Out of all the lawyers on our list of Finalists for the Lawdragon 500, Shawn Chapman Holley may be the one most often called by celebrities embroiled in sensitive legal situations.
In the past year, Holley represented Lindsay Lohan in relation to her DUI offense and prevented Mike Tyson from being prosecuted after an airport altercation with a photographer. She is currently representing football star Reggie Bush, who is suspected of accepting improper gifts as a college player. Other celebrity clients have included Paris Hilton, the Kardashian sisters, Michael Jackson, Tupac Shakur and Axl Rose.
The partner at Santa Monica's Kinsella Weitzman Iser Kump & Aldisert got her start at the public defender's office of Los Angeles County, then later joined the Law Offices of Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr. - where she helped defend O.J. Simpson. Holley's appearance on numerous TV shows over the years has added to her prominence on a national scale.
Lawdragon: Can you describe when you knew you wanted to be a lawyer, and what your motivation was?
Shawn Chapman Holley: My mother was a legal secretary for a firm specializing in legally filing for divorce in Utah. When I was growing up and whenever I would visit her office or whenever we would go to her work functions there would, naturally, be loads of lawyers. And they were nice and smart and seemed happy, so I thought I'd give it a shot. I was too risk-averse to pursue my true dream of being a famous Hollywood actress, so I thought "trial lawyer" would be the next best thing. But it was when I started in the Public Defender's Office (first, as a law student doing a summer clerkship) that I knew I had chosen the right profession. And since then, I have never second-guessed my decision. It is amazing to be able to help people at one of the most difficult times in their lives.
LD: What stands out from your time as a public defender?
SCH: The first two years at the PD's Office were magical. Honestly, I would have done the job for free - that's how rewarding it was. As an extremely young (and new) lawyer, you are able to make an immediate difference in someone's life. Your ability to make a persuasive argument which gets someone's charges dismissed or gets them out of custody on their own recognizance so that they can keep their job or get home to their family is a powerful tonic. Doing those sorts of things on a daily basis with a group of energetic, like-minded young public defenders is a wonderful and exciting experience.
LD: How did you come to join Mr. Cochran's practice? Is there something about the practice of law or life lessons that you learned from him?
SCH: I was working as a public defender in downtown L.A. and I was embroiled in a lengthy hearing. Mr. Cochran was in the courtroom and he watched me in action. Right after the hearing, he invited me to come to his office for an interview. At the time, Mr. Cochran's law firm handled only civil rights and personal injury litigation - no criminal law. But when he offered me the job, I had to say "yes." And I'm so happy that I did. Mr. Cochran became my true mentor in the law and he was like a father to me. He taught me that you can be nice and pleasant and funny and charming to everyone in the courtroom (your adversary, a witness who is opposing you, the judge) and still be an effective advocate and exceedingly successful lawyer.
LD: So much has been written about the O.J. Simpson trial. What memory stands out most for you from the trial or the immediate post-verdict period?
SCH: There is really no one memory that stands out. The entire experience was amazing. We worked tirelessly seven days a week (including holidays), 12-15 hours a day to assist a client who we believed, at the time, was wrongfully accused. And collectively we did excellent work. To be denigrated by some in the press after the verdict was surprising, to say the least.
LD: With the passing of time, have you come to any new conclusions about why the trial seems to hold such an important place in American social and legal history?
SCH: The trial had everything: the handsome, rich football star; the beautiful blonde; issues of race and sex and glamorous lifestyles. And it was a true murder-mystery. There was even a witness which was a dog.
LD: What are some of the challenges of representing celebrity clients like Lindsay Lohan, when news outlets like TMZ disseminate information about the cases so quickly?
SCH: When effectively representing celebrity clients, your responsibilities are twofold: you must successfully handle the court case and you must also successfully protect the client's image and reputation. To the extent that you are focused on the latter, the former is necessarily impacted - but almost necessarily in a good way.
LD: Do you ever get tired of dealing with the media?
SCH: If I had my way, I would never talk to the media. The media scare me. But sometimes it is in the client's best interest to talk to the media and those are the occasions when I do. I never talk "off the cuff," so I don't generally run the risk of saying the wrong thing.
LD: What made you want to become involved in TV shows like "Power of Attorney," "The Verdict" and E!'s coverage of the Jackson trial?
SCH: When done responsibly, legal television programming can be a good thing: it can be educational and informative. In each of the legal shows I have done, the producer of the show, when telling me about the project, described it as being educational and informative. These promises and representations were not always honored, however. But for the most part, I think I have always done my best to provide helpful information about the law to the television audience. The thing I enjoyed the most about being on television is making my 89-year-old grandmother and her 90-year-old best friend (who calls herself the "president of my fan club") proud.
LD: Has this helped in your legal practice?
SCH: I don't think that my television work has helped my legal practice in any significant way. I am an honest, caring and conscientious lawyer and I think that those qualities also come through on television. In other words, I think these qualities serve me well in both contexts.
LD: Aside from your work for celebrities, what's a case that our readers may not know about that holds special significance for you?
SCH: The highlight of my legal career so far has been being a part of the Geronimo Pratt defense team. Geronimo Pratt was a decorated Vietnam vet and Black Panther leader who was convicted of a murder he didn't commit and sentenced to life in prison. I was part of the team of lawyers which helped free him and helped get his conviction overturned after he had served 27 years in prison.
LD: What do you see yourself doing in ten years? Would you go into TV or other media work full time?
SCH: I used to want to be a judge, but I think I like "the action" too much to put that aside to merely referee others in action. I love being a lawyer and I love my practice, but I am always open to new and interesting opportunities.
LD: What do you do for fun, in your "spare time"?
SCH: I have a seven-year-old. There is no "spare time."