There’s nothing in law school that can prepare you for a client like Lindsay Lohan.
That much became obvious when a panel of Hollywood’s top celebrity defense attorneys — who have represented a who’s who of big stars in big trouble — gathered at a Beverly Hills restaurant on Tuesday for a candid and fascinating discussion on some of their highest-profile cases.
Hosted by the Beverly Hills Bar Association, "Celebrity Behind Bars: When Celebrity Clients Are Charged With Crimes" featured the cumulative legal expertise of Harland Braun (who quit the Robert Blake murder case after his client granted Diane Sawyer an interview), Thomas Mesereau (best known for winning Michael Jackson an acquittal in his 2005 child molestation trial), Shawn Holley (a member of O.J. Simpson‘s original defense team who has since represented Lohan and the Kardashians) and Blair Berk (whose A-list client roster includes Kiefer Sutherland and Halle Berry).
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"You’re usually dealing with a spoiled brat," said Mesereau, instantly recognizable by his shoulder-length mane of white hair, when asked what differentiates his celebrity clients. "You’re dealing with someone who is very narcissistic, egotistical and used to going through people, and it creates a real challenge. Usually these celebrities are surrounded by enablers — people who are intent and skilled at preserving their position, whatever it is."
Berk, who along with Holley has landed on The Hollywood Reporter‘s annual Power Lawyers list, says times have changed drastically since the beginning of her career, which kicked off with a bang after she successfully defended Ozzy Osbourne in the mid-1980s from charges that his lyrics drove a teen fan to suicide.
"This is a very scary time," Berk warned the room of about 50 lawyers. "I don’t care how famous you are or how minor the criminal defense. It’s a very scary situation when your liberty is at stake…In 2013, you’re not doing your job unless you have a very high degree of sophistication about how these cases are covered and how the different parties in the case will approach publicizing their position in the case."
To illustrate her point, Berk offered the example of the L.A. District Attorney’s office, who have a dedicated publicity unit tasked with shaping public opinion. Berk added that her first step in taking on new clients is to make it crystal clear to them that her services don’t extend to the coterie of publicists, stylists and other hangers-on that typically surround the rich and famous. Or as Berk put it, "I don’t do entourage."
The panel agreed that when it comes to talking to the media — whether it be the client, the lawyer or the dreaded lawyer-sitting-next-to-client — the general rule is that less is more. Still, there are exceptions. Take Lohan, for example. Holley (who in one funny exchange admitted to giving Berk a hard time about the actress, "Because she’s the one who gave me that gift." To which Berk replied: "And I’ll pay for it for the rest of my life!") said the actress was so desperately in need of "good press," she had to undertake the task herself — a media tour which included posing with her client for a portrait in THR. The gesture didn’t do much good: Lohan replaced Holley in January with New York-based attorney Mark Heller, who negotiated the recent plea deal that resulted in her sixth mugshot.
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Braun added that celebrity trials — particularly the more sensational ones — can indeed be swayed by media spin and pointed to the case of client Lane Garrison, the Prison Break star who crashed a Land Rover in a 2007 DUI incident that cost the life of a 17-year-old Beverly Hills High School student. "We had him plead guilty the first time he came to court, which shocked everyone," Braun said. "It minimized the damage to his career. He’s still working."
The panel mostly agreed that cameras in the courtrooms rarely benefited their clients, with Berk going so far as to call them "toxic" and potentially dangerous, particularly to celebrity clients with stalkers, and Braun adding that their presence can too easily affect witnesses’ testimony. Only Holley seemed to think cameras aren’t that big a deal anymore.
"During the O.J. case, I thought [cameras in the courtroom] were a disaster," she said. "That was the first [trial] to broadcast gavel to gavel and it caused everyone to act differently from Judge [Lance] Ito down. But as time has gone on, it’s such a cellphone camera/Facebook/YouTube society, I don’t think people pay that much attention to the camera anymore." Still, Holley recalled one incident — Lohan’s daylong parole violation hearing in 2010 — in which courtroom cameras picked up something she would rather have gone unnoticed.
"What happened was [Lindsay] had ‘f–k you’ [written] on her nail," Holley recalled. "I sat next to her all day. I didn’t see it, the judge didn’t see, the prosecutor didn’t see it. It was really impossible to see it. But the person who saw it was the cameraman who was in the courtroom…I thought that was extremely irresponsible of the cameraman."
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Manicured profanities aside, Mesereau stressed that one obvious pitfall is in trying to impose any drastic changes to a client’s well-worn persona. "You’ve got to be careful not to be a fake," Mesereau said. "I was getting letters in the mail in the Jackson case, ‘Put him in a nice Brooks Brothers suit with a paisley tie and have him walk into court with a white, blonde woman.’ I said, ‘This is crazy!’ I told him, ‘Michael, you’re going to be exactly who you are. You’re going to be proud of it, you’re going to be comfortable with it and you’re not going to look like a fake.’ So he dressed the way he normally dressed."
Berk then interjected, "Pajama bottoms?," a reference to one of the most indelible images of the trial, when the King of Pop arrived late to court in a pair of flowing, floral pajama pants, a security guard on either arm.
"That actually was my fault," Mesereau admitted with a laugh. "He didn’t show up in court. He was at the hospital. I went to the judge and said, ‘I have a doctor on the phone.’ He said, ‘I won’t talk to him, and if [Michael’s] not here in a certain amount of time, I’m going to yank bail and remand him for the rest of the trial to jail.’ So I told Michael, ‘You come here now! I don’t care what you’re wearing.’ So he came in a jacket, a T-shirt and pajama bottoms. That was not the desired attire, but at least it kept him out of jail for the rest of the trial."
The panel stressed that each case is different and requires a customized strategy. They thumb their noses at high-paid jury consultants, loathe the 24-hour news cycle and reporters who require that their stories be "spoon-fed," and generally scoff at widely held notions that their clients receive better treatment or more lenient sentences than their non-famous counterparts.
"Prosecutors will tell you 50 times a day they’re treating your client just like everybody else," Berk said. "They’re not treating your client like everybody else."