The legal profession is a microcosm of the diversity of the U.S. The areas of practice can range from highbrow issues, such as art law and fashion litigation, to Hollywood law practice favorites like criminal defense, medical litigation, and family law. Successful lawyers are becoming authors, legal analysts, and even reality show participants—and becoming famous or infamous in the process.
Yet, there is a new kind of celebrity lawyer; one who becomes famous simply for being a lawyer. Many of these lawyers, of course, are tied to highly publicized cases or celebrity clients. People remember the faces and names of the attorneys who have represented celebrity clients or clients in high-profile cases. This name recognition can then lead to bigger financial opportunities, a roster of celebrity or wealthy clients, and, in some instances, new career options.
If you have wondered what special talents or powers celebrity lawyers possess that led to such opportunities, wonder no more. This article was created with a single goal—to learn from celebrity lawyers themselves how they attract such opportunities. To catch a glimpse of the star quality of the celebrity lawyer, interviews were conducted with four lawyers doing very different things. After interviewing Martin Garbus, Laura Wasser, Helen Wan, and Mychal Wilson for this article, something became clear: celebrity lawyer status is not out of reach for anyone!
Martin Garbus is a living legend. His resume reads like the syllabus of a 20th century American history class. He has worked with everyone from Lenny Bruce and Cesar Chavez to JK Rowling and Don Imus. His road to the practice of law was not a direct route. After experiencing censorship for his comments while serving in the U.S. Army, he attended law school and became a fierce advocate for freedom of speech.
Laura Wasser, on the other hand, was born to be a lawyer. She is the child of two lawyers, her initials spell out LAW, and her father had already established Wasser, Cooperman & Carter. She has a client roster that reads like the attendees at an A-list Hollywood party.
Helen Wan never had any inkling growing up that she would someday become a lawyer. Wan dreamed, from an early age, of becoming a published author. Despite her dreams of writing a great novel, Wan found herself remembering the words of her parents after graduating college with a degree in English. Find a stable career, work hard, and keep your head down, her parents said; lessons that served her well in law school and in a legal career. However, after working 15 years as a lawyer, the first-generation Chinese-American pursued her goal to become a published author. Her legal career afforded her the opportunity to write a great novel that honestly portrayed the life of a would-be BigLaw firm partner.
Mychal Wilson, raised in Washington, D.C., was a working actor when he decided to pursue the law. An intelligent man who sees opportunities rather than challenges felt that his background as an actor and producer would enable him to become an entertainment lawyer. Years later, he would use the knowledge and skills he learned during his stint as a pharmaceutical representative to become well-known in the world of qui tam law. His efforts have resulted in the recovery of more than $535 million on behalf of federal and state governments.
At first glance, this group seems as diverse as the legal profession itself. Yet, the qualities that have made Garbus, Wasser, Wan, and Wilson famous can be reduced to four simple concepts: self-awareness, commitment, boldness, and drive.
Of all of the traits shared by these celebrity lawyers, the most prevalent is their self-awareness. In fact, they take self-awareness to an entirely new level. Celebrity lawyers evaluate all of the strengths and expertise in their toolbox to understand how those skills will best help them to achieve their goals. They understand their priorities and make certain that everyday life encompasses those ideals and beliefs. And they do not allow obstacles or challenges to deter them from achievement.
“I practice what I know,” said Mychal Wilson. Wilson uses his past experiences, networks, and knowledge base to develop his two areas of law: qui tam and entertainment law. As an actor, “I understood the importance of securing points on the back end or other compensation contingencies,” he said.
“I began working in qui tam (whistleblower) because I had an understanding of the efforts and strategies used by pharmaceutical companies to sell their products,” Wilson stated. Wilson first battled with Big Pharma as a whistleblower. His personal knowledge of the financial resources expended on doctors by pharmaceutical companies helped him in his own case. Now, as a former whistleblower, Wilson is able to give his clients a first-hand account of the potential fallout that results from standing up to fraudulent behavior.
“I select clients based on whether or not they seem to have the same mindset as that of our firm,” said Wasser, who strives to represent the most child-focused spouse in divorces where children are involved. You see, celebrity lawyers do not accept cases simply to keep on the lights.
Celebrity lawyers also do not give up on their dreams. Although Wan entered the field of law for security, she never abandoned her dream of writing.
For 12 years, she spent nights and weekends writing her novel, The Partner Track. Additionally, during her 15-year law career, Wan worked for the right law firm, developing the right networking contacts by serving in important bar committees and securing an in-house counsel position at a division of Time Warner. All of the work paid off in 2012, when the literary agent that she had secured notified her that her weekend project had been sold and would be published in 2013. “I was thrilled when I learned that my novel would be published; it had been a great side project but all that time I never thought that it would develop into something,” Wan said.
Another trait shared by celebrity lawyers is their level of commitment to their careers, clients, colleagues, and goals. For Wasser, being a celebrity lawyer is not merely about how often her name appears in print. “I am concerned with understanding how my firm works,” Wasser said. From making certain that she understands the employee benefits, communication efforts between staff and lawyers, as well as having a clear understanding of where her referrals are originating, Wasser is committed to knowing everything that is taking place within the walls of her law firm.
For Wilson, commitment means working tirelessly on his business plan. “I do not pay for marketing,” Wilson said. While that would create panic and fear in the hearts of many lawyers, Wilson sees it as an opportunity to be the face of his firm. He appears as a legal analyst on numerous local and national news broadcasts, and even secured a role as a “divorce lawyer” in the Women’s Entertainment Television show, Marriage Boot Camp: Bridezillas.
Celebrity lawyers eschew hesitation and timidity. They understand their priorities and do not apologize for their beliefs. They take definitive positions on the things that are important to them. Garbus, for example, is a firm believer that the “widest range of freedom should be given to free speech.” This firm conviction has led him to become involved in the representation of neo-Nazi protesters and Holocaust deniers despite being a Jewish person who lost family members in the Holocaust.
Being bold does not always translate into acclaim for celebrity lawyers, and they are okay with that. Celebrity lawyers recognize that all actions will impact their career in both positive and negative ways. “I have represented a lot of unpopular clients,” said Garbus. “Many clients will be put off by someone who is willing to represent murderers, Nazis, and the like, but who are you going to let your career be determined by—yourself or by your clients?” Garbus asked.
Celebrity lawyers act without fear and strike when the time is right. “Interesting things began to happen after my book was published,” said Wan. She began receiving invitations from companies, law firms, and schools that wanted her to do presentations about the themes in her novel. “I never intended to move away from the practice of law,” said Wan. But, when the opportunity to begin working on her second novel and be a guest lecturer became apparent, Wan jumped at the opportunity. If she wanted to build on success and acclaim of The Partner Track, she couldn’t spend another 12 years on her second novel.
Celebrity lawyers are ambitious. They distinguish themselves from the other lawyers in the marketplace. Above all, celebrity lawyers create their own luck. “It was always through the law that I felt I could do what I wanted socially, be totally independent, and not be rule-bound,” said Garbus. His sense of freedom within the realm of the law has led to opportunities to become involved in cases that make a difference, represent artists, and even become involved in international issues such as voter rights in Third World countries.
Celebrity lawyers are driven to achieve goals, even when they appear unlikely. For Wan, becoming a published author was not a matter of overnight success. Her book is the result of 12 years of writing. Her ambition to write a novel was fueled buy two pieces of advice that would later ensure her success: “Write the story you most want to read,” and, “Make certain you understand the difference between being someone who wishes they had published a story and being a writer.”
Celebrity lawyers find different ways to develop their skills. Wasser started her career as a divorce attorney, representing herself in a divorce action. Later, she volunteered for the Harriet Buhai Center for Family Law, where she helped pro bono clients dissolve their marriages. Her efforts made it possible to represent some of the most famous Hollywood personalities and command an hourly rate of $750 for her divorce expertise.
Celebrity lawyers find a way to work life to their advantage. In 2011, when Wilson decided to establish his own law firm, he began to evaluate his work. Qui tam law can require years of effort and expense before it pays off. Like all plaintiff lawyers, Wilson had to determine how he would fund the costs associated with his whistleblower cases. Using his charm, connections, and contacts, Wilson decided to collaborate with BigLaw firms that could fund his lawsuits on behalf of the federal government. He didn’t lament that qui tam cases could take up to seven years to go to trial or settle. “I collaborate with BigLaw firms because they have the financial resources, while I have the connections from my pharmaceutical career,” he said. Celebrity lawyers know that they are bringing something to the table.
The reality is that everyone can become a celebrity lawyer. All that is required is a willingness to honestly assess your skills, a commitment to your cause, the boldness to pursue your goal, and the drive to continue working until the goal is accomplished. The skills set forth in this article are skills that all lawyers and law students demonstrated at one point or another during our pursuit of a law degree or license. The only question now is, are you ready to elevate your career?
About the Author
Gabriela A. Vega is the founder of Vega Acosta Law Firm, Chtd. in Manhattan, Kansas, a firm that focuses on family and immigration law. She can be reached at 785.539.5300 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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