Former O.J. Simpson attorney Robert Shapiro is one of the most famous criminal defense attorneys in the country, but these days he’s angling to be known for working civil cases. A name partner at Glaser Weil Fink Jacobs Howard Avchen & Shapiro LLP for the past 15 years, Shapiro says he spends most of his time on business litigation, though in the past he’s represented everyone from Johnny Carson to Phil Spector in criminal matters. He’s also a businessman with interests in online companies LegalZoom, which provides legal documents over the Internet, and ShoeDazzle, a seller of footwear, handbags and jewelry. The shoe retailer was co-founded by Kim Kardashian, daughter of his O.J. Simpson co-counsel Robert Kardashian. At 68, Shapiro is fit and trim, keeping in shape by boxing three times a week. Even though he dislikes giving interviews, he was gregarious and accommodating, offering his remarks while sitting at the desk of his Century City office. He spoke candidly about the death of his son, the best advice Jack Nicholson – or anyone else – ever gave him and why he doesn’t want to talk about Simpson (although he did anyway).
Question: When was your last sit-down interview?
Answer: I would say at least five years ago. Here’s what we would like, and I know I can’t direct an interview, but basically what I am trying to accomplish is to let people know I’m taking and have taken a change in my career more towards civil. I’m still doing criminal, but on a real selective basis.
Why don’t you like to talk?
People ask, but I never want to talk about the things they want to talk about. They always want to talk about Simpson. I have no interest in talking about Simpson. Simpson was 15 years ago. I’m beyond Simpson. I gave two interviews after the case, I wrote a book, and after that my answer is “No-J.”
Is it because you think the Simpson case had a negative impact on your career?
It’s who you talk to. Anything with controversy is going to have positive and negatives. The media’s a strange thing. Charlie Sheen said it best the other day: “I’m the lead story on every news channel today, and yet the Middle East is in the biggest revolution the world has ever seen.” Everybody likes gossip, plain and simple. Nothing more, nothing less. No one wants to hear about civil cases, that’s for sure.
You’ve been working civil cases for 15 years, so why push to publicize it now?
Because I really want to focus more and more on it. It’s important to me for the public to know that there is much more to me as a lawyer than just a few high-profile cases.
Why are you attracted to them anyway?
It’s just a different atmosphere, a different challenge and dealing with, quite frankly, a different class of people.
A different class?
Usually the people you deal with in the civil cases, especially in the business cases that I’m dealing with, are more sophisticated. I have more in common with them on a personal basis than I do with people that I’ve represented on criminal cases. They’re people you can socialize with, spend time with and have a continuing relationship with, whereas with criminal cases it’s just one time.
You also have founded and remain involved in businesses.
My job is being a lawyer – that’s what I do, that’s my 9-to-5 job. I work with LegalZoom more as a consultant. I’m involved in major decisions, but I’m not a member of the board and I’m not an employee. The same thing with ShoeDazzle, and I don’t have an office in either place. And my free time is spent on a foundation that we created with my wife called the Brent Shapiro Foundation for drug and alcohol awareness, which we started in 2005. My elder son passed away when he was 25, and that’s when we started the foundation.
What can you tell me about that?
To this day I really can’t explain how I feel about it. It’s a horrible event that nobody would want to have to experience. It never leaves you. It’s with you all the time. And you have to develop certain mechanisms to be able to compartmentalize. For me, it was talking about alcohol and drug dependency disease.
How did your son die?
My son was in his third year at USC, he was on the dean’s list. He was a drug addict and alcoholic.
Did you know it?
I did at some point in time, but I didn’t know it early enough. I didn’t recognize it early enough. But he had been sober for 18 months. He went to a party with his fiancée, who’s a little bit older. For some reason that is inexplicable he broke his sobriety, had a couple of drinks, took a half of ecstasy, and got very, very sick. Nobody wanted to take him to the hospital and report it because they didn’t want us to know. And he actually aspirated that evening, which caused him to go into cardiac arrest. By the time he was taken to the hospital, he was already brain dead.
How did you hear about it?
His fiancée called me at 7 in the morning on Sunday and said, “Brent’s not breathing and he’s turning blue.” She gave me the location, and I knew it was close to Cedars. I said, “Have you called the paramedics?” She said, “Yes, just before I called you.” I said, ‘I’ll see you at the hospital.” When we got there before the paramedics, I knew the news wouldn’t be good. And it wasn’t.
Do you remember what was running through your mind that day?
I remember like it was yesterday. I can tell you the minute the phone started ringing. I remember waking my wife up, getting to the car, rushing down to Cedars-Sinai, waiting for the emergency room, talking to the fire captain who told me what they had done and what his condition was, spending the next five to six hours in the hospital, and getting my own doctor who was a personal friend and bringing him back to the hospital. The best doctors at Cedars were attending to him but time was against us.
What happened once he got to the hospital?
He was put on a respirator immediately. And it turned out you have about a five-minute window before you have irreversible brain damage. And they made it to about seven minutes, so it was too late. He was on a respirator artificially breathing for a day, and the doctors came and examined him and found there was no brain function. Then we made a decision no parent should have to make.
The decision was made by you and your wife?
And my other son, Grant, who is now 26.
Other than the practical way of responding with the foundation, did it make you view life differently?
It’s the ultimate life-changing event that is with you night and day. There’s no way to say how somebody should react. I think everybody reacts in a different way. My way was to stay busy, to focus as much as I could. Actually I tried a case two weeks later, an attempted murder and arson case in Pasadena.
Did it make you view your career differently?
You know, I really can’t tell you how it changed me. It’s changed me, but I can’t articulate the way it has.
How soon did you set up the foundation?
The next day. Two thousand people came to the memorial service. We did something very unusual, which is that anybody who spoke, spoke about either personal experiences with drugs and alcohol, or experiences with Brent dealing with drugs and alcohol. So we dealt with it head-on. One of my friends said, “I’d like to make a donation to your favorite charity.” And I thought about it and just instantaneously said I want to start a foundation for alcohol and drug awareness. He wrote out a very generous check right out on the spot.
Why was it important for you that people talk about Brent’s dealings with drugs and alcohol at the service?
People have to communicate about this disease. It can’t be a shameful disease, it’s not a secret. In the last five and a half years since we’ve had this foundation, it’s almost impossible to come in contact with anybody who has not been directly affected by this disease – either a loved one or friend or child. It’s an epidemic we do not deal with or communicate with on the same level as any other disease.
Let’s shift back to your career. How did you become a criminal defense lawyer for celebrities?
Upon graduation I was hired by the district attorney’s office. I was there for two years. I left and did criminal defense exclusively as a sole practitioner. I took just about anything that walked in. I would do a few accident cases, some divorce cases, some adoption cases. My office was on Sunset Boulevard.
What did you like about it?
I liked going to court. For the first seven years I was a lawyer, I was in court every day the courtroom was open. I had a philosophy in investing in people – if a client wanted me for a lawyer, I never turned a client down. I’d heard lawyers say, “I can’t take a case because I’ll lose money on it.” Well, if I was sitting in my office, I was losing money. If somebody saw me in court and I did a good job, maybe they’d ask for my card, and maybe if they needed a lawyer, they’d hire me. Every time I appeared in court, I would pick up clients. And that’s how I built a practice. You could do five, 10 a day, the types of cases I was doing when I started out.
What was your first high-profile case?
I got very fortunate. Within a year after going to private practice, I got the first major publicity case in a long time, when (adult film star) Linda Lovelace got arrested in Las Vegas for possession, sale and transportation of cocaine. We got the case dismissed. And then I started getting a reputation and was getting more important cases. That was in the early ’70s.
What were some other big cases?
The ’70s were drugs, sex and rock ’n’ roll. And I represented a lot of people in the music business and the entertainment business who were charged with serious crimes. And I was able to build a relationship with the managers and promoters and the talent. In the ’80s, I got two major cases back to back. One was on a Friday night when F. Lee Bailey – he was the most prominent lawyer in America and had just finished the Patty Hearst case – got arrested for drunk driving in San Francisco. On Saturday, Johnny Carson got arrested for drunk driving in Los Angeles. Both of them hired me.
What was your career turning point?
I really think the thing that changed my career dramatically was when I represented Christian Brando (charged with murder in 1990).
Marlon Brando had his choice of any lawyer in the world to represent his son, who was the only one he had actually fathered – he had adopted 11 other kids. It was the most famous actor in America, one of the most well-known people in the world. The fact he asked me to represent his son when his life was on the line was extremely significant.
How big was it?
Now everybody says Simpson, Simpson. I had done a lot of high-profile cases, but the Brando case was the case at the time. I became very close with Christian and very close with Marlon.
What was Marlon Brando like?
He was a very, very intelligent man who wanted to know all the issues that were involved in his son’s case. There were a tremendous amount of forensic issues dealing with the angle of the bullet, the degree of intoxication that was suffered, the psychiatric and psychological issues involved, and he was extremely hands-on.
What’s your style in the courtroom?
I try to be low-key, very respectful. I don’t yell; I don’t scream; I don’t lose my temper. I’m very controlled. I try to relate to juries in a very, very clear and understandable way and present things in story form that a jury can relate to. That’s especially true in civil cases. Because many times the concepts are very complicated.
What’s the best advice you ever got?
Speak low and speak slow.
Who told you that?
Are you two friends?
He’s more of a social acquaintance. I represented (film producer) Bob Evans for years and was involved doing a lot of civil work for him and in trying to put together a movie called “The Two Jakes” (starring Nicholson).
When did he tell you that?
During the Simpson case. And he was repeating the best advice he ever got.
Who told him that?
To the best of my recollection, it was John Wayne.
What did you learn from Simpson?
That’s an impossible question to answer, what I learned from it. It was a trial unlike any other trial. There will probably never be another trial like that, with the cast of lawyers on both sides, the issues that were involved, the media coverage that was involved. It was just something that took place once in anybody’s lifetime. I don’t think there will be another trial like that.
How did it change your career?
It certainly gave me name recognition, not only in this country but really across the world. It certainly opened up business opportunities for me, something I was always interested in. There was a lot of negativity attached to it at the time. There was a tremendous divide in this country between African-Americans and Caucasians as to whether that verdict was correct or fair or just. It was a very difficult time on my family.
We were followed around constantly. No privacy whatsoever for years.
Where do you and your family live?
I’ve lived in one house my whole life. I lived in an apartment growing up when I was in law school, then I bought a house in 1971 and I’m still in that same house. It’s in Benedict Canyon, near Mulholland.
That’s not very Hollywood. Why haven’t you moved?
I like where I live. I’m very comfortable. I’ve remodeled the house several times. It’s on a cul-de-sac. It’s in a great area. I’m close to the Valley; I’m close to the city; I’m close to my office. I can get to any courthouse.
You also have been married to the same woman, Linell, for a long, long time.
We got married in 1970, so now she’s put up with me 41 years. My son has his own condo, but he’s a DJ and he has a studio in our house and he’s out there almost every day.
Are you into music?
I can’t carry a tune. My father is a professional piano player and my son got it from him.
Yes. My favorite music is Frank Sinatra.
I hear you box in your free time.
I train every other day.
When did you get into it?
About 25 years ago.
Ever been scared in the ring?
Never? Not once?
No. Anxious, yes. If you show fear, you lose.
Why do you like boxing?
Boxing is very similar to being a courtroom lawyer. You’re out there alone. You have to rely on yourself, you have to really be able to think on your feet and think quickly. You have to both be offensive and defensive.
Ever fight for prize money?
No. That’s my next career, after I finish being a civil lawyer.
TITLE: Name Partner
FIRM: Glaser Weil Fink Jacobs Howard Avchen & Shapiro LLP
BORN: Plainfield, N.J.; 1942.
EDUCATION: B.S. finance, UCLA; J.D., Loyola Law School.
CAREER TURNING POINT: Representing Christian Brando, charged with murder in 1990. (Brando pleaded guilty to manslaughter.)
MOST INFLUENTIAL PEOPLE: “Idolized” famous attorneys Melvin Belli, F. Lee Bailey, Edward Bennett Williams, Frank Rothman, Gerry Spence.
PERSONAL: Lives in Benedict Canyon with his wife, Linell; Has a 26-year-old son, Grant.
ACTIVITIES: Boxing, mountain biking.
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