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It was 1963 and Paul Cambria was a high school sophomore looking for a part-time job. Leaning over the counter of Dunkirk's Red Barn restaurant, he was just about to ask the owner to hire him when in walked another student.

The boy was at the top of his class, the son of white-collar parents, and tall -- everything Cambria was not.

That day, he was raring to rub it in.

"Are you sure you can read well enough to fill out that application?" he asked Cambria.

Already at his full height of 5-foot-6, Cambria, then 16, jumped up and punched him.

Paul Cambria turned 50 in March. It's shaping up to be a milestone year for Buffalo's most high-profile attorney.

Marilyn Manson -- the shock rocker who claims membership in the Church of Satan and has been known to simulate wiping himself with an American flag -- has retained his legal services. Already this year, Cambria has successfully argued free speech three times on Manson's behalf, stopping a conservative group's efforts to ban his shows.

Events couldn't have been scripted better. Just as interest was waning in Cambria's other famous First Amendment client -- Hustler publisher and movie subject Larry Flynt -- his latest association with notoriety landed him on the pages of the Rolling Stone.

He deserves to be there. Just ask him.

He'll tell you about 2 1/2 decades of toil, of vigilant pre-trial preparation and a thorough knowledge of case law.

And while those familiar with his legal feats don't shortchange Cambria's obvious prowess, they may also offer a psychological take on his arrival:

He's the short guy who struck back at genetics by becoming big in law. Having had to stand up for himself over the years equipped him with the requisite pugnaciousness for the job, and then some.

Overcompensating for his blue-collar background, he became a conspicuous consumer and forged a proud association with the rich and famous.

That all being speculation, it won't be admitted in Cambria's high court of self-appeal.

"People who don't know me say, 'He's an arrogant little pr---,' " he says, stroking his beard as he sits behind his desk at the Delaware Avenue offices of Lipsitz, Green, Fahringer, Roll, Salisbury & Cambria.

"That's the most frequent comment you will hear -- that I'm arrogant. And it's funny because I don't see myself as arrogant."

"But a lot of people mistake non-involvement for arrogance. I don't go out of my way to socialize with strangers on airplanes. I don't have time for the niceties."

He does admit to a certain height-related defensiveness, though. And he loves telling a good fight story, with those that he wins automatically qualifying as "good."

Boxing in a witness on the stand? Great stuff. Grabbing a man by his tie knot and dragging him across a table at Jimmy Mac's? Better.

"I just called my opponent a slime bag because he was trying to weasel something into evidence that couldn't go in," he chuckles, strutting through Old County Hall. His delivery, which comes from the side of his mouth, sounds like a cross between W.C. Fields and Jack Nicholson.

"He told me he wished I wouldn't get personal, and he didn't think it was fair," Cambria continues. "I said: 'Why not? That's how I feel.' "

Defense attorney Terry Connors describes his colleague as the complete legal package, a combination of street savvy, sharp reflexes and aggressiveness.

"His courtroom style is confrontational, and I think he doesn't make a mistake in trying to be what he's not."

What he's not is restrained. Even in legal circles -- not exactly bastions of self-effacement -- Cambria's ego stands out.

When the subject of Timothy McVeigh's trial is broached, Cambria expresses relief that he didn't have to defend the Oklahoma City bomber. "I would be afraid that my skills would get somebody like that off."

He tells you he's at least as talented, if not more so, than the nation's star lawyers. When asked to evaluate his own celebrity, he doesn't hesitate.

"There's hardly anyone in Buffalo who doesn't know me. I think that, on a daily basis, the only people who do not are the very young people who are starting to mix into everyday life.

"We went to Rockin' at the Knox a couple of weeks ago, and about 20 people came up to me and said, 'I hear you on (The Edge radio station's) 'Shredd and Ragan Show,' and I think you're the best part of it.' "

Yet he insists this is not his ego speaking.

Instead, it's the sound of a man who never wanted to be ordinary.

To understand that statement, you have to consider Cambria before he wore designer suits and had a different car for every day of the week. Before he rode his Harley-Davidson with Arnold Schwarzenegger, jetted around the country for various legal matters and could afford a top-of-the-line hair transplant.

The valedictorian at the Red Barn wasn't the only one who had written him off.

At Fredonia High School he was neither scholar nor jock. His only noteworthy accomplishment was organizing the school's first fraternity. When it came time to discuss post-graduation plans, his guidance counselor offered him two career paths:

Barbering or beauty school.

Yet Cambria's family never held him back. On the contrary. His dad made him work at his Acme Top and Body Shop to show him what blue-collar life was like and to encourage him to be the first in the family to attend college.

And he was. But at Fredonia State he discovered his grammar was lacking. So, while at an auction with his mother, he picked up a copy of a grammar book called "Pitfalls of English," and studied it diligently.

On the back wall of Cambria's spacious Delaware Avenue office, nestled among dozens of certificates, hangs the framed rejection letter from the firm that now bears his name.

"To those who think I'm arrogant, well, there are loads that come along with the fame and the riches," he says, pointing to a slew of magazines, commemorative plates and dolls that an anonymous enemy is having mailed to Cambria's law office, in Cambria's name.

"I came to town with 80 bucks. Nobody gave me s---."

Cambria's plan to live an extraordinary life started taking shape in 1969, when he entered the University of Toledo Law School.

He worked in the district attorney's office, served on the faculty-student governing board and edited the Law Review.

He earned a tuition-free ride by staying at the head of his class all three years. After the initial rejection from Lipsitz, Green, Cambria was hired in 1972, agreeing to a starting salary of $8,900.

Representing Flynt with his mentor Herald Price Fahringer in the 1970s, he carved a niche for himself in First Amendment law. For a time he carried around a folder stuffed with newspaper clippings about the alleged Good Samaritans of the world -- the priests, the Boy Scout leaders and their ilk -- accused of sexual assault. Whenever someone challenged him about dirty magazines or questionable song lyrics, he showed them the file and told them to worry about the real influences in their kids' lives.

He argued before the Supreme Court three times, once on a vehicular search and seizure issue, once on behalf of a video store that carried X-rated titles along with its tamer fare, and once for a Kenmore adult bookstore.

"Everybody knows of Paul's work. He's one of the First Amendment experts," says Barry Scheck, the DNA bulldog on O.J. Simpson's dream team -- a case Cambria says wanted he wanted to be on "in the worst way."

Scheck is a law professor at New York City's Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law; Cambria frequently guest-teaches there.

"He's real smart," Scheck continues. "He's a complete lawyer. He can try a case in court, and he's fearless. He can't be intimidated."

Cambria's claim of having been involved in every major criminal trial in Buffalo in the past 20 years is exaggeration, but perhaps it comes with creating a larger-than-life persona. He has defended dozens of Western New York's accused, ranging from a Seneca Nation chief, a city councilman, a state assemblyman, alleged mobsters, tax evaders and murderers.

His first major criminal trial was a numbers case in federal court; last year he represented Michael Robinson Jr., the rock guitarist acquitted in the bludgeoning death of Buffalo State College student Wendy Kashuba.

"He didn't try the (Lt. Gregg) Blosat case, but he may as well have," marvels defense attorney Margot Bennett of her criminal-law mentor's star power. (Joseph LaTona tried the case, but Cambria cross-examined the prosecution's medical examiner and conducted the direct examination of the Buffalo policeman.)

"How does he do it? It's amazing. Once you have the presence and the name, all you have to do is make that appearance, and you're the one people remember."

Ms. Bennett worked at Lipsitz, Green in 1985, while still in law school.

"He was always nice and respectful to me, but I saw the writing on the wall as a law clerk that I would never work for him as an associate," she says. "That big of an ego doesn't leave much room for other people to shine and soar. I think that atmosphere hurts a lot of people, but I just took it as an opportunity to go on my own.

"I think he can be a little abrupt with people who are not making the mark."

When Cheryl Meyers left the firm this month, the judicial grapevine was buzzing about bad blood between her and Cambria.

Not at all, she argues.

"Whenever somebody's on top, as Paul is, the people below him want to hear something about him. I think that's just human nature, not something particular to the legal community."

Of Cambria's pride, she says:

"I think it's one of the strongest assets. He has a lot of confidence in himself and his own abilities, and he's proven himself time and time again."

Not everyone speaks so glowingly.

Some won't say anything: a defense attorney, a district attorney, and a former associate among them.

Former print and broadcast reporter Lee Coppola watched Cambria at work in the court. He covered the alleged corruption cases involving members of Laborers Local 210 whom Cambria defended.

"To his credit, he will fight tenaciously for his client. But there are certain boundaries that people in any profession should follow, and he doesn't respect them," says Coppola, a former assistant U.S. attorney, now dean of journalism at St. Bonaventure University.

In one case, Coppola says Cambria revealed confidential information to a judge about a job Coppola was interested in.

Cambria doesn't remember anything of the sort. "There would be no confidentiality between Coppola and me to reveal," he says before he punches back.

"Now he's a media teacher? Shows you what kind of a lawyer he is."

There's a popular story of State Supreme Court Justice Frederick Marshall, in the heat of an argument, calling Cambria "a mediocre lawyer."

Fact or fiction? Cambria denies it happened; Marshall doesn't.

"Paul and I never really danced to the same tune," Marshall says.

"However, recently we have been smiling at each other. The fact that we never danced to the same tune may have had something to do with the fact that I never recognized his many talents," he adds, tongue firmly in cheek.

In Cambria's desk drawer there's a picture of him and his second wife, Paula, 28, at a friend's wedding. The two are clutching each other, smiling and giving the photographer the middle finger.

They married last year. It's his second and her first. She has two daughters, ages 3 and 7.

She strolls into the family room of the couple's Williamsville home, brushing her cornrows off her shoulders as she settles on the couch.

"I thought he was handsome. He was so cute," she says, crinkling her nose when asked to describe what initially attracted her to him.

The feeling was mutual.

The two met at Michael's restaurant in Niagara Falls. She was working as a hostess; he was eating beans and greens.

Before leaving, he said to her, "You're beautiful."

She replied, "I know."

Cambria says he has taken to instant fatherhood. In fact, he'd like to have a bigger family: "I think I have a lot to offer children -- and not just monetarily."

Though he declines to quantify his worth, evidence abounds that he's living large. He owns seven cars -- two Mercedes-Benzes, a Ferrari, a Ford Explorer, a Chevrolet 3500 extended-cab truck, a '54 Ford Thunderbird and, a Jaguar in Los Angeles, where he also practices. Two Harley-Davidson motorcycles and a boat round out his toy collection.

Though the couple haven't moved all their belongings into the new quarters (just down the road from the old), Cambria already knows where he'll hang his father's Acme Body and Top sign: near the pool table, to the right of the hot tub and steam room. It's the perfect blend of grease-monkey chic and white-collar wealth, a reminder of how far he has come.

"I spent 25 years chiseling out this reputation," he says. "Hey, I earned this."

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