Mark Geragos made a name for himself successfully representing Susan McDougal, President Bill Clinton’s erstwhile business partner, following her conviction related to the 1990s Whitewater controversy. Since then, he has represented many prominent figures—from politicians to Hollywood elites to pro athletes and more—and has a multitude of fascinating stories to tell. DeMario Thornton talks with Mark about his path through law school, his career choices, and much more.
Mark Geragos is Principal with the internationally known trial law firm of Geragos & Geragos where he has represented some of the most prominent figures in the world.
Intro: Welcome to the official Aba Law Student Podcast where we talk about issues that affect law students in recent grads. From finals and graduation to the bar exam and finding a job. This show is your trusted resource for the next big step. You’re listening to the Legal Talk Network.
DeMario Thornton: So ladies and gentlemen, we have an excellent show for you today. We have the one and only Mr. Mark Geragos with us today. If you don’t know who he is, I’m pretty sure you do, but he has represented people like Winona Ryder, Michael Jackson, Jussie Smollett, Chris Brown. He is a criminal defense attorney and he’s here to talk to us today and give us some gems. How are you today, Mr. Geragos?
Mark Geragos: I could not be better. Life is good and glad to be here. You guys, I think, do the best job at the ABA, so I’m happy to join you.
DeMario Thornton: Thank you so much. I really do appreciate it. So little known fact. Back in the day when I got out of school and probably around 2010, I was fixated almost like obsessed with the Casey Anthony trial and you would come on HLN and you would do HLN and you would do CNN and you would just talk about it. I was like, “that’s what I want to do” like, I want to be a lawyer and I want to talk on TV about being a lawyer and I want to represent people. If you leaving law school, do you think that you would have known you would be where you are today?
Mark Geragos: No, I don’t think so at all. In fact, I believe in about three months will be my 40th anniversary of being sworn in and I left law school before that, obviously. So back then, that was before there was an internet, that was before there was cable news. I will tell you that I always did want to be a criminal defense lawyer. My father was a hard charging prosecutor. Basically got sworn into the DA’s office the same month that I was conceived. I don’t know what came first, my conception or his swearing. It was very close in time and I used to follow him around to court and I thought that was the greatest job in the world, to be a prosecutor. You get up, you talk, basically you take at wo hour lunch and shoot your mouth off in the afternoon and you go home at 4:30. So I thought you couldn’t get much better than that. One of the problems was, though, and I was offered a job in the LA DA’s office, but by then my dad had left the office and was a solo practitioner and I just couldn’t bring myself to prosecute. That was back when marijuana crimes and drug crimes were even more prevalent than they are now. In fact, I often also tell the story of following my father around during the summer and I’d watch him in court. I remember one day seeing him prosecuting a kid who was maybe five or six years older than me, but didn’t look that much older than me and my dad was asking the judge to send him to prison in California for being in a room where marijuana was smoked and that just blew my mind. First of all, I couldn’t believe that was a crime, that you could just be sitting in a room where marijuana was smoked. And then second of all, I couldn’t believe that you go to state prison and the judge sent him to state prison. I remember talking vividly, talking with my father afterwards and saying, “what the heck are you doing?” I may have said evil. I was a budding teenager and shortly thereafter, he left the office and went into private practice and for 40, 30 years after that, I probably believed that I had an influence on my father, that I had talked him into leaving the dark side, as I often say, of prosecution and coming to the light. I told this story at his memorial service when he passed away, and my mother came up afterwards and says, “oh, that’s so cute that you think you talked him out of the DA’s office” and I said, “I didn’t?” She goes, “you were just about to enter high school, and you and your two brothers wanted to go to college, and if you thought I was going to be able to pay for college on 70,000 a year of a DA salary, you’re crazy.” So anyway, that’s how I got into criminal defense.
DeMario Thornton: Got you. So it’s odd that you say that, because, like I said, I saw you speak about the Casey Anthony trial, and I was like, “I’m going to be a criminal attorney.” It’s no if, ands, or buts about it. Matter of fact, I think I’m going to be a public defender, and it’s no if, ands, or buts about it.
And then law school happens, and then you go to all the different places, and you go to the different lunches and stuff, and you’re like, you know what? I don’t know if criminal defense is for me but —
Mark Geragos: Did you become a public defender?
DeMario Thornton: So I’m still in law school, so I finish in May, and I’m going to be working in Biglaw, which actually —
Mark Geragos: Okay, so let me tell you something.
DeMario Thornton: I’m listening.
Mark Geragos: Do you want some gems?
DeMario Thornton: I’m ready.
Mark Geragos: Let me tell you some secrets that they won’t tell you in law school. Okay? First of all, and I don’t know how this evolved, other than maybe who knows, maybe it’s a function of student debt. But the Biglaw kind of grabbing of the brass ring, I don’t know if —
DeMario Thornton: Yes, you said that the brass ring.
Mark Geragos: Okay. So it’s really illusory in this sense if you want to be a lawyer and 50 years ago, 70 years ago, this used to be standard. You’d get out of law school, you’d go for a government trial lawyer job. What did I mean by that? A prosecutor, a DA, a city attorney, a public defender, a county counsel. And why do you do that? Because that’s the only place you can ever get any trial experience. Why is that important? Because if you’re going to go into Biglaw or you’re going to go anywhere else, and if you go straight from law school, there’s a fundamental problem. No client is going to hire you immediately because they don’t want you handling your case, because you don’t know anything when you get out of law school, number one. Number two, Biglaw, I always joke, and I’ve got many family members who went that route. You could die in your office. This is pre COVID, of course, but you could die and be there for three days, and nobody would ever discover you until you started stinking up the place, because you’re in a silo. You’re doing written discovery or you’re doing summaries or you’re doing doc production and doc review, and it is excruciatingly boring. You do not learn, and it does not help you see the big picture, number one. Number two, you don’t ever deal with people. You don’t deal with people who have problems. One of the beautiful things about and I had the opportunity to do this for 20 years straight out of law school, about representing clients is it gives you insight into the human nature. You can’t be an effective lawyer if you don’t have insight into human nature, if you don’t understand how people think. Law school does a weird, twisted thing on your brain. It conditions you to think like a lawyer, which a lot of the times is exactly the opposite of what you need to practice law, especially in a courtroom.
DeMario Thornton: Right, I can only imagine that because most of the time, you aren’t representing lawyers. So you need to think like regular people. So you said, in what I wish I’d known about the brass ring, which is Biglaw. So when you came into law school, you wanted to work in Biglaw or you were like, I want to be in the courtroom tomorrow?
Mark Geragos: So I had, just like everybody else, most of my classmates, everybody wanted the Biglaw job. That was the deal and I don’t even remember the name of the firm, but one of my summers, it was probably rising too well, I interned for a while, and I thought that was the most excruciatingly boring stuff I could ever do. Then after my third year, while waiting for my bar results, I had the fortunate experience of following my father around, and he had three back to back criminal defense murder trials, two in state court, one in federal court, which is not a frequent occurrence, especially back then. This is 1982 1983 and I watched those cases actually pass the bar during or found out that I had passed the bar during those cases. The last case I ended up handling — it ended in a conviction. It was a death penalty case and I ended up handling that young man’s appeal for many years and is out now, and I take great pleasure in that, but it was to me, I often say to young lawyers, one of the things you should do if you’ve got some spare time is go down your local courthouse whether it’s civil or criminal. Sit in the department that is usually the hub for sending out cases to trial.
Mark Geragos: Pick a lawyer, who strikes your fancy based on whatever it is, the way he speaks, or the way he moves, or the way she dresses, or whatever, whatever attracts your fancy, and follow them to the Trial and sit and watch the Trial. There’s nothing like watching a Trial to reverse engineer what a case is about, because what I found by doing that is when you first talk to a client about their problem whether it’s civil, criminal or anything else, you have to think about how am I going to put this case together, how am I going to help this client? And I always think about that in terms of how am I going to present this case in a courtroom, and until you’ve seen how a case is presented in a courtroom, it’s awfully hard to deal in the world of hypotheticals.
DeMario Thornton: Good deal. So we are going to take a quick break and we will be back with Mr. Mark Geragos.
Craig Williams: Today’s legal news is rarely a straightforward as the headlines that accompany them. On Lawyer 2 Lawyer, we provide the legal perspective you need to better understand the current events that shape our society. Join me, Craig Williams, and a wide variety of industry experts as we break down the top stories. Follow Lawyer 2 Lawyer on the Legal Talk Network or wherever you subscribed to podcasts.
Advertiser: The American Bar Association provides access to career changing and life-changing opportunities. Connect with an ever expanding community of like-minded individuals who believe in leaving the world a better place than when they found it. Tap into resources, continuing education, member groups, benefits, and services focused on advancing growth and knowledge in the legal profession. Join us in our pursuit of making a positive impact for all, the American Bar Association.
DeMario Thornton: All right, we are back with the one and only Mark Geragos. So of course, you’ve worked with so many prominent clients. Well, I’m pretty sure all your clients you believe they are prominent. Can you remember who your first big-name client was and how you went about getting the client and going through their case?
Mark Geragos: Well, the first client that got me national exposure was a woman who was charged with embezzlement in LA, and this is back in the 90s. I had been a lawyer for maybe 15, 12, 15 years and the case at that point was known because it was an embezzlement from a world-famous orchestra conductor and orchestra conductor’s name was Zubin Mehta and Zubin and his wife Nancy had employed my client and she was now accused of embezzling from them.
Well, when she came to me, it’s one of the only times of my career, I had four women who are all charged with murder and being housed in what was then called the Sybil Brand Women’s Correctional Facility in LA, which was a notorious place. It wasn’t originally but by the time in the 90s, it had evolved in a kind of a horrible, horrible facility. They had put this client there, she had talked with potential client at the time, she talked with the four other women and they recommended that she talk to me and I met with her and I thought she likes my, my approach, my style or whatever you want to call it. Turns out, I found out later she liked my shoes, of course, you never know why a client is going to pick you as your lawyer, as their lawyer.
That woman by the time we got to Trial in the embezzlement case had become, the case was no longer Zubin Mehta, it was Susan McDougal of Whitewater Fame, because she had been accused and she was the erstwhile partner of Bill Clinton, and it became quite a cause celeb. We got her acquitted of the 15 counts in Santa Monica and then went back to Little Rock Arkansas, and did that case, maybe three or four months later and she was acquitted of the obstruction of justice and they hung on the two counts of contempt.
And it’s funny you asked that question because the other day for the first time in almost 20 years I talked to her erstwhile business partner, President Clinton, and all the talk that you hear about President Clinton and, and I’ve talked to him, but it’s been decades. He remembered details of that Trial, that frankly I had forgotten and he wasn’t even there.
DeMario Thornton: Do you still get nervous when you meet prominent people or I guess you’re a prominent person now, so do you still get nervous or?
Mark Geragos: I wouldn’t say with prominent people, I will tell you when I really get nervous still, and if it stops then I probably will retire.
When I get up to give an opening statement, it doesn’t happen with picking the Jury, but in opening statement, I still get, I get nervous. I have that pit in my stomach because once I pick the Jury and then I’m getting up there to give the opening statement or a client and then I’ve got the client’s fate in my hands, I, I still get that pit, the same kind of feeling I get when I played basketball before a big game.
DeMario Thornton: So being a prominent figure, I know a lot of people they have like, let’s say, just a regular DA or a regular public defender, I’m sure the weight of the world is on their shoulders every single day, but I feel like yours is a heightened sense of like, important. How do you decompress?
Mark Geragos: Well, let me tell you something. If you have kids, there’s no way you can ever get too big of a head or you can think too highly of yourself. So that’s my check on ego, getting expansive or anything else. I’ve got a daughter who’s a spectacular criminal defense lawyer in Manhattan, works for a good friend of mine Ben Brafman, who’s one of the probably the best criminal defense lawyer in New York, and I’ve got a son who’s a Chef, who channels my other great interest which is food and he went completely the opposite direction of the law.
DeMario Thornton: So you have a daughter who is an attorney, and you have a son, who’s a Chef, do you and your daughter argue about cases?
Mark Geragos: Absolutely. We have a — and we have since she was very young, and she’s, she was kind of born for the role if you will. Like, she’s the third generation in direct lineage of criminal defense lawyers and it’s almost embedded in her DNA and she’s had her share of high-profile cases and wins. She has defended — and I keep telling her don’t get used to this, but I think she’s tried as co-counsel five, five or six Federal Trials and has won four of them.
DeMario Thornton: Oh wow.
Mark Geragos: Yeah. The two that she didn’t win were very high profile and very tough uphill battles.
DeMario Thornton: So, a lot of our listeners are law students right now and it seems like it’s so easy to look at your career and be like that’s what I want to do, that’s exactly what I want to do, I want to represent those people, I want to do every single thing he has done, but they feel like they have to check off all of these little boxes and they have to do all these certain things. What do you believe is the — if someone wants to get into entertainment law and they want to do what you do, what do you think they really need to hone in or do to do that?
Mark Geragos: I really, I am a huge believer in you’ve got to find or identify somebody who you want to emulate, not their style necessarily, but who is in your wheelhouse so to speak of where you want to be. And I was fortunate I had my father but I had somebody who just passed away recently, Doug Dalton, who was a kind of a frontline, so called celebrity lawyer before there was such a thing as a celebrity lawyer who was prominent in LA and I kind of trailed behind him and watched him. I watched another guy who he later became a Judge named Warren Ettinger.
And there were various lawyers that I kind of wanted to watch, saw their styles, adopted things that I thought were natural to me or authentic to me and listen to them and talk to them. And then you toil, part of what the key to success is, is you just have to decide where it is and you have to master that area. Once you’ve mastered the area, everything else falls into place and then you would be surprised how much of this kind of trails behind being the master of your niche so to speak and you can’t get defeated. I mean I tell people, I lost the first, I think seven Jury Trials I did and it was very disconcerting, but then I just kept, I kept going, I kept going and then back in the 90s I had a streak of seven years without a loss. So I mean it’s something that you just cannot get discouraged, you have to just keep plugging away and you have to get better and better at what you do.
DeMario Thornton: And I have spoken to so many attorneys and I will say for me that just resonated with me, just because like let’s say, if I’m looking to choose an outfit or something I look in a magazine and I’ll say, okay, this is the type of look I’m going for.
DeMario Thornton: But I’ve never thought to think this is the type of lawyer I want to be, so let me look to this person and see how can I alter or follow the path that they’ve followed. That is so — I am going to do that now and I know you are one of my people, so I’m going to start checking off some things that you’ve done.
Mark Geragos: Well, I’ll tell you another thing that I did. There are lawyers who I’ve admired over the years who I didn’t know or passed away. And if there are biographies or autobiographies, Edward Bennett Williams is one and I think his book is called “The Man to See.” I remember reading that. He was kind of a go-to lawyer in the District of Columbia and actually ended up owning the Washington — then what was called the Washington Redskins. And there’s been other lawyers over the years. I was reminded the other day one of the guys that worked at his firm, Williams & Connolly was David Kendall. I remember early in my career, David was enormously helpful and wise with a lot of good information. It’s an amazing thing to pass down and I know you hear it all the time, but especially with what has happened with the evaporation, I guess, or the rapid extinction of jury trials, especially federally, you just don’t see that many jury trials anymore, federal system, especially in criminal because it’s so — you get penalized if you lose. And trial lawyers are kind of a dying breed and I hate to see that.
DeMario Thornton: Yeah, so we will be right back with Mr. Mark Geragos and we’ll continue that conversation a little bit later.
Jud Pierce: Workers’ Comp Matters is a podcast dedicated to exploring the laws, the landmark cases, and the true stories that define our workers’ compensation system. I’m Judd Pierce and together with Alan Pierce, we host a different guest each month as we bring to life this diverse area of the law. Join us on Workers’ Comp Matters on the Legal Talk Network.
Christopher T. Anderson: If you’re a lawyer running a solo or small firm and you’re looking for other lawyers to talk through issues you’re currently facing in your practice, join the Un-Billable Hours Community Roundtable, a free virtual event on the third Thursday of every month. Lawyers from all over the country come together and meet with me, lawyer and law firm management consultant, Christopher T. Anderson, to discuss best practices on topics such as marketing, client acquisition, hiring and firing, and time management. The conversation is free to join but requires a simple reservation. The link to RSVP can be found on the Un-Billable Hour page at legaltalknetwork.com. We’ll see you there.
DeMario Thornton: All right, we are back with the one and only Mark Geragos. So, Mr. Geragos, in a different multiverse and you were not a lawyer, what would you have been?
Mark Geragos: One of the things that we’ve been doing recently that intrigues me is my partner and I, law partner and I and Ben, who is my law partner founded an organization called MeidasTouch, which is a progressive democratic kind of PAC, if you will. And they also have YouTube videos that go viral. And he did that kind of media thing, and then we just purchased a conglomerate of magazines in the Southern California area and that it’s intriguing. I have very few hobbies, so that’s kind of where I channel my free time, if you will.
DeMario Thornton: Got you. What would you say to someone to prevent burnout? Because I see a lot of lawyers, they start early, they graduate school about 24, and then they get burnt out. What can you say to that?
Mark Geragos: My humble opinion? Burnout usually happens to those who get on that brass ring big law track. I see it repeatedly and I don’t know, maybe by experience or for where I sitting, I get that. But that tends to be — the problem is that you don’t get — I mean I’ve been fortunate in my career that I can pick and choose cases that I want. I mean, five years, six years ago now, I had a gentleman walk into my office or I met him in New York, I forget which came first, but he was an athlete and he had kneeled on the sideline of the San Francisco 49ers and he was basically blackballed by the NFL.
And we brought a collusion case, and the rest is history and his name is Colin Kaepernick. And we’ve been fortunate we still represent, Colin today. You know, it’s an honor to represent somebody like Colin who stood by his beliefs and to be able to do that. I’m also right now defending the executive director of the State Bar of California, who’s been charged by the State Bar, who he used to work for 10 years ago, roughly. And that gives me a little bit of a charge in being able to take on governmental entities, especially when I think governmental or corporate, when I think they’re picking on people.
DeMario Thornton: Is there ever a day where we could see a Judge Geragos on TV?
Mark Geragos: They’ve come to me a couple of times on that. And look, I probably shouldn’t say this because people will say it’s a joke, but I have my ex — one of my close, dearest friends and my ex-partner who was with me for almost 20 years as a judge. I can’t imagine anything I’d rather do less.
DeMario Thornton: Not even transactional word.
Mark Geragos: My father — to quote my father, he used to say, ”I’d rather sell oranges on the side of the freeway.” So I tend to agree with him.
DeMario Thornton: Got you. Well, I want to thank you so much for your time and thank you for these gems. I know I really resonated with a gem that you dropped today. So thank you so much for your time. Is there anywhere that we can follow you or see you?
Mark Geragos: We do a podcast for almost 10 years now. It was with Adam Carolla. Adam is taking a sabbatical called “Reasonable Doubt.” I stayed up all night thinking up that name, and if you go to “Reasonable Doubt” on YouTube or on Apple podcasts, it’s a perennial top 50. Take a listen. We try to get fairly unusual and intriguing guests in the legal field, and it’s, I think, pretty fascinating.
DeMario Thornton: I actually listened to your first podcast, the very first one, when it very first came out with Adam Carrola. It was very entertaining. So thank you so much for joining me today, and thank you so much.
Mark Geragos: Thank you, DeMario.
Outro: If you’d like more information about what you’ve heard today, please visit legaltalknetwork.com. Subscribe via iTunes and RSS, find us on Twitter and Facebook, or download our free Legal Talk Network app in Google Play and iTunes. Remember, U.S. Law students at ABA accredited schools can join the ABA for free. Join now at americanbar.org/law student.
The views expressed by the participants of this program are their own and do not represent the views of nor are they Legal Talk Network, its officers, directors, employees, agents, representatives, shareholders and subsidiaries. None of the content should be considered legal advice. As always, consult a lawyer.