This week’s Member in the Spotlight is Peter Gerstenzang of Albany, New York. Peter has practiced law for over 45 years. The State Bar of New York recently honored him in 2016 with a distinguished service award: “Outstanding Contribution in the Field of Criminal Law.” Peter has honorably served the National College for DUI Defense from 2003-2015 (Regent, Dean, Dean Emeritus). He helped create the Public Defender Training Seminars sponsored by the NCDD, and remains a pivotal force. Peter is always giving of his time, energy, and resources to other lawyers.
Peter grew up in Grand Gorge, New York, an upstate dairy farming village of approximately 500 people. His parents ran the local pharmacy and Peter had various jobs including milking cows, throwing bales of hay onto hay wagons, construction worker and assistant chef. Peter had three siblings, all of whom his parents put through college with one brother becoming a physician, and the other a patent attorney. Peter’s sister is a pharmacist. Growing up, Peter was influenced by the fact that he was a first generation American on his mother’s side. His Mom, Aunt, and Grandmother escaped the pogroms in the Ukraine and emigrated to the United States. His family’s experience gave him a deep interest in, and appreciation of, American history and the development of the United States Constitution. This interest ultimately led him to the legal profession.
Peter graduated from Alfred University and Albany Law School. While in college, he obtained a commission as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Army through the college’s ROTC program. Upon graduating from Albany Law School in 1970, he entered the United States Army and was quickly promoted to First Lieutenant. After serving a year working for the Commander of the Fifth United States Army as the head of an inspection team, he received orders for Vietnam. While serving in Vietnam, he handled court martials as well as other assignments. While in Vietnam, he was promoted to Captain and was honorably discharged upon completion of his tour.
Following his discharge from the Army, he became an Albany County Assistant District Attorney where he served for three years. While there, he designed a DWI prosecution for the New York State District Attorneys Association which is still in use today. He also commenced a 12-year stint as an instructor at the New York State Police Academy in their breath test training program. This led to a myriad of other teaching assignments for various law enforcement, judicial, and defense organizations, including a lecture on forensic odontology, (tooth-mark identification) at a State Police homicide seminar. When Peter opened his own practice, he was quickly inundated with cases referred to him by police officers as well as other people associated with law enforcement. After a few years of all-nighters trying to learn various areas of practice, he hired his first associate to handle the civil end of the practice. Peter concentrated on criminal defense with an emphasis on DWI cases.
In 1987, West Publishing Co., now Thomson Reuters, published his book entitled “Handling the DWI Case in New York” which became a standard reference for the defense, prosecution and the judiciary. Over time, the firm grew to seven lawyers including his wife, Karen, and his son, Joe. Over the last several decades, he has trained judges for the New York State Office of Court Administration and, continues to do programs for the New York State Magistrates Association. He has served as a consultant for the City of New York training prosecutors, police officers and the New York City Criminal Court. He is a regular lecturer for the New York State Defenders Association, New York State Bar Association, and the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Peter is the recipient of numerous awards including the President’s Commendation from the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Peter is Board Certified by the National College for DUI Defense. His publications include articles on cross-examination and summation as well as all aspects of DWI representation. He balances his busy defense practice with many speaking engagements. He continues to lecture for various defense organizations throughout New York State and around the country. For the past 16 years, he has served as Chairman of a national DUI seminar in Manhattan called The Big Apple-DWI on Trial Program. In addition, he teaches cross-examination and closing argument at the Young Lawyers Trial Academy, sponsored by the New York State Bar Association at Cornell Law School.
Peter’s approach to the practice of law is the same as his parents- to the practice of pharmacy. It is meeting the needs of others that makes you relevant as a human being. His advice to lawyers is that while your practice must be financially sound, it should, also, be emotionally rewarding. You can’t be good at, or enjoy doing, something you don’t like. If you do not like helping clients, or do not feel good about what you are doing, get into something in which you do believe. Don’t sacrifice your humanity for the illusion of financial security. One of the great things about a DWI/DUI defense practice is the opportunity to make a real difference in people’s lives. We are often the only voice that clients respect when confronted with their addiction. Peter takes great pride in persuading clients to deal with their substance abuse, become abstinent, and obtain treatment. A DWI/DUI practice requires us to be both attorney and counselor.
When he isn’t working, Peter enjoys playing golf, pickleball, and spending time with his two granddaughters. He and his wife Karen (also an attorney) spend a lot of time on Cape Cod in the summer, and Florida in the winter. Peter and Karen have four children. Joe, mentioned above, works at the family firm. Peter’s daughter, Erin, has her own practice in Atlanta, Georgia; and his daughter, Jenny, has her practice in San Diego. His son, Matthew, speaks fluent Mandarin and is in business in Singapore.
The NCDD thanks you Peter for being such a generous giver to others of your legal expertise. We also thank you for your years of sacrifice in guiding and serving the NCDD with your leadership as it has grown into a college of over 2,000 members these past 20 years. As William Arthur Ward said, “The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.” You inspire us all Peter and we thank you. You can learn more about Peter right here.
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