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Stay Gold: An Interview with Brian Cuban

Stay Gold: An Interview with Brian Cuban by Chad Sands

Stay Gold: An Interview with Brian Cuban

The following article was originally published in the Trial Lawyer’s Journal, Vol. I. To subscribe and access the complete 130+ pages of interviews, articles and more, visit www.triallawyersjournal.com for more information.


A COKE-SNIFFING, cat-loving, suspected murderer, and mediocre personal injury attorney. Yes, this accurately describes Jason Feldman, the Mitch McDeere-like lead character in the novel The Ambulance Chaser, but it’s also how you could describe the book’s author, Brian Cuban. Except Brian Cuban has never been accused of murder. However, he has found himself sniffing lines of blow in courthouse bathrooms while working as a personal injury attorney. But that was a long time ago….

If you haven’t heard of Brian Cuban, the name might sound familiar. After all, he is the younger brother of one of the most famous billionaires alive (that would be Mark Cuban). If you have heard of him, and you’re like me, you’ll probably agree that is one of the least interesting things about him.

I first encountered Brian over six years ago during a webinar on mental health for lawyers where he shared (among many other stories and life advice) how at the peak of his addiction to cocaine, he traded NBA finals tickets to score coke… two games in a row… only to (in a state of paranoia) flush the drugs down the toilet without even getting high. In the years since, I have been following him on social media, engaging in his weekly posts on everything from the struggles of body dysmorphia to substance abuse recovery advice to silly cat photos and even more recently, the occasional karaoke post.

I sat down with him to talk about his second (or third?) career as a fiction writer, the struggles of addiction, and why PI attorneys get such a bad rap.

Trial Lawyer’s Journal: What is your writing process like?

Brian Cuban: One of the first things you learn as a newbie novelist is there are no new ideas. There are only eight to ten plots in the world. Anything you’ve watched, read, or listened to is a deviation of some plot that’s already been used over and over again. What there only is, is new and fun characters. So that’s why there are just so many books that feel like just the same old, same old.

I’m not saying The Ambulance Chaser was any massive leap in literary creativity, but I enjoyed writing it. I especially enjoyed it because I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, and I felt Pittsburgh was an underrepresented city in terms of great locations in storytelling. So, for The Ambulance Chaser I went home to Pittsburgh, and I walked through the Cathedral of Learning where I had visualized these scenes taking place. I walked Mount Washington with a video camera. I went to one of the restaurants where it takes place. I went to Fort Bragg, California.

I do a lot of research. I have an idea based on the characters that I’ve inserted and the arc of each character, how things will go. But I didn’t know how The Ambulance Chaser was going to end until I was about three quarters into it. And I have no idea how the sequel The Body Brokers is going to end.

TLJ: Who are some authors who made an impression on you?

BC: When I was young, I was very into The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. I read it and I cried when I read it. Ponyboy. I cried when, you know… “Stay gold Ponyboy.”

And then later in life I got into [John] Grisham. I read The Firm and was riveted. I’ve read every Don Winslow book, every single one. They’re not legal based, but I just love Don Winslow. I’ve also gotten into Brad Meltzer. Meltzer has become one of my favorite authors. But I never read while I’m writing. And so I haven’t read anything lately because I don’t want anyone to subconsciously influence my writing.

TLJ: In The Ambulance Chaser there is an interesting cast of characters — from a former Steelers running back to a cartoonish Ukrainian special forces officer. Where did the inspiration for this intriguing cast of supporting characters come from?

BC: You know what’s funny is because one character, Yak, talks about being in the war and stuff — that was the previous Ukrainian war. People read it and say, “How did you get that out so fast?” Well, I was talking about Ukraine’s previous war, because I’m Ukrainian by ancestry. There’s also a Jewish theme throughout. Jason is Jewish, and I’m Jewish, and I lost ancestors in the Holocaust. It was just something I wanted to incorporate into the story. And I just wanted to create fun characters and yeah, Yak’s a bit cartoonish. He wants to be the bowling champ, right? [laughs]

As I said, I wanted to create interesting, fun characters, and I think I did that. There were legit criticisms of the book. It was my first one and I’ve learned, you know, there could have been a little more character development, and it ended really quickly. But it moves quickly. So, if you’re into the literary type novel, you’re probably not going to enjoy it. You can read it in a day and most people do enjoy it, although the people that hate it rarely tell you.

TLJ: Except in a flashback, Jason never actually does any drugs throughout the story. Was that a conscious choice?

BC: It was a conscious choice to never actually show the main character doing drugs. There’s book after book of lawyers and everyone else sniffing it and going out and acting like an idiot. I didn’t want to recreate The Addicted Lawyer story. I didn’t want to rebuild that wheel. I wanted to tell a story about when you look at the line of cocaine and say, “Is this the time that I’m going to begin my recovery?” That’s what I wanted to hit on. What goes through someone’s mind? What goes through their body? How does their brain react at that moment? Because the dopamine fires just by looking at it and so… can you resist it?

Brian Cuban Quote 1

Why should you resist it? I had that internal battle thousands of times when I was doing drugs. Thousands of “I can this. I can’t that. I can but just this last time.” Because addiction isn’t black and white. Getting a year or two clean isn’t always happily ever after.

TLJ: What can you tell us about the upcoming sequel?

BC: The Body Brokers will delve into the world of addiction, addiction treatment, and body brokering. Generally, body brokering is when treatment centers or rehab centers just fill beds without really caring. They go out and scour parks and homeless facilities to get people in and then charge out the yazoo to get the insurance and put the people right back out on the street and get new people to fill the beds.

The book is a continuation of the character Jason Feldman but you really have to be cognizant of when you write follow-ups. Every book must stand on its own. Every plot has to stand on its own because you’ll have the people who have read The Ambulance Chaser, and then you’ll have the people who have never read The Ambulance Chaser, so you can’t have it all. You don’t want to regurgitate what’s in the previous novel so you have to use different artistic vehicles to get enough information out there so you understand the character’s background when they’re talking to each other. I already know it’ll be longer than The Ambulance Chaser. And it’s also written in the first person present, which some people don’t like. But I like writing in the first person present.

TLJ: The Ambulance Chaser was optioned to be adapted into a screenplay for film. How involved are you in that adaptation process?

BC: You let people do what they do best. The screenplay is being written now, which makes me happy because it’s tough to bring someone on to write the screenplay. And I’ve had conversations with the screenwriter so he could get some of my thoughts. But I said, unless you need background, you don’t need to call me. Right? You do what you do. I do what I do. I mean, something can get written and never picked up. Most don’t get picked up, so you just move on. But if they need me, they know where to reach me.

TLJ: Why do you think personal injury attorneys have this negative connotation of being these “ambulance chasers?”

BC: The movies or people like me who write books. [laughs] I mean, going back to Paul Newman in The Verdict, right? I think you’ve had this portrayal all throughout

cinema and literature: these people are the lawyers. And I think when things go wrong and you have lawyers who are nabbed for this or that — it just reinforces it. When in reality, 99% of lawyers do it right.

But I had lawyers who told me they wouldn’t read the book cause it was called The Ambulance Chaser. They were offended. But you have to keep in mind my book, I wasn’t writing for them. You have to balance all that. I wasn’t writing for plaintiff’s lawyers as an audience. I was writing for everyone.

TLJ: In the novel, Jason is almost killed with a syringe full of deadly fentanyl. What do you think is one of the biggest public misconceptions about fentanyl?

BC: There are a ton of them. To start with, fentanyl is not sentient. It is not a monster. It is not evil. Fentanyl has legitimate medical uses and we demonize it as this weapon of mass destruction. Like it’s a person out to kill people. Pharmaceutical companies have spent millions and millions of dollars perfecting it to be administered in multiple forms, in precious doses.

But then you also have illicit fentanyl that is very cheap. It’s very easy to make. And it’s brought in from China or they make it in Mexico, although fentanyl labs also exist right here in the United States. All the focus is on the border and this and that but labs also make it here. 80% comes in through legal ports of entry, not migrants crossing the border. And that has been going on for some time, going back to the cocaine days with the cartels and the “mules” and all these drugs going through legal ports of entry. So what happens? They just throw more product at it. Unless there is technology that can instantly detect it at the border and it’s not dependent on profiling, drugs are going to come through.

I think another huge misconception — and disclaimer, I am not a toxicologist — is this myth of passive exposure, when you see police officers around illicit fentanyl and they fall over flopping. And they get the Narcan, and they take them to the hospital, and you see the big press release or a new political bill. Or they say somebody overdosed from picking up a fentanyl laced dollar bill. There has never been one toxicology proven incident confirming any of this.

If passive exposure can result in a fentanyl overdose, why isn’t every drug user using fentanyl in America dropping dead? Why isn’t every cop within two feet of it dropping dead? It is just hysterical nonsense. But it pushes a narrative. Right? And that narrative funds law enforcement to buy those big hazmat suits to bring into schools and terrorizes kids and parents. The purpose is to terrorize people in a war on drugs, a “Just Say No!” war on drugs. But the “Just Say No!” war on drugs has failed.

So how can we protect our children? That is the hard conversation that we need to have, that many parents are afraid to have, because they view fentanyl as a living monster that’s going to kidnap and kill their children.

And so how do you have that conversation with your teen? And the hard question is, pushing aside all of the politics of it, how do we keep our children alive? How do you keep your children alive during this crisis? When all it takes is one. You’re playing Russian roulette out there, and we’re seeing this in the suburbs, four or five kids overdosed from fentanyllaced pills. “Oh, seal the border!” Well, bless you, but that wasn’t going to stop that tragedy. I’m not saying don’t do the things you need to do at the border but if you can’t stop the transaction, how do you keep your child alive?

And so that’s a conversation that so many parents are afraid to have and law enforcement doesn’t want to have because they believe moral hazard is a thing. And what moral hazard is, well, “If I talk to them about how to stay alive around drugs, that’s permission to do it, and they’re going to go out and do it.”

They’re going to go out and do it anyways. They’re just not going to tell you about it because you believe all this nonsense. So now you’ve put your child even in more danger by not having some sort of conversation with them.

TLJ: I’ve heard your story about selling N.B.A. finals tickets to score a bag of blow — two games in a row. What is one of the more absurd addiction stories when you were a practicing attorney?

BC: When I was a plaintiff’s attorney in Dallas, Texas, I was not an ethical plaintiff’s attorney. I was heavily addicted to cocaine and alcohol. I was also misusing Xanax, getting it without a prescription. Because I would use cocaine all night and pop a Xanax in the morning. I was doing cocaine in the federal courthouse bathroom, the state courthouse bathroom here in Dallas to George Allen County. I’ve gone to court hearings high, under the influence of Xanax and cocaine. I remember one of the last trials I had was a bench trial. It wasn’t even this huge trial but I was totally unprepared because I spent more time sniffing than preparing.

So I’m driving to the courthouse and I had a panic attack. I was driving under the influence, the Xanax, I was just a mess. I pull over on the side of the highway, open my center console, take out the little baggie of cocaine, sprinkle it on the center console. And I had a straw in there too. And then just went down to the trial.

That was my life. And people who don’t understand say, “Are you stupid? Didn’t you know you could go to prison for that stuff?” I wasn’t stupid. Of course, I knew. But I was addicted. And it gets back to what’s the definition of addiction? “A chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use despite adverse consequences.” Of course I knew it was stupid — I just couldn’t stop.

Now there will be people who read my interview who have done it, you know, and are more “high functioning.” I was not “high functioning.” Maybe they think they’re doing great and say, “That Cuban guy just couldn’t handle his blow.” But I would dispute that’s not possible; if you’re struggling with addiction, there are only drops in levels of functioning.

TLJ: Do you think personal injury attorneys have a different level of stress or substance abuse problems than lawyers in other practice areas?

BC: I don’t think it’s fair to quantify stress and break it out. Whether you’re a real estate lawyer or personal injury lawyer or a commercial litigator, addiction is not good. So I don’t think we should compare, it is not about war stories. It’s about addiction. Lawyers truggle with alcohol, particularly at a rate over twice the general public. And if you’re a female millennial lawyer, it can be up almost 40%. Social isolation is an issue too. That drove a lot of lawyers during the pandemic into substance abuse or tipped them over.

But I do I think the stigma is different in plaintiff’s law versus, say, Big Law. Because most plaintiff’s lawyers are solo, or they’re small. It’s a totally different structure than if you’re in the Am Law or medium firms of 100, 150 people; those generally aren’t plaintiff’s law firms. Maybe if you’re a huge PI firm, you have 10 attorneys or whatever. So, it is just different.

I’ve worked with a lot of lawyers who come to me for help and the people I have the most trouble getting to trust the Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP) or to seek help are plaintiff’s lawyers. Solo lawyers particularly in the plaintiff’s bar. They just won’t do it. Now, that’s not everyone. I’m generalizing, but overall my anecdotal experience is personal injury attorneys tend to be the most resistant because they’re afraid it’ll “get out.”

Brian Cuban Quote 2

TLJ: What advice do you have to anyone who’s at that point in their life when their addiction is at its peak?

BC: I’d say, substance abuse disorder and its impact can’t be defined by the results you’re getting in court or the settlements you’re getting. Look at your life. What I generally ask is:

“How’s your wife?”

“Uh, you know, she left me.”

“How are your kids?”

“They don’t speak to me.”

I ask questions because everyone’s path is different. Try to get someone to take stock of their own life and maybe see, well, things aren’t as good as I think they are. “I just settled that million-dollar truck fatality, I must be okay. Right? The cocaine’s actually helping me.”

Helping you? When was the last time you spoke to your kids?

I’d love to break through the stigma of the LAP and bring them to a point of understanding no one’s going to rat you out. No one. I know you heard it from a guy who told a guy who told a guy, right? It’s going to get to the state bar and this and that, and all of a sudden there’s going to be a disciplinary action.

No, the disciplinary action comes from you not showing up for a trial because you’re high on blow. That’s where the disciplinary action comes — not from struggling with substance abuse disorder.

And so let’s separate the disease from the behavior. The behavior is what triggers a disciplinary action from your client, another lawyer, or from a judge making you take a breathalyzer right there in the courtroom.

You’re not doing any favors. No one’s going to rat. You don’t have to tell them who you are. Say my partner’s struggling. It’s an act of care. It’s an act of caring. When you talk, when you say, my partner or my colleague is struggling, it’s an act of caring. It’s an act of concern. It’s an act of love.

TLJ: What inspired you to become an addiction recovery advocate and coach?

BC: I hit my 16 years of sobriety from cocaine and alcohol in April 2023, but I was struggling with alcohol starting in college at Penn State. I walked through the doors of Pitt Law as an alcoholic, moved to Dallas and discovered cocaine. And as I was moving through all of this, I was really just looking for ways to not have to face stuff. Because I didn’t want to have to face the world. That’s the only reason. I never really wanted to be a lawyer. And a lot of these things were in part done to hide the fact that I was just miserable in my life.

But as I got sober, I was able to embrace the fact that I did not need drugs. I don’t want to do it anymore.  I don’t like it.

For the sober Brian, he gets incredibly stressed in the courtroom, so that was a trigger to me. So, I decided to go into what I enjoy and that is creativity and writing. And it just kind of morphed into a book I wrote many years ago called Shattered Image about my struggles with body image and eating disorders.

And then it morphed into The Addicted Lawyer, which was my seminal book on addiction in the legal profession. And then I decided, okay, how many times can I tell my own story? So, I went into fiction and I wrote my first novel, The Ambulance Chaser, where the main character Jason Feldman is a plaintiff’s lawyer.

And people say, “Are you Jason Feldman?” Well, I am not Jason Feldman. I’ve never been accused of murder, but there are certainly elements of me in Jason Feldman.

TLJ: What did it mean to have your alma mater rename the Pitt Law Wellness Fund to the Brian Cuban Wellness Fund?

BC: I’ve really come full circle on Pitt Law because I walked out the doors hoping I’d never go back. I mean, I was just miserable. I graduated at the bottom of my class, so nobody was certainly helping me to find job interviews. I just had nothing but negative feelings towards my law school. And it wasn’t their fault.

It was my fault. Addiction isn’t a choice, but I was there at a time when there was just exponentially more stigma and you didn’t have the resources you have today in law schools to help students. So I didn’t even bother going to graduation in 1986. I graduated but was just so miserable and just self-flogging myself in shame.

But in 2021, I was invited back to give the commencement keynote. So, I got to wear the cap and gown for the first time keynoting the Pitt Law 2021 commencement. And they honored me by letting me know the Student Wellness Fund is now the Brian Cuban Wellness Fund. Because I really helped start it, I seeded it, and I did that because I didn’t want students to go through what I went through. It was an honor.

Brian Cuban is a Dallas-based author, speaker and activist. He is an authority on male eating disorders, drug addiction, drug rehabilitation and alcoholism. To learn more visit www.briancuban.com.

The following article was originally published in the Trial Lawyer’s Journal, Vol. I. To subscribe and access the complete 130+ pages of interviews, articles and more, visit www.triallawyersjournal.com for more information.

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