The Big Interview... Robert Shapiro
Why did you decide to become a lawyer?
I never wanted to be a lawyer. I was a finance major at UCLA looking forward to a career in investment banking and/or business. In 1965 it was the height of the Vietnam War and I was classified 1-A Fit and ready to go. Everyone in that category was immediately drafted upon graduation. There was an exception if you enrolled in graduate school and agreed to be drafted to the age of 35. Thus my legal education began for that purpose.
Starting out, what did you expect from a career in the law?
After winning the moot court competition, I was encouraged to become a trial lawyer. I joined the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office and knew that trial law was in my future.
Has it lived up to your expectations?
I have been fortunate to have represented numerous high-profile individuals that exceeded all my expectations as a young lawyer.
How did you get into the areas of law you are known for today? By design? Chance? Both?
On the criminal side as a prosecutor for the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office; on the civil side as a name partner in the litigation section of Glaser Weil – both by design.
What do you consider to have been your big break?
My first big case came shortly after leaving the District Attorney’s office when I was contacted by Linda Lovelace, the porno star of the seventies, to represent her on the allegations of possession of cocaine for sale in Las Vegas. I was successful in her defense and it was the first nationally publicized case that I was involved in. Getting that case gave me enormous public awareness and virtually launched my career.
"Being in a courtroom before a jury gives me the most pleasure as a lawyer."
What differences do you see today in today's legal market compared to when you started?
When I began practicing law, it was easy to become a sole practitioner. There was only one Public Defender’s office and when conflicts arose, judges would appoint lawyers like myself who had just left the District Attorney’s office. This not only gave me time to hone my skills as a trial lawyer but allowed me to be in court every day for the first seven years I was a lawyer. Today those opportunities don't exist because of multiple alternate public defenders.
What achievement are you most proud of?
The achievement I'm most proud of is starting The Brent Shapiro Foundation for drug prevention upon the untimely death of our son at the age of 25 due to a combination of alcohol and drugs where he was not given immediate emergency care. He died by aspiration. Today we have over 1,000 kids between the ages of 11 and 16 in our after-school Brent’s Club who have agreed to random drug testing. The program has after-school tutoring, athletics and field trips to sporting events, college campus tours and business exposure. Our club members are rewarded after every successful drug test leading to a college scholarship if they graduate as a sober high school student.
What do you consider your greatest failure or regret?
Greatest regret was not following through learning how to play piano. My father was a professional piano player and I never had the knack for it although my mother kept telling me one day you’ll regret not being able to play piano – she was right.
What have you enjoyed most during your career in the legal profession?
Being in a courtroom before a jury gives me the most pleasure as a lawyer whether it be in a criminal case or civil case.
What are your thoughts on the portrayal of high-profile cases on TV? Is it a good thing?
I am generally disappointed with the television portrayals of high-profile cases. I favor cameras in the courtroom where the cameras are not used for any purpose other than focusing on the witness while testifying.
"I was greatly disappointed in the cartoonish portrayal of me by Mr. Travolta."
What was your opinion of the recent TV series American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson? What did you think of John Travolta's portrayal of you?
I did not watch the American Crime Story after the first episode. I was greatly disappointed in the cartoonish portrayal of me by Mr. Travolta. I was also disappointed to learn from those who reviewed the entire series that there were numerous inaccuracies and things that were simply made up that never happened. I found it interesting that all the lawyers that were portrayed by actors were nominated for both Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Awards. The only person not to win either was Mr. Travolta. He would have been much better served if he had met and consulted with me.
What's the greatest challenge about representing famous individuals?
When representing high-profile individuals, the greatest challenge is keeping them from trying to tell their side of the story outside of the courtroom. I'm a firm believer in that if anyone is to speak regarding a case, the lawyer is the only one for that function.
What were your reasons behind your switch from criminal defense to civil litigation?
I felt I had done everything a lawyer could do trying every type of criminal case from simple misdemeanors to capital murder cases, including cases in the military court. I’m always looking for challenges and civil litigation was something that I wanted to do with my talents. I find it much easier than criminal law.
What law would you change, abolish or create?
I would abolish the death penalty and remove from consideration any jail time for personal possession of any drug. I also would have marijuana reclassified from a Schedule 1 drug to Schedule 5 drug.
Who is your legal hero?
My legal hero is Edward Bennett Williams who was able to excel in both criminal and civil law as well as business.
What career would you have in your second life?
In my second life I’d like to be a boxer.
What slogan would you like to be remembered by?
“Every person deserves the best defense.”
What advice would you give to students trying to enter the areas of law in which you are expert?
The practice of criminal law is becoming exceedingly more difficult especially for people who practice as a private practitioner. I would recommend for anybody graduating law school to take the time to get a Masters degree in business. For those who want to pursue a career in criminal law, the best experience is with a public agency. For a prosecutor, I recommend the District Attorney’s office because they handle so many varied types of cases, and for the defense side, the State Public Defender’s office.