My name is Jonathan Berger and I am a father of two, a married man – to a wonderful woman named Meredith – and I am an attorney.
Tell us about your career journey.
When I was first thinking about going to law school, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be an attorney. So I decided to go to law school because I knew a lot of people who were attorneys, including my parents. After law school, I had thoughts about being an intellectual property attorney. But I wound up in an internship – almost accidentally – working at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office in the Money Laundering and Tax Crimes Unit. And that’s where I began my career as a prosecutor for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. After a storied and illustrious career of seven and a half years there, I decided to go into intellectual property law, which I am doing right now. So I’m practicing intellectual property law, with some criminal defense, and special education law.
What are your top accomplishments?
One of the primary moments that comes to my mind occured just before I started my first trial as an attorney who’s deaf. While I was in law school, I was thinking about being a trial lawyer. I couldn’t find any trial lawyers in New York City who were deaf or severely hearing impaired. Then, my search expanded across the country yet I still I couldn’t find one. So just before my first trial, which they set me up all by myself, I was so nervous because I was using a device called an FM system, and this device was not on the market. The joke was that this device was also impinging on some of the government frequencies, because it wasn’t a licensed product. But it was a joke.
So this whole thing was an experiment because no one knew how I was going to do it. No one. The Manhattan DA’s Office took a chance with me because they heard great things about me. But just before starting the trial I was so nervous because I didn’t know how it was going to work. But I held onto my confidence, I held onto my perseverance – I knew it was going to work. Because in all of the past times when I had problems, I figured out a way to creatively resolve those problems.
When I started the trial I was really nervous, but once the trial commenced, it went really well. It was a week and a half long trial that I argued pretty much all by myself – no other lawyers. The jury came back with a guilty verdict after about an hour. And after the trial ended the judge asked me to the bench. And I was very nervous. “Uh, oh, what did I do?”
My heart was pounding. And the judge said to me, “You know what? You are among the best trial lawyers I’ve ever seen. Here you have hearing loss, profound hearing loss, and you’ve done an amazing job as a trial lawyer in my courtroom.”
Because I held fast to myself, to my principles, to perseverance, to not giving up, to my confidence I was able to get through it. So that by itself was among the most amazing accomplishments in my life. To create a historic moment that probably no one may have done before that.
How did the P.O.L.I.N.G.® Principles relate to that experience?
After I spoke to the judge, I came back to the bench. And I packed up my stuff and I said to myself, ‘You know what, I would not have been able to do this if it was not for my mother and my father. Because they were told that when I was a kid, that I had a lot of other issues. But they refused to listen. Because they said we have other evidence that supports what we believe to be true.’
That moment when I completed that first trial was huge because I realized why it was important for me to teach others, to push others, to do the best that they can do. And that’s why P.O.L.I.N.G.® is important. Because P.O.L.I.N.G.® talks about wanting to push people – ‘others’ – to do better themselves. When I completed the first trial, I made it an important priority for me to mentor other people, other lawyers with disabilities and without disabilities to enable them to do what they wanted to do.
It was so important because I knew that if I did that, after my accomplishment, it would be huge in pushing others to better themselves. And I have done so. And I’ve encountered many people, not just lawyers, but many people trying to be better than what they are. Don’t give up.
What challenges have you faced because of your background?
So during my career as a trial lawyer at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, I was probably the only trial lawyer who was deaf, completely deaf. I am profoundly deaf in both ears. So I used something called an FM system, which basically was a transmitter. But one of the things about being deaf is that my speech is not perfect.
So every time before I would start a trial, I would introduce myself. “Hi, I am Jonathan Berger. I’m a lawyer. I am representing the people of the State of New York. And I’m deaf. And being deaf means, I cannot hear. However, I use special devices that help me function in the courtroom.”
But what was more important was that I explain to them that I have speech issues. Because I can’t hear myself, my speech is affected. That was huge because the judge, the defense attorneys, the juries were all nervous. They didn't want to offend me. And so by my embracing a part of my identity with my speech issues, it made everything a lot easier and it broke the ice in terms of my communicating with the jury.
Who are your influences?
There was probably not just one person who influenced me. There are probably at least two people who influenced me. First was my grandmother Syde Maisel Linowitz; she was this woman who was brilliant. And she was a silent leader. She always taught me that you do good by action, not by talk. So she was one person who influenced me.
The second person who influenced me was a woman named Jill Mariani. She was from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and she was another prosecutor. When I started my internship, I worked for her. She was a short, little, tiny, scrawny Italian woman, who was such a powerhouse. She kept pushing me to be the best I could be. To do better than what I could do. And she inspired me to push to become a trial lawyer at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office because she knew I could do it.
I remember when I was thinking about doing it, I was like ‘No, I couldn’t do it. I’m deaf. How could I function in the courtroom? And she helped me, and she said ‘Jon, you could do whatever you want to do.’ And so she really played a huge role in where I am and who I am today.
And then, of course, I have my family members – my mother, my father, and my brother. And what’s unique about them is that they are entrepreneurs and amazing problem solvers. I am lucky to have grown up with people like that because their thought process – they way they approach problems, the way they approach life –molded me into who and what I am today.
What kind of career advice would you give to your younger self?
If I was looking at my younger self, the first thing I would do is give my younger self a little hug. The second thing I would do is I would say two things. The first thing I would say is, “Don’t let anyone stop you from what you want to do. You can do whatever you want to do.” And the second thing I would say to my younger self is, “When you grow up and while you’re growing up, you’re going to see people say things, you’re going to hear people say things that are not nice. You must remember it has nothing to do with you. When people say negative or mean things to you, I want you to remember it has to do about them. It doesn’t reflect anything about you.
However, sometimes you may come upon people who have some constructive advice. And you should always listen to those, but with a grain of salt.”
What is the value of iD?
What could the iD community do for me, how could it benefit me? That’s an interesting question because, for a long time, I’ve always been self-reliant. I’ve always been someone who believed that I could do what I want to do on my own. A lot of times I forget that we’re not totally independent; that we need others and others need me to coexist, to further everyone, and to further each other.
The iD community is a wonderful reminder that there is a support system to enable me to better myself and others. Because these are people who want what’s best for me. And I want to be in a community where I want people to do what’s best for them and to better themselves. Because that’s a huge part of my personality. I love it when people do well. I love it when you have a small start up, which starts to grow like a seed. You plant the seed, it starts blooming like a flower – I love it. That’s what makes me feel good. And it would be such a pleasure to be in a community, shared by other people who carry those sentiments, and who carry those passions in wanting to help others.
What does ‘Community’ mean to you?
My definition of a community is probably not a typical definition of communities. Because my definition of community involves at least two people, who share a bond. For example, it can be in terms of two people sharing an interest for running, or it can be in terms of two people sharing an emotional experience and creating a bond based on an emotional experience.
So let me explain what that means. There are so many people who go through different experiences in life, but they have the same kind of emotions. They have similar kinds of experiences. Different paths of life, different in terms of what happened to them, but they have the same feeling of sadness, they have reactions. I believe that communities can be created when people bond together because they have a commonality in terms of the reaction or experience – the emotion coming from the experience.
So I may have a commonality with another person who may have a different disability. Who may not be hearing impaired, who may not have hearing loss but because we both share that experience of having a disability, that to me also can be a form of community. So that can be an instance of what I think can be a community.