The Avenger

Thane Rosenbaum in The New York Times, June 18, 2010

Media Source

June 18, 2010

By LAURIE WINER

ON a May morning in Los Angeles, a beautiful, somber brunette sat to the left of the lawyer who would present her case to a room full of about 75 reporters, photographers and camera people. “We are here today because another alleged victim of Roman Polanski’s sexual predatory conduct has come forward,” the lawyer explained, her face set in a familiar, concerned frown as the cameras whirred. “Charlotte Lewis, of London, England, who appeared in Roman Polanski’s film ‘Pirates,’ alleges that she was victimized by Mr. Polanksi when she was 16 years old.”

For the lawyer, Gloria Allred, if not for her client, this was not an unusual morning. Over the past three decades, Ms. Allred’s face has appeared with remarkable regularity as — depending on one’s perspective — a feminist avenging crusader or a deluxe ambulance chaser catching a ride on the latest tabloid scandal. “Other victims should come forward to talk to law enforcement or to talk to me,” urged Ms. Allred, who was sitting atop a yellow-pages directory to make her 5-foot-2 frame more visible.

It is in this large white room with its clear view of the Hollywood sign that you may have seen Ms. Allred sitting next to one of Tiger Woods’s alleged mistresses, Veronica Siwik-Daniels, just as in earlier days she had famously sat alongside Amber Frey, the former girlfriend of the convicted murderer Scott Peterson; the families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald L. Goldman; the aggrieved ex-girlfriends of Charlie Sheen, Shaquille O’Neal and Dodi Fayed; an aspiring singer named January Gessert, attempting to make it clear that she played no part in the breakup of Kim Kardashian and Reggie Bush; Mr. Woods’s kindergarten teacher, Maureen Decker, repudiating an often-repeated tale that Mr. Woods was the victim of racial epithets as a young child; and a host of women whose faces loop through TMZ.com, Us Weekly and People.

A quick trip through YouTube will also yield a Technicolor parade of other cases with which Ms. Allred has associated herself, including, most recently, that of Debrahlee Lorenzana — the nicely endowed woman with a penchant for fitted suits whose appearance seemed to upset her bosses at Citibank.

As cameras clicked and reporters scribbled in their notes, Ms. Lewis, with Ms. Allred looking on supportively, said she had come forward, nearly three decades after the alleged offense, to “make sure justice is finally done and that Mr. Polanski gets what he deserves.”

Mr. Polanski is under house arrest in Switzerland, waiting to see if he will be extradited to the United States over a 1977 sex-crimes case in which he was charged with raping a 13-year-old girl; he pleaded guilty to having unlawful sex with a minor but fled the country before final sentencing.

Ms. Lewis would later describe Ms. Allred as “a terrier,” explaining that she hoped to affect a judge’s ultimate sentencing of Mr. Polanski in that 1977 case with her own story of what she said happened to her in 1982. She decided to hire her after reading her 2006 book, “Fight Back and Win.”

“I needed a strong advocate,” Ms. Lewis said. “I felt I needed an American attorney, and I wanted a female. I felt completely protected and safe with her sitting by my side.”

Two weeks before that press conference, on a much quieter Los Angeles morning, Ms. Allred, who turns 69 next month, sat at the same extra-long table, impeccably turned out, as she seems always to be — this time in beige pants and a beige jacket, a silk scarf with splashes of red and black, gold earrings and a gold chain around her neck. Her short hair was neatly streaked and coiffed, her skin impressively youthful and her makeup careful and judicious. She is small and trim, though she does hardly any exercise. “Fighting injustice keeps you young,” she said.

Ms. Allred’s definition of injustice is sweeping. At this point in time she is in the news for assisting Rachel Uchitel and Ms. Siwik-Daniels (perhaps better known as the adult-film star Joslyn James), two of the many women who have emerged in the life of the prolific golfer Mr. Woods. “Whatever number you have read is probably right,” Ms. Allred said. (The National Enquirer reported 121).

She also recently represented Vanessa Lopez in a suit against the basketball star Shaquille O’Neal, and accompanied Kate Gosselin’s brother, Kevin Kreider, and his wife, Jodi, as they testified during an emotional Pennsylvania legislative hearing on child-labor laws.

But the overwhelming majority of cases handled by her 10-lawyer office, Allred, Maroko & Goldberg, involve workplace discrimination and wrongful termination, and Ms. Allred has handled many heart-wrenching cases that don’t make the tabloids.

There is also no question that her high-profile work has helped to make it one of the most well-known litigation firms in the country. Michael Maroko, Ms. Allred’s law partner of 35 years, said he first noticed her in class at Loyola law school; she was the student who was always challenging the professor.

“Whenever I go to a dinner party,” he said, “someone inevitably asks me, ‘Who is your P.R. person?’ ” He laughed. “We don’t have a P.R. person. In 35 years we’ve never paid one penny for P.R. Gloria just has an ability to handle the mishegas. She can face 150 cameras as cool as a cucumber.”

If today it sometimes seems as though Ms. Allred is living in the nascent feminism of the 1970s, so, in a way, are many of her firm’s less visible clients: women (and men) who have been sexually harassed or fondled at work, girls who’ve been molested, or female prison inmates forced to wear handcuffs while delivering their babies. Those who support Ms. Allred argue that cases like those of Ms. Lorenzana and Citibank fit into this galaxy — but with tabloid glare, notoriety and guaranteed publicity thrown into the mix.

Thane Rosenbaum, a novelist and law professor at Fordham University, sees Ms. Allred as what he calls “a moral attorney,” which he defines as someone who takes on a case without any thought for her own reputation or even whether she’s going to win or lose in the courtroom.

“She represents people who we might not want to go to lunch with,” Mr. Thane said, “and she ruffles the feathers of people who think lawyers should confine themselves to the courtroom. She takes on issues that are too messy for the courtroom. Some people think it’s salacious, what she’s bringing into the public square. She’s in effect saying: ‘I move the ball out of this arena and take it into this arena. Being a quiet, demure woman will get this case nowhere.’ ”

THE first thing to understand about Gloria Allred is that she does not care what you think about her relationship to media. If you search for any sense of embarrassment or shame, such as you might feel if your name were a late-night punch line for any joke regarding overly tenacious lawyering, you will not find it. It doesn’t exist. Her relationship to media is like Oprah Winfrey’s to money. It is uncomplicated, and you are free to project onto it whatever you like.

Recently, the comedian Chelsea Handler spoke for those who feel less than sympathetic toward Ms. Allred and some of her clients. “I understand Gloria Allred is an attorney, but if all she’s concerned about is women who are wronged, there are plenty of women with regular jobs in the Midwest that nobody has ever heard of who have been cheated on by their husbands,” Ms. Handler wrote on her blog. Earlier, on her late-night talk show, Ms. Handler had been even more explicit: “She’s the worst. She’s the worst. Talk about setting the women’s movement back a hundred years.”

Whatever your response to her style, it is indisputable that Ms. Allred has carved a place for herself in popular culture. Her name popped up in an April “Saturday Night Live” sketch involving a high-school student, played by Justin Bieber, who warns his amorous teacher, played by Tina Fey, that he’s “going to call Gloria Allred.” In the current issue of Harper’s Bazaar, Ms. Allred is photographed dressed in armor as a modern-day Joan of Arc.

Rather like another high-profile lawyer, Marvin Mitchelson, who died in 2004 and who tried a range of traditional cases before becoming known as “the king of palimony,” Ms. Allred handles many worthy cases that never see the light of the flashbulb, but she has a singular knack for seizing the ones that bring the press in droves.

Emily Bazelon, a senior editor at Slate.com and a former editor of the Yale Law Review, said that “some of her causes are incredibly worthy, but her way of going about it makes me cringe.”

“I think it’s largely a good thing for women that they are more reticent about self-promotion,” she added, “but I also know that women sometimes can come out behind because of it. And if a man behaved as Ms. Allred does, he would not be called shrill, as I know she often is. So I think there’s some gender stereotyping going on there.”

When a crew from the CBS entertainment-news show “The Insider” came to Ms. Allred’s midtown Los Angeles office one afternoon last month to ask her why she had taken on Ms. Siwik-Daniels’s case, Ms. Allred spoke without a note of reticence: “These women have no money, no power. There are very serious consequences when women are not empowered. Humiliation, depression, poverty.”

She put on her do-not-mess-with-me face. “It is very frightening to feel alone when you are standing against a rich and powerful person and all his attendant helpers,” she said. “It’s dangerous out there. It’s the Wild West. People come to me to tell them how to manage the maelstrom. And the defense” — here she allows herself a little smile — “the defense just hopes the woman doesn’t hire Gloria Allred.”

ON a recent spring Saturday, Ms. Allred was wearing a classic fuchsia St. John pantsuit as she greeted me at her weekend place in Malibu, Calif. The house, which came furnished when she bought it eight months ago, is one of those spaces that, when you step inside, makes you feel as if you are floating on the ocean, which in fact can be seen out every window. She has added very little to her new home, which includes bedrooms for her daughter and two grandchildren, aside from family photos and a painting or two.

The open kitchen looked little used; Ms. Allred confirmed that suspicion. She did take cooking classes when she was married to her second husband, the former lawyer William Allred, but those days are long gone. They divorced in 1987 after 19 years of marriage, and she will never remarry, she said. “I’m not interested in dating. I like being with my own best friend, me. Certain women, particularly older women, cannot believe I like going to a social event by myself. But I do.”

Ms. Allred’s daughter, Lisa Bloom, joined us for lunch at a restaurant up the street from her mother’s home. She is attractive, fit, vegan. Like her mother, she is a lawyer who frequently represents clients whose lives intersect with the famous. At the moment, she is representing Lindsay Lohan’s father, Michael Lohan, who is trying to force the actress into a drug-treatment center.

I pointed out that mother and daughter, who are very close (Ms. Bloom worked in her mother’s firm for nine years), resemble each other. “I wish I looked like that,” Ms. Allred said, gazing at her daughter with a smile. “Look at her!”

Ms. Bloom was explaining her mother’s worldview. “She is deeply offended when someone in power takes advantage of a woman,” she said. Her mother joined in: “My work is not about popularity contests. It’s not even about justice. Justice would be that they had never been raped. Or abused or fired.”

This seemed like a good moment to bring up the subject of a three-point calamity that shaped the young Ms. Allred. She was a divorced single mother by age 21, left without child support. At 25, when she was working as a teacher at Jordan High School in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, she was raped while on vacation in Mexico. As a result, she underwent an illegal abortion that landed her in an intensive-care unit, where, while almost bleeding to death, a nurse told her, “This will teach you a lesson.”

“I originally thought it was my own bad luck,” Ms. Allred said, as her daughter poked her fork at her salad and kept an eye on her mother’s face. “Eventually I figured out there was something systematic in the way women are treated.”

Ms. Allred returned to the subject of her work: “Some women fought very hard to get us our rights. They were vilified at every turn. So now we are here to reinforce those rights, to protect those rights. Women can’t enjoy equal opportunity if they are sexually harassed at work.”

Ms. Allred had earlier spoken of some of her more prominent cases, including a successful suit against the New York Friars Club for excluding women, and a complaint against Pasadena Superior Court Judge Gilbert Alston, who had dismissed a rape-and-robbery case in which the victim was a prostitute because, he said, “the law was set up to protect good people” — not “a street-walking prostitute.” The judge, who has since died, also said, “This case shouldn’t have been filed,” and further clarified his position for a Pasadena newspaper, saying, “A whore is a whore is a whore.” (The Commission on Judicial Performance notified Ms. Allred that “it had taken appropriate corrective action” against Judge Alston. But the rapist whom the judge did not jail went on to attack three more women.)

IT probably came as no surprise to anyone that about a week after the Citibank story broke on Ms. Lorenzana — the tabloid favorite known as “bank babe” — Ms. Allred’s office issued a press release announcing that she would be acting as Ms. Lorenzana’s co-counsel. (Citibank has denied discriminating against Ms. Lorenzana.)

As Ms. Lorenzana found herself in the eye of a media storm, she was represented by lawyers who did not make her feel confident. It was her boyfriend who came up with the idea of phoning Ms. Allred, and the two women met a few days later in New York.

“I knew right away she was the person to represent me,” Ms. Lorenzana said in a telephone interview. “The media was attacking me for having surgical procedures. But that is a separate issue from my having a right not to be harassed at work. Gloria understood everything that I was feeling.”

The hiring of Ms. Allred got a lot of press, not all of it good. Ms. Handler weighed in on her show again, this time with an extended skit lampooning the lawyer and her clients — but it was yet another reminder of why Ms. Allred has become such a go-to advocate for women caught up in a scandal: She apparently gets results.

Late last year, for instance, when Ms. Allred abruptly canceled her scheduled news conference for Mr. Woods’s ex-paramour Ms. Uchitel, it could mean only one thing, according to Ms. Bloom, Ms. Allred’s daughter, who was speaking on air in her capacity as a CBS legal analyst. “As we say in the law,” Ms. Bloom said, “Mr. Green has arrived” — legal-speak for a cash settlement. (TMZ.com reported that Ms. Uchitel collected $10 million from Mr. Woods in return for confidentiality; Ms. Allred would not comment.)

Ms. Bloom went on to describe the backstage drama behind the press conference’s cancellation. “In all of my mother’s 30-some years in the law, I’ve never known her to cancel a press conference,” she said, perhaps not joking. She explained that her mother had been caught by paparazzi leaving the offices of Mr. Woods’s lawyers on a Monday and then caught again leaving Ms. Uchitel’s hotel two nights later. When Ms. Allred scheduled the news conference, she said, that was a signal that financial negotiations between the two parties had broken down, and when she canceled said conference, she was in effect making a tacit announcement that a settlement of some kind had been reached.

Whether or not she plays out her cases in front of the cameras, Ms. Allred — who will not disclose compensation on cases like this but said that “most cases that we take are on a straight contingency” — sees media as part of the message.

“The concept of fairness is always culturally defined,” she said. “Even here, where we think we are such an advanced nation, people advise women to grin and bear harassment in the workplace. I say, ‘Do complain.’ It’s only going to get worse. We have rights so that we don’t have to go like beggars with cups in our hands asking for mercy. We have to be heard in the court of public opinion as well as in the actual courts. Silence is the enemy.”

As for her legacy, both legal and moral, Ms. Allred said that she is not much concerned about it. She was quick, though, to relate her Uncle Simon’s theory about how men tend to perceive her. “If a man feels good about the way he’s treated women in his life, he likes you,” she quoted him, laughing, “and if he doesn’t, he hates you.”