When Miami lawyer Melvyn Kessler defended an alleged Colombian cocaine smuggler in federal court here last week, his strategy was based on an old friend's advice.

"When you can't argue the facts to the jury and you can't argue the law," Kessler quoted his mentor as saying, "argue the stars and stripes."

Kessler acknowledged that the axiom -- that a lawyer should hammer home the constitutional rights of a desperate, and probably guilty, client -- is sometimes useful in a law practice that mostly involves defending reputed drug dealers.

To no surprise of Kessler's, even the flag wasn't enough last week to save his client, Marcos Cadavid, from conviction.

What left the lawyer incredulous, he said, was that the jury needed more than one day to render its verdict.

"I'm floored," Kessler said.

Whether from excessive humor or excessive candor, Kessler, 48, a glib, tanned, 23-year veteran of criminal defense work, cuts an unusual figure among the army of gray, pin-striped lawyers who populate most courtrooms.

As the two sides in the Cadavid trial huddled over proposed jury instructions last week, U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan came across an instruction on the insanity defense. "Put that one in for me," quipped Kessler. "I haven't been paid yet for being here."

Winding up his flag-waving closing argument on Cadavid's behalf, Kessler paused, gazed dramatically at the jurors and said, "When you retire to the jury room, have lunch first. It's free."

Despite an unconventional courtroom style, Kessler claims to be in vigorous demand as the Justice Department escalates its war on international drug trafficking.

He travels constantly on business -- enough to earn free vacation trips to China and Africa last year, he said, thanks to airline bonuses for frequent fliers. According to Kessler, more than 100 of those trips over 20 years have been to Colombia, a major supplier of cocaine to drug dealers in the United States.

His clients always pay in cash -- a hallmark of those doing business in the drug trade, according to law enforcement officials. "I've got more cash than Burger King," said Kessler.

To put his success in context, Kessler said, one has to understand the special world of lawyers who defend alleged narcotics traffickers.

"Winning a case in our business is different," he said. " 'Winning' is keeping our clients on the street. That may mean probation or a reduced prison sentence. It's damage control.

"Especially now, when judges are handing out extremely heavy sentences in drug cases -- 20, 30, 40 years. They throw those numbers around like Monopoly."

Although Kessler lives "comfortably" in Miami, he insisted his fees are comparatively modest. His bill for representing Cadavid in a six-day trial, he said, was $30,000 -- "and I haven't seen dollar one yet."

That amount pales in comparison with the $120,000 fee paid to another lawyer by a codefendant in the case who wound up pleading guilty.

The rationale for a reduced fee schedule is easy, according to Kessler.

"I'm not an expensive lawyer. I don't charge an exorbitant fee by choice, because something goes with a higher fee: a guarantee" of satisfactory results.

"I like living too much to do that."

A native of New York, Kessler has lived in Miami since he was 3. He graduated from the University of Miami law school and intended to specialize in mortgages.

Then, he said, a client walked into his office one day, "plunked down a couple of thousand dollars in cash," and said he wanted Kessler to represent him.

"It was more money than I'd seen in my life and I said, 'Sure,' although at the time I didn't know where criminal court was."

He is the sole member of his firm and pursues his practice in a relaxed, nonchalant style that raised some eyebrows among courthouse regulars in the more formal atmosphere of the federal court here.

At least two nights during the Cadavid trial, he took the air shuttle to New York, using one trip to see jazz musician Woody Herman, instead of boning up for the next day's court proceedings.

He rarely spoke to his client at the defense table. "That's because I'm in charge of the case," he said. "Besides, I told him before the trial exactly how it was going to go."

"He's a fairly aggressive defense attorney by reputation," said John Evans, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice in Miami. "He doesn't take himself too seriously all the time. I'd say he keeps his job in perspective."

"He's a good, competent lawyer," added James J. Hogan, a prominent Miami criminal defense lawyer.

"If he's laid back, that's his personal style. It's not common down here."

In recent years, one client appealed his conviction on the ground that Kessler's representation hadn't been up to par.

But the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the appeal, ruling that simply because the defense strategy failed did not mean that Kessler's performance was incompetent.

Kessler said he would like his two sons, both law students, to become his partners some day. "Have I asked them?" he said, eyes widening. "I've begged. I've pleaded."

But one son has agreed to work only summers with him. The other son, said Kessler, "won't set foot inside the door."