Photo by Gregory Cowley.
Veteran criminal defense attorney Cris Arguedas is among a small subset of the Lawdragon 500 Leading Lawyers in America – the type of attorney who excels at high-profile corporate fraud matters as well as murder, drug and sex cases, and really anything and everything in between. Like others in this elite group, Arguedas is admired for her courtroom skills, as displayed in the 2011 perjury case of slugger Barry Bonds in San Francisco federal court, along with her ability to beat back an investigation before the public ever hears about it.
Arguedas, a 1979 Rutgers Law graudate, is name partner at Arguedas, Cassman & Headley in Berkeley, California.
Lawdragon: As a New Jersey native, what brought you out West? Did you think you would stay as long as you have?
Cris Arguedas: I came to San Francisco as a law student to work on Emily Harris’ case. She was a member of the SLA and accused of – and eventually pled guilty to – kidnapping Patty Hearst. It was a very high profile and interesting case. I imagined I would just stay for a couple months but San Francisco proved irresistible, and I immediately started looking for post-graduation work. I got hired as an intern at the Federal Public Defender, which turned into a real job when I passed the bar.
LD: As you were developing into a top trial lawyer, was there someone you saw as a mentor or tried to emulate?
CA: I went to watch every great lawyer that appeared in the federal building while I was a public defender: John Keker, Jim Brosnahan, Mark Topel, Albert Krieger, Michael Tigar, Michael Kennedy, Tony Serra. I could emulate some aspects of each of them, but they were all men; and that sometimes translates differently. Then I met Penny Cooper who later became my law partner for 20 years. She was one of the best lawyers I have ever seen – to this day, in all the areas: courtroom work, cross examination, preparation, relationships with clients, judges and adversaries.
LD: Your area of law is still male-heavy. Have you seen any advantages of being a woman defense attorney in the types of cases you handle?
CA: For sure. Juries still tend to think women are sincere, as opposed to being hired guns. Their starting point is that we believe what we say, and that is a great advantage in establishing credibility with them.
LD: As someone who has such a great reputation at cross-examination, preparation and courtroom skills generally, a layperson would like to know – how often do you find yourself getting stumped or thrown off course in court?
CA: As a criminal defense lawyer, it is par for the course to get thrown. You just have to expect it, not fear it, and take pride in knowing that you know how to get up off the mat.
LD: Any rituals you follow before or during trials?
CA: During trial, I’m rigid about eating right and exercising regularly.
LD: I realize specific strategies would vary case by case, but are there any global changes to handling the media in high-profile cases that you have made in recent years?
CA: I used to generally avoid the media. Now, I don’t think you can do that. So I try to pick a theme, say it over and over again, and avoid commenting on specific events, like a judge ruling one way or another on something.
LD: What do you do to relax and recharge after a long trial?
CA: Golf. Vacations. Yoga.
LD: Getting back to New Jersey, was there a course, professor or experience at Rutgers that stands out for you in terms of its influence on the career you chose?
CA: I had a summer internship at the Center for Constitutional Rights. They had me choose between two cases to work on. One was a class action against the police on behalf of battered women who had been ignored. That case was an entire file room of boxes of depositions and no one had seen a live person in years. The other was a women’s self-defense murder case where you could pick up the file under one arm, and it was all about ballistics and conflicting witness statements. And it was going to court immediately. I picked that one and never looked back.