Lawyer Limelight: Trent Copeland

Trent Copeland’s accomplishments in the legal world are remarkable. A “military brat,” he graduated George Washington University Law School and made his way to Los Angeles – land of movie stars and sunshine.

And he did find stardom, or more accurately it found him. After leaving Big Law, he took the profoundly bold step of starting his own law firm doing civil and criminal defense, while attending UCLA to learn storytelling. He’s tried and handled hundreds of cases, and learned the nooks and crannies of L.A. courtrooms near and far.

That expertise drew CBS News to him after he became a valued source due to his ability to succinctly sum up complicated legal theories in high-profile cases. Copeland became the network’s first African American on-camera legal news analyst where he covered cases from Michael Jackson to Scott Peterson to Michael Vick.

He recently brought his formidable talents to the partnership of Browne George Ross O’Brien Annaguey & Ellis.

Lawdragon: Tell me about your first trial after you left big firm life and went out on your own? Such a brave move.

Trent Copeland: Although I had second-chaired a few civil trials working at a big law firm, nothing quite compared to handling my first criminal trial out on my own. It was a felony theft case – but just barely a felony because the value of the item that was stolen was just a couple hundred bucks over the threshold for a felony charge. But I prepared and typed the motions, I literally did my own investigation knocking on doors in the neighborhood looking for alibi witnesses and I even personally served the subpoenas.

During the prosecution’s case, one of their witnesses mentioned a name of someone who was selling hats in the neighborhood at the time of the theft and who may have seen something. So during the lunch break, I drove to the neighborhood which was about five minutes from the courthouse and right on the corner was this guy selling hats. I was in a suit and I’m sure I looked like someone he didn’t want anything to do with and the guy kind of blew me off and at first didn’t have much to say.

So I bought a hat from him – like, the most expensive one he was selling – which was only about 10 bucks. But he instantly warmed up and gave me exactly the information I was looking for. So I bought another hat. And that was enough to persuade him to come back to the courthouse with me and tell his story. Right before the afternoon session was going to start, I told the prosecutor about the guy and he interviewed him right in the hallway and found him credible enough to dismiss the case. I was so relieved not just that I’d won the case, but that I didn’t have to explain why I had just bought all these hats from my alibi witness. I figured that was going to be awkward. 

LD: That had to be a big stretch going from civil law to criminal law practice. Would you encourage other lawyers to learn criminal practice? 

TC: I can’t imagine how every lawyer, particularly litigators, wouldn’t benefit from spending some time practicing criminal law – whether it’s prosecuting cases or defending them. There are very few other opportunities where a lawyer can acquire an understanding and an appreciation for the unpredictability of human behavior like they will handling a criminal caseload. Out of absolute necessity, you develop this unique skill set of adaptability, of how you process information, work up a case, while doing all of this cost-effectively. With the goal being that you are armed to walk into a courtroom and stand on your feet and deliver. And you won’t always have weeks or months to prepare – sometimes you just have days or even hours to make the case or argue the motion – which could mean the difference in whether someone will go home to their family that night.

LD: That’s a powerful reminder. At Browne George, are there lessons from your criminal practice that you use in civil practice?

TC: Everything I draw from those early days absolutely animates my work in my civil practice. When clients come to me it’s typically because they have a problem and hiring a lawyer was the last resort to the resolution of that problem. I rely on those same skills to creatively and strategically drive a result that benefits the client.

LD: What are some of the lessons you’ve learned having your own firm?

TC: One of the important lessons I’ve taken away from having both a solo practice and handling civil and criminal cases in that practice, is that you can efficiently and effectively represent clients – corporate or otherwise – within a budget. You learn very quickly that time is money and it’s your most valuable commodity, it’s not in an unlimited supply. Use it wisely and effectively – and future business will follow. The best example of that came after I successfully represented a young college professor in a case. She told me up front she had a budget and I stayed within it. When the case was over, I got a call from a man who identified himself as the guy who was fronting the fees for the client. I’d never met him. He said he was so impressed with the quality of the representation that he wanted me to represent his company. As it turned out, that young professor was his daughter. He told me “if I can trust you with my daughter, I can trust you with my company.”

And so the depth of my practice has evolved over time. Given the success I’ve been fortunate to have had, my clients are not just individuals or corporate officers – but also the companies. Whether it’s contractual disputes, allegations of business fraud or claims of discrimination, I have gotten results that have led to these great relationships. Some of the top law firms in the city have referred business to me, frequently when they are conflicted out.

LD: You have made quite a name for yourself as a legal analyst on national television. Can you talk a bit about how you accomplished that?

TC: One of the hazards of representing a high-profile client is that the case often attracts media attention, whether you want it or not. And typically, you don’t. And so unless it benefits your client, a wise lawyer avoids the microphone and says as much, or as little, as necessary and you keep moving.

But in the late '90s, I was handling a fairly high-profile criminal case for my client, the actor Jean Claude Van Damme. A reporter asked me a series of questions about the case which I thought were pretty basic and so I answered them. As it turned out, my answers fit perfectly within their news story without needing to be edited. So without knowing, I got a reputation in that newsroom for being able to give bite-sized easily understandable explanations on legal issues that fit perfectly within their news segments. And very quickly, those same reporters from that same news station (CBS) would call me and ask my opinions and views for other legal stories in the news that were either confusing or where their viewers could benefit from someone explaining what the legal issues were and put it in language that ordinary people could understand. And for me, that was second nature, it was an opportunity to do what I try to do whenever I talk to a jury. I meet them where they are – and I try to explain what may, at first, seem complicated but often can be explained with either a common sense analogy or an example from everyday life. 

LD: Among the many, many famous cases you covered as an analyst are there some that continue to speak to you?

TC: I’ve been fortunate to literally have a front row seat to some of the biggest cases in the last 15 years. I was a CBS News legal analyst in the courtroom for the Scott Peterson murder trial, the Michael Jackson child molestation trial as well as for some of the hearings in the Kobe Bryant sexual assault case.

But nothing prepared me for the vitriol during the Michael Vick court hearings. Even before the case was set for trial, I remember going on TV and explaining what the charges were and what I thought his lawyer might use as his legal defense. And I also remember saying no matter how awful the charges are, that he, like every American, was entitled to a presumption of innocence. But based on my inbox and voicemails, there were a subset of people that just weren’t having it. For many folks, Michael Vick wasn’t entitled to any due process and deserved to spend the rest of his life in jail. And, as a dog lover myself, I found what he did to be so unbelievably cruel that I also thought he deserved a heck of a lot of jail time too. But I was so struck by the personal attacks leveled against him because of his race. His race had nothing to do with this. His conduct was despicable – irrespective of his race. But so much of the conversation and public discourse about his case was less about the horrible conduct, and more about his wealth, his privilege and his race. And every time I, as a Black man, went on TV and even suggested that he was entitled to a fair trial and that justice would work itself out, I got hundreds of angry, racially slurred messages, rarely even mentioning the facts of the case.

So I think that case re-exposed these complicated issues of race and the deep social and cultural disparities that sometimes separate us. And it deepened my understanding of how there is so much more, honest dialogue we need as a country on these intensely sensitive issues of race. 

LD: We are in the midst of the trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd. What are your thoughts on whether there can be justice for George Floyd from this trial?

TC: We hear often how the trial of the former Minneapolis police officer who is accused of killing George Floyd will be an opportunity to seek justice for George Floyd in the judicial system. I just don’t see it that way. I wouldn’t use the word “justice” to describe what George Floyd will receive as a result of this trial. In our language, justice means fairness and equity in how we are treated. Justice for George Floyd would mean he is allowed to spend time with his children, justice would mean that he can walk down a Minneapolis street with his arm around his fiancée, justice would mean he gets to breathe the same air every human has the right to breathe. He will never get that basic fairness and equity. What this case is really about is accountability. The question is whether our legal system will reflect its true values and hold a white police officer accountable for taking the life of a Black man. For most people, of all colors and ethnicities, this case will answer that question. 

LD: The distinction between justice and accountability is an important one. Can we talk for a minute about your decision to join Browne George? How did that come about?

TC: I had obviously known of the firm for many years. Browne George is always in the conversation for top boutique litigation firms in California. And I had known Eric George both personally and professionally for over a decade. In fact, Eric would frequently refer cases to me where the firm was either conflicted out or it was the kind of matter that wasn’t quite in their wheelhouse. I even represented a friendly witness in a case where Browne George was representing the principal of the litigation. So even before I joined the firm, we were like “kissing cousins.”  

But right as the restrictions from Covid started, I was contacted by a client, who had been previously represented by Michael Avenatti. In fact, it was this client’s case that Avenatti used to extort Nike. And once Avenatti was convicted, the client was looking for representation. So I thought of taking on the case but immediately knew that having some more support on a case of this size and consequence would be helpful. And Eric knew I was interested taking on the case, and he offered to help. I wasn’t quite sure what that “help” meant, at the time, but if you know how fearless Eric is within a few minutes of talking with him I knew that “help” meant he was all in to join the fight on the front lines. And, coincidentally, just a few months earlier, Eric had obtained a judgment against Avenatti in an entirely separate case. So I felt this wonderful alchemy and it seemed like such perfect timing and synchronicity to broaden our professional relationship. And once I started working with other lawyers in the firm, I was so impressed with their talent and acumen, I knew I wanted to be a part of this very special firm. 

LD: It seems crazy to ask what you do outside your law practice, but I’ll ask anyway.

TC: For the last 10 years, I have been on the board of directors for The Alliance for Children’s Rights. It’s a charitable organization dedicated to improving the lives of foster children throughout Southern California. It’s the kind of work, I’m also extraordinarily proud of.

I also write as a hobby. Some people golf, play tennis or read. I write screenplays. It’s my outlet – when I’m not trying cases and telling a story to a jury – I tell one on the page. I enjoy the process of writing, whatever it is, I’ve even written a legal segment for CNN. So it’s not all fiction or limited to just screenplays.