In a city awash with lawyers, Terry Christensen has a reputation for winning the really tough cases.
Kirk Kerkorian turned to Christensen and his Century City-based law firm, Christensen, Miller, Fink, Jacobs, Graser, Weil & Shapiro LLP, when he was sued by the French banking giant Credit Lyonnais over his sale of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to Giancarlo Parretti.
So did the city of Los Angeles when someone was needed to defend several police officers accused of brutality. And so did City Councilman Nate Holden, who was charged with sexual harassment and wound up beating the rap.
Despite his reputation for taking no prisoners, Christensen's demeanor outside the courtroom is reserved, almost scholarly. In fact, he says that focusing on details and winning the respect of the jury, rather than aggressiveness, are the keys to winning cases.
When he's not litigating or running the law firm, Christensen serves on the boards of MGM Grand and Giant Group.
Question: Do you relish the reputation of being lead partner of one of the toughest law firms in town?
Answer: If the clients bring us the tough cases, then you live or die by the tough cases. So it has always been our fate that people look at us as the firm that will always say yes. We think we can win cases that others don't think can be won.
Q: What has been your toughest case to date?
A: There have been lots of them. Maybe one of them was defending Kirk Kerkorian vs. Credit Lyonnais. That was a war. We were basically fighting the government of France. You think of Credit Lyonnais as a bank, but it's a bank owned by the government. And every time you thought it would be logical for them to do X, they would do Y. They would do it for political reasons. You would start to hear stories about the socialist government and their relations with Italy and what happened eight years ago in a labor dispute. And you can't figure out what they are talking about and why it has relevance to this case.
Q: What was the first case you ever handled?
A: The first case that I ever tried in my life was a murder case. Did you see that Tom Cruise movie, "A Few Good Men"? That was my case. A unit was being shipped to Vietnam and they had one guy in the unit who was a slacker, unclean, unkempt, just a bad Marine. So three guys got him in a shower one night and tried to square him away. And they ended up beating him and he died. So the whole unit had to be kept back from being shipped overseas. All of a sudden you find out about everything else that what was going on the guy who was supposed to be on duty but wasn't, the person who was AWOL. And we also had the extra pressure that the general wanted that unit on trucks to El Toro to fly to Vietnam, and every day it took to prosecute them made him more angry at me.
Q: Did you enjoy the case?
A: It was exciting. I was only 27 years old (and in the Marines), and I was trying a murder trial in front of a jury of officers and enlisted men. We tried the case and we convicted all three. But only two had actually beaten the guy. The third was a corporal who had supervised. But in the irony of life, we convicted all three, but the corporal only got 90 days in the brig and then was sent to Vietnam. The other guys each got 20 years at Leavenworth. But the guys who went to Leavenworth are now probably drinking a beer somewhere. The guy who went to Vietnam got killed.
Q: Your law firm is known for its close ties with City Hall. Was that coincidence or something you deliberately set out to establish?
A: A little of both. Somewhere about 1992 or 1993, we decided to uncircle the wagons. We made an affirmative decision to be more involved in supporting political candidates who we believe in, getting on the boards of charities. We got involved with Mayor Riordan early on. We did something for Jim Hahn, the city attorney. And we had known Zev Yaroslavsky for many years. So there were a group of politicians we supported. Through those contacts we were introduced to the rest of the city and county government. Eventually the city turned to us regarding a dispute over the median that runs down the middle of Santa Monica Boulevard. We did that for them and got a great result, and basically from that result we got more and more business from them.
Q: You and your firm are involved with the Bicycle Club card club in Bell Gardens. How?
A: We've been working with casinos for years. Not just MGM Grand, but also the Stardust, the Dunes, Bally's, ITT Sheraton. Barry Fink, our tax attorney, has probably been involved in buying and selling more casinos than anyone. As a result, we've been approached four or five times by potential buyers of the Bicycle Club. These other deals did not come through. Then Ladbroke (a British gambling company that is buying the Bicycle Club) came along and asked if we could operate it for them, because as a foreign company they can't operate a casino, only own it. At first we said yes, but then as we got into it we discovered that in California you can't manage a casino and have stock in another gaming company. So we had to drop out of it. The end result is that at this point in time we are the lawyers for the operation.
Q: Aren't you concerned that having equity interests in gambling companies and simultaneously representing local governments will appear improper?
A: No, not really, because we get up every morning with a certificate on the wall that says that we are attorneys and every day you have to protect that certificate. So we are always mindful of never crossing the line, or even walking near the line because it's pointless. Why would you put your career at risk? You just would never do that.
Q: You like tough cases, and the toughest case out there right now is Bill Clinton's. What do you think of his defense so far?
A: I think his lawyers have had a rough haul. If they had had all the facts in the beginning I think it all would have taken a very different direction, and probably a better one for the president. One thing I would have advised is to avoid attacking the credibility of Ken Starr. It was the worst thing he could have done. It is never smart to tell the prosecutor that he is a loser. How could Starr let go after it has been said that he is a political hack, that he's doing it out of a vendetta? What's he going to do? Say he's sorry and go home? No.
When I was in the Marine Corps they taught us crowd control. And the most important lesson in crowd control is that you never push a crowd down a dead-end street. Because if you do, they have to fight you. You always have to make sure they have a way out.
Q: You have a reputation for being one of the toughest lawyers in town. But in person you seem almost mild mannered. Do you change in front of a jury?
A: The truth is that the way you see me today is very much the way I would be with the jury and with the judge. This is who I am. But the opposing counsel is not my friend. So I can be tough in regard to the case, but I don't believe in being personally combative or abrasive. I don't believe you need to do that. Because it is what you feel underneath, and having the guts to carry it out, that's what makes you tough.
I may be strict in the fact that I want my side of the courtroom to behave a certain way. Part of the way I want them to behave is decent. If one of them makes a crack, I tell them to stop that. And if the other side makes a joke, I tell them only to laugh if I laugh.
Q: Do you maintain such discipline in the office?
A: This is a group of partners that in 10 years has never had a single vote. We never do what everyone hasn't already agreed to. Because if someone doesn't agree and we can't change their mind, we won't do it. Because we can't be that right if we can't make them agree.
Q: What was the turning point in you career?
A: When Frank Rothman left Wyman, Bautzer (the now-defunct firm Christensen used to work for) to go to MGM, he had been the managing partner of the firm and the rainmaker. I'd been at that firm for 11 years and I think I brought in maybe $400 worth of legal business, which came from my father's electrical engineering company. It had not been my job. It had not been my responsibility. So one day he said that he was going over to MGM and we all had to grow up in a hurry. Within a few years I was bringing in $8 million or $10 million in business. It was really a dramatic shift in responsibility and my life. I tell that story to our people because I want them to know that everybody has it within them to bring in business to be a rainmaker, to bring in business and be a success.
Q: You're in a pretty high-stress business. What do you do to relax?
A: I have kids, little kids. I have a 6-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son. And I have two older kids as well. That takes a lot of the strain off. I'm engaged to be married and my fianc & #233;e has a 9-year-old son, so it is a good combination. So we play with the kids.
I like to be physical, I like to play tennis. But I've never been a big golfer. I guess part of my personality is that, if I enjoy an activity that I do in 90 minutes, then I would rather do that than something I can do in five hours.
I take short vacations to places like the Bahamas, New York and San Francisco. But I don't like the idea of being out of touch. I'm always thinking about what would happen if my office can't reach me. To be honest, work is one of my hobbies.
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