The Big Interview... Mark Geragos
Why did you decide to become a lawyer?
Up until the age of 13, my father and hero, “Pops,” was a hard-charging homicide prosecutor for the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office. During his stint as a D.A., I would tag along with him to court and watch him in action. The one defining case, which ultimately shaped my entire future, was that of an 18 year-old young man who was a defendant charged with being in a place where marijuana was smoked. Unbelievably to me, this teenager was sentenced to 16 months in prison not for possessing or using drugs, but just for being present in the room! This experience, besides cementing the idea that I could never be a prosecutor, motivated my desire to represent and zealously defend the underdog.
Starting out, what did you expect from a career in law?
Having grown up watching Perry Mason and reading about Atticus Finch, I grew up believing that defense work was the most noble of callings. But unfortunately the times, and the perception of a defense lawyer, have changed. Not a day goes by now that I do not get asked “how do you represent someone you know is guilty?” After jokingly responding that “when the first client admits their guilt I will cross that bridge,” I usually launch into a diatribe about how we all fight for our clients by any legal means possible because we know that otherwise, the power of the Government goes unchecked. I remind people of the work of the Innocence Project which has brought much needed attention to the scores of people who are falsely convicted by our “justice” system. And I ask them if they would want a zealous advocate by their side if they or someone they love was accused of a crime.
"We all fight for our clients by any legal means possible because we know that otherwise, the power of the Government goes unchecked."
Has it lived up to your expectations?
Absolutely. I've always enjoyed fighting for the underdog and helping those who face overwhelming odds in their quest for justice. That is why for the first 20 years of my career, I focused my practice on criminal defense. However, about a decade ago, I made the decision to transition my practice to fight not just against overreaching prosecutors but also against overreaching governmental entities and corporations, such as Big Pharma and insurance companies. I have found that I personally get the same satisfaction from defending an indigent defendant against out-of-control prosecutors as I do fighting for injured and wronged individuals and non-profits who have been harmed by moneyed interests.
What was your big break?
In 1998 and 1999, I won back-to-back state and federal acquittals for Whitewater figure and former business partner of President Clinton, Susan McDougal, on charges of contempt and obstruction of justice. That's what really put me on the map.
What achievement are you most proud of?
Starting in 2001, my firm commenced class action work fighting on behalf of Armenian families and organizations to assert what many thought to be long lost claims arising out of the Armenian Genocide. These cases presented plaintiffs with a multitude of legal challenges of both a procedural and substantive nature, including jurisdictional issues related to some of the international companies, preclusion under the foreign affairs doctrine, and affirmative challenges based on the statute of limitations.
The cases were met by many, and in particular the national and international defendant corporations, with skepticism about how claims 90 years old could succeed. But through tireless efforts and extraordinary legal work, the initial two cases resulted in highly successful settlements totaling nearly $40 million for Genocide family survivors and charitable organizations throughout the world. The settlement of these cases were groundbreaking in that they represent the oldest resolved cases in US history and are the first recorded cases addressing issues involving the Armenian Genocide.
What differences do you see in today's legal market compared to when you started?
Thirty-five years ago when I entered law school, the 'be all and end all' of virtually everyone in my class was the brass ring of being a big-firm hire. My daughter Teny, who just graduated Loyola Law School in June, has told me nothing has changed in the decades since. However, I think students are now more receptive to starting off on a small firm path in order to get more experience and develop a name for themselves.
What has been your most interesting experience as a criminal defense/trial lawyer?
I've been blessed to have a lot more than one. Literally every trial I'm in seems to be the most interesting.
What, in your opinion, are the highs and lows of criminal defense?
There is nothing quite like the high of helping someone get justice against all odds and knowing that you have really made a difference in your client's life and future. But there is also nothing quite like the low of dealing with the injustices of an imperfect system and especially of having a client convicted of a crime which you don't believe he committed.
Who is your legal hero?
Undoubtedly my father Pops who was and always will be my hero.
What law would you change, abolish, or create?
Given the detrimental impact modern media and saturation coverage is having on criminal trials in this country, and given the demonstrably ineffective remedies available to courts, I believe that the United States should adopt a system modeled after the British Contempt of Court Act of 1981 which allows courts to effectively curb the dissemination of prejudicial information by the news media by authorizing civil or criminal punishments against journalists who publish stories that present a danger of compromising the fairness of a trial. A properly crafted statute would effectively remove the media's incentive to publish material that could endanger an accused's right to a fair and impartial trial.
What advice would you give to students trying to enter the legal profession today?
I always tell students that want to be trial lawyers that the best thing they can do is to find an attorney they admire and go to court and watch them in various trials. I also advise students to volunteer at a firm they want to be a part of (yes that means for no money) and make themselves invaluable there so they ultimately get hired.
"I also advise students to volunteer at a firm they want to be a part of (yes that means for no money) and make themselves invaluable there so they ultimately get hired."