Interview: Legal Perspective

Once defense counsel to celebrity clients, Howard Weitzman takes new approach to law career.

Staff Reporter

Howard Weitzman is practically as famous as the clients he has represented.

His career took a public turn when he successfully defended automobile mogul John De Lorean against investment fraud and cocaine conspiracy charges in the 1980s. Since then, Weitzman has represented a long list of celebrities, including Michael Jackson, Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Ozzy Osbourne. He was O.J. Simpson's first attorney after being charged with the murder of his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, a friend.

In 1995, Weitzman left a 30-year legal career to join Universal Studios, where he served as executive vice president of corporate operations. He resigned three years later, and engaged briefly in managing startup technology firm Massive Media Group, which shut down in late 2000. In November, he returned to his law practice, becoming a partner at Proskauer Rose LLP's L.A. office.

Question: Why return to the practice after more than six years on the corporate side?

Answer: I just got bored. I was an entrepreneur in both spirit and practice from the time I got out of law school. I had my own firm, I dealt with high profile cases that required decision-making skills and thinking on your feet. In the large corporate world, decision-making is more difficult because there are a number of constituencies you have to deal with. You have to have more patience than I had, and you have to have the fortitude to be able to play the politics involved with corporate life. It's just a reality. And I'm probably not the most political person in that situation.

Q: What is the difference between serving in the corporate versus the legal world?

A: In the corporate world, you really have to deal with getting the most you can out of the people who run the various businesses underneath you. It's really a skill set of managing individuals. I think the meetings tend to be longer than they should or could be.

Q: Do you think of yourself as a celebrity lawyer?

A: I've been fortunate over the years to represent some of the most high profile cases and personalities. I definitely don't look at myself as a celebrity. I've had many clients say to me, "The only reluctance I have in hiring you is that you're a celebrity lawyer. Will I get more publicity?" My response is, "No. If you're not a celebrity walking in the door, and it's just another case, with all due respect to the media, they're not interested. It's just another case."

Q: You were initially retained in the O.J. Simpson case, only to step down.

A: I didn't want to have anything to do with that case for fairly obvious reasons. You had a judge who was star-struck, you had lawyers who played to the camera, you saw all the negatives in lawyers' personalities. There are people whose opinions are that the wrong verdict was arrived at in that trial. I am one who holds that opinion.

Q: What is your take on the Robert Blake case?

A: If I were representing Mr. Blake, I would talk less and evaluate the evidence more. You've got Harland Braun (Blake's attorney) out there criticizing when he's told us he's still got to read 35,000 pages of discovery. You have to wait and see what the evidence is. The District Attorney has made a charge and an arrest for murder. They either have the evidence, or they don't.

Q: How do you feel about cameras in the courtroom?

A: The Simpson case alerted the system, and probably the public, to the dangers of cameras in the courtroom. I don't think there should be cameras in the courtroom. I think the people who say cameras should be there because the public has a right to know totally miss the issues. That's just created so someone can sell time, as an entertainment vehicle. There is no newsworthiness to real time reporting of what goes on in the courtroom. That's just baloney, in my opinion. And it changes the landscape of what takes place in the courtroom. Anybody who thinks lawyers, judges and witnesses aren't aware of the cameras and that it doesn't have some impact on them is being disingenuous or naive. The reality is it changes it all.

Q: How has media coverage of high-profile cases changed over the years?

A: Cable really changed the landscape. It required more of an entertainment mix to draw the viewers in. De Lorean was interesting because it was the first time something was covered day in and day out by the media. It was a change in the way television news reporting was done.

Q: Do you think courtroom drama is out of control?

A: It's totally out of control. Most people can't say no to the cameras. The media plays it up for entertainment purposes. It makes good business sense. If I can get somebody on camera to say something outrageous, then great. They can promo it and sell more ads. But I'm not so sure you do the client any good that way. And it really shouldn't be about the lawyer.

Q: And now you're out of criminal defense.

A: I do virtually no criminal defense anymore. Not to say I wouldn't do it if the case came along, but I've been there, done that. Now it's straight business litigation and transactions. Partnership disputes, corporate issues dealing with shareholder lawsuits. I've been involved in mergers and acquisitions. I've done some labor disputes and disputes in litigation, real estate matters.

Q: Was that a conscious choice?

A: Criminal defense is a very difficult proposition. I have always viewed it as a very serious responsibility because you're dealing with someone's freedom. But I was always intellectually concerned with winning in a way that wasn't appropriate, and it always bothered me when guilty people walked free. It still bothers me. When I got out of the day-to-day practice of criminal law 20 years ago, that was one of the reasons. I've turned down a lot of cases in the last 20-plus years because I believe the person committed the crime they were charged with.

Q: Was there a pivotal moment for you?

A: There were two. When I undertook the representation of De Lorean and had the opportunity for the first time to do battle with the government and unmask some of the practices and evils in the justice system. The second thing was leaving the practice to go to Universal and have a real experience of seeing how a multibillion-dollar company is run.

Q: What was the Universal experience like?

A: Melding an economic and financial discipline surrounding creative people is more difficult than it may appear. Creative people don't really want to deal, for the most part, with the bottom line. They want to create the best product. Somehow, you have to strike the balance.

Q: You joined Universal under MCA's ownership and were there during the transition to Seagram's. Why did you leave?

A: They actually dissolved the position, but I had fulfilled the responsibilities that were given to me when I came there. The company was very different than when I got there, and Edgar Bronfman Jr., who at the time was chairman of Universal Studios, and I agreed that I needed to move on and they needed to move on.

Q: What was Massive Media trying to accomplish?

A: Massive Media was creating digital rights management software. It was a program based around security issues, kind of legalized Napster platform what Napster should've been.

Q: Why didn't it work?

A: It's been two years since the company closed and there are still no music or videos to buy electronically. And that's not because there isn't some form of technology out there. The music industry wasn't ready to accept large institutional business software.

Q: What does your corporate experience bring to the law practice?

A: It gives you the opportunity to see things differently than when you just acted as a lawyer. I was a hired gun. Most lawyers are. Now I want to look at the other side's position. I hear what they're saying but in my mind I want to look at the other side. I want to see if I can understand the business and what's best for the business as well as for the clients.

INTERVIEW: Howard Weitzman

Title: Partner
Organization: Proskauer Rose LLP
Born: Los Angeles, 1949
Education: Bachelor's of Science, USC, Juris Doctorate, USC
Career Turning Point: Representing John De Lorean in the 1980s and joining Universal Studios in 1995
Most Admired People: U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Arthur Alarcon, L.A. Superior Court Judge Warren Ettinger and Rod Dedaux, his baseball coach at USC
Personal: Married, two sons

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