Looking back and catching up with… Peter Greenspun and Mark Cummings

Technically speaking, the International School of Law (ISL) existed for only seven years, from its founding in 1972 until its merger with George Mason University in 1979 when it became the George Mason University School of Law. Despite its short lifespan, no one can question the school’s lasting impact, for it was in this brief time that ISL’s pioneering faculty and students laid the critical foundation for today’s Mason Law.

In conjunction with the 35th anniversary of the ISL’s founding, Mason Law News will profile ISL graduates in its next several editions, sharing with you their success stories and memories of their ISL days. Our first two profiled ISL alumni were brought to our attention by other alumni. All readers are encouraged to send their suggestions for future ISL profiles to [email protected] or call 703-993-8112.          

Peter D. Greenspun (’78)

Greenspun, Davis and Leary, P.C.

Widely known for his work as a criminal defense lawyer, Peter Greenspun has not shied away from difficult, complex and even controversial cases. His extensive roster of clients includes many recognizable names including convicted D.C. sniper John Muhammad and famed sportscaster Marv Albert. Named one the area’s best criminal defense lawyers by Washingtonian magazine, he has been active in the Virginia State Bar and the American Bar Association, as well as a past president of the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Fairfax Bar Association and the Fairfax Bar Foundation.

A Scary Start, a New Home and… an Escalator?

A native of Philadelphia, Greenspun’s legal education did not begin with designs on a traditional law career. Law school was originally intended to be a brief pit stop on the road to running his family’s small manufacturing business. If not for friend and fellow ISL classmate Jerry O’Connell (’78), Greenspun probably never would have heard of the International School of Law and enrolled in 1975.

Greenspun admits that entering law school was a scary prospect for the recent LaSalle College graduate, and during the first weeks of class, he actually thought about quitting. He recalls that Dean Ralph Norvell, who also arrived at ISL in 1975, would “say, ‘Good afternoon,’ but somehow even that was done in the Socratic Method.”

Greenspun’s ISL tenure included the school’s landmark transition from one of several temporary sites in the District to its permanent location in Arlington. While there may have been some disappointment about moving out of D.C., says Greenspun, “it was exciting to find a real home,” referring to the Kann’s Department Store building acquired by the law school.

When ISL began classes in the converted retail space, Greenspun says, “It was like going from a studio apartment to a single family house. All of a sudden you could breath and have space. We had a library to research and study in. We had tiered classrooms. It was just a far, far better environment. But every day, several times a day, you would go up and down the [old Kann’s] escalator and see this ‘Hold Children by the Hand’ sign. It was a reminder of where we had come from.”

When Greenspun graduated from ISL in 1978, it was not yet accredited by the American Bar Association (that would happen in 1979). Without accreditation, he would need to practice law in Virginia for five years before he could be licensed in his native Pennsylvania, where the family business awaited. Fortunately for his clients, Greenspun never made it back to Pennsylvania.

“It’s Been Quite a Ride.”

As a freshly minted lawyer, Peter Greenspun never would have predicted that nearly 30 years later he would be one of the state’s most sought-after criminal defense attorneys.

“I thought I’d be in a bank trust department or writing contracts. These were the classes I enjoyed as a student.”

His first employer, the Vienna, Virginia, firm of Duvall, Tate, Bywater and Blackburn, had other ideas.

“They pretty much ignored what I said I wanted to do, and that’s how I ended up in criminal law. My first day on the job I was in court by myself, and I’ve been there almost every day since.”

When asked what motivates him to do criminal defense work, Greenspun cites the opportunity that criminal cases provide to help challenged people get assistance such as drug counseling and other social services.

“It’s a chance to figure out what went wrong and get them [clients] the help that they need. Cases that end with a plea or a conviction can be some of the most satisfying cases because you know they’re going to get help.”

Greenspun also enjoys the exhilaration of trial work that is central to criminal defense.

Asked how he handles the media spotlight that accompanies high-profile cases and clients, Greenspun says he tries to set ground rules with the media; but generally he says very little to the press.

“I think if you’re worried about what’s going to be said about you in the media, you can’t do those cases.”

Greenspun is quick to point out that “high profile cases are few and far between. Go look in the hallways of any courthouse, and that’s where you’re going to see defense attorneys doing their best work. It’s on the regular cases for regular people where these very important matters for them are being addressed in a proper fashion.”

Despite the demands of his career, Greenspun has managed to maintain a strong connection to

Mason on several fronts. He is a member of the George Mason American Inn of Court, was involved with moot court for several years, and has accepted interns through Mason Law’s Legal Clinic. He is a regular guest lecturer in Mason Law classes, including those taught by his former law partner, Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Stanley Klein. Christie Leary (’00) and James Davis (’97), named partners in his firm, are also Mason Law graduates.

Looking back on his ISL classmates, Greenspun describes them first as eclectic, then quickly adds, “They were the hardest-working group of people I have ever been around.”

“Look at the graduates from the late 70s into the early 80s. You’ll find judge after judge, elected attorneys, people in the state legislature, people on the Hill…Without this group and their hard work, who knows if Mason Law would be here today.”

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