteran defender Tommy Chason represented 33-year-old Katrina Spriggs, who choked, stabbed and decapitated her 7-month-old son. To Findling’s surprise, Chason told the young attorney during jury selection to take the lead. The jury ultimately found the woman not guilty by reason of insanity.
When Spriggs’ family took Findling out to dinner the night of the verdict, they learned he was little more than a year out of law school. “They said, ‘We’re sure glad you told us that now and not before trial,’” Findling recalled. “That case was really the beginning of everything.”
Findling further honed his skills as a lawyer by representing indigent clients in Superior Court Judge Bill Daniel’s courtroom. Daniel, who died in 2002, wrote the “Georgia Handbook on Criminal Evidence,” and lawyers who appeared before him had better well know the law. On top of that, it meant going head to head against the highly skilled prosecutor Tom Jones, also assigned to Daniel’s courtroom.
But it wasn’t long before Findling scored a major victory against Jones when defending Doris Norman, who killed her boyfriend by stabbing him in the heart. Findling’s defense was that because Johnson had been verbally abusing Norman for years, she acted in self-defense. It was believed to be the first time a Georgia jury accepted prolonged verbal abuse as grounds for an acquittal.
To better understand his client, Findling, joined by his wife, trained for weeks to become battered-spouse counselors. The acquittal led to requests for Findling, just two years out of law school, to speak to legal groups about his novel defense.
Jones, who still believes Norman was guilty, said of Findling, “He’s what I call a substance lawyer. Some lawyers are a lot of show and blowhard and all that kind of stuff, but he’s got substance. He has a knack of finding holes in your case. And he’s always prepared in both the facts and the law.”
After Findling branched out on his own, he continued winning noteworthy acquittals. In 1988, representing a DeKalb County minister who killed her husband by dousing him with gasoline and setting him on fire, Findling successfully argued his client was a battered spouse acting in self-defense.
A major win occurred in 2013 when Findling defended Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill. The jury found Hill not guilty of all 25 counts against him, including charges of racketeering and violating his oath of office. During his closing argument, an emotional Findling mocked prosecution witnesses, calling them liars.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Findling represented Hill once more last year when the former lawman faced federal civil rights charges for strapping inmates into a restraint chair at the county’s para-military jail. This time, the jury found Hill guilty. The prosecution asked for a 46-month prison term, but after hearing from Findling the judge sentenced Hill to only 18 months behind bars.
Hip Hop’s Go-To Lawyer
Findling’s work with hip-hop stars began almost a decade ago when he received a referral to represent Radric Davis, who had been charged in 2013 with striking a soldier with a champagne bottle at the Atlanta nightclub Harlem Knights. At the time, Findling had no idea that Davis was well known nationwide as the pioneering rap star Gucci Mane.
(Although he does enjoy rap music, Findling prefers 1970s tunes by Al Green, the Commodores, Barry White, Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind & Fire.)
In the years that followed, Findling began receiving calls from many of hip hop’s rising stars. This includes Waka Flocka Flame, who would be acquitted of illegally possessing a firearm at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. And also Bronx rapper Cardi B, who faced two felony assault counts but pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors in September shortly before her trial.
In 2017, after being shot outside a store in Hollywood, rapper Young Dolph asked Findling to come see him in the hospital. Findling flew across the country to do so and, as the rapper was released, Findling accompanied the music star to a waiting car. Before stepping inside, Young Dolph pointed to Findling and said, “I got a billion-dollar lawyer,” a moniker that has followed Findling to this day.
Kevin “Coach K” Lee and Pierre “P” Thomas, both of whom founded Atlanta’s Quality Control music label, hired Findling after the 2015 arrests of all three members of the hip-hop group Migos and a few other clients after a college concert in Statesboro. They were facing guns and weapons charges.
“He went down there and did his investigation, built a team and one by one our artists started coming home,” Lee said. “After that, the word spread. In the hip-hop community, a lot of these guys are friends, so his name floated around and then, he’s the guy.”
In speeches before national legal groups, Findling has talked about the intersection of hip hop, racism and criminal justice and “the impact this criminal injustice system has on people of color, particularly young Black men.” Findling said some of this stems from the Statesboro case. Local authorities, he said, profiled the young Black rap stars and then, during bond hearings, made false accusations that one of them was in a gang.
“There is this perception that hip hop – rap music – is somehow all tied up in violence and drugs, and that’s crap,” he said. “These are young people who are expressing an art form. They are expressing a frustration.”
Last August, Findling acknowledged that his team was representing Trump and said little else about it. But he went on the offensive in February after Emily Kohrs, the forewoman of the special purpose grand jury in Fulton County investigating Trump and his allies, gave media interviews and said the panel had recommended unidentified individuals be indicted.
Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC
Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC
In an interview, Findling strongly criticized Kohrs. “This type of carnival, clown-like atmosphere that was portrayed over the course of the last 36 hours takes away from the complete sanctity and the integrity and, for that matter, the reliability (of the investigation),” he said.
More recently, Findling and his co-counsels filed a strongly worded court motion on Trump’s behalf that seeks to disqualify the Fulton DA’s office from pursuing the case and to quash the special grand jury’s final report. The DA’s office must respond by May 1.
As for being Trump’s lawyer here, Findling acknowledges his legal work will be closely scrutinized and criticized.
“But it’s part of this amazing and noble profession of being a criminal defense attorney,” he said. “If not us, who else? We trust that we’ll bring honor and integrity to defending this case.”
Four years ago, Findling got the chance to meet the man whose case determined the course of his career decades ago. That’s because Willie “Pete” Williams, the man Findling saw be convicted at trial of raping the Sandy Springs woman, had been freed after spending 21 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. DNA evidence showed the rape was committed by another man who had gone on to sexually assault three more women after Williams was arrested.
Findling and Williams met to record an episode of the Wrongful Conviction podcast. After they both talked about the case, host Jason Flom asked Findling if he had any final words.
“Pete, I just want to wish you the best and let you know that the tragedy that occurred to you influenced the course of my existence — my family, all my clients,” he said, his voice breaking. “I want to hug you.”
And he did.
Meet Drew Findling
Education: Oglethorpe University, Emory University School of Law.
Family: Wife, Beth Kaplan Findling, a corporate recruiter; and three children, two of whom (Sam Findling McFoy and Zack Findling) are assistant Fulton County public defenders.
Career: Fulton County Public Defender’s Office and The Findling Law Firm. President of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (2018-2019).
Notable clients: Former Fulton County Sheriff Jackie Barrett; former Morris Brown College President Delores Cross; former NBA stars Shaquille O’Neal and Dennis Rodman; former state Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine; former Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill; singer Faith Evans; former city of Atlanta official Mitzi Bickers; and hip-hop stars Gucci Mane, Cardi B, Waka Flocka Flame and Quavo, Takeoff and Offset of Migos.