Gloria Allred: The attorney people love to hate

AP News
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Posted: Oct 25, 2010 12:55 PM
Gloria Allred: The attorney people love to hate

She's been called an ambulance chaser, an opportunist, a made-for-TV attorney and a shameless publicity hound.

And, Gloria Allred will tell you with a smile, those are just some of the nicer names people use to describe her.

Meg Whitman, for example, is not a fan. Allred turned this year's race for California governor upside down by stepping before the TV cameras to reveal that the Republican candidate employed an illegal immigrant as a maid for nine years.

Although the message from the unabashedly liberal Allred knocked the conservative Whitman off message for a few days, it also led to an inevitable round of Allred bashing. She was lampooned by "Saturday Night Live's" Nasim Pedrad as an annoying loudmouth. Jay Leno told his "Tonight Show" audience, "How 'bout we let the maid stay, we deport Gloria Allred?"

But Allred is comfortable with controversy. Indeed, if there has been a divisive or offbeat - or sometimes both - cause to support over the past 35 years, Allred was there.

She once handed a California legislator a chastity belt at a public hearing he called to seek a ban on abortion. She tried to put former "Seinfeld" co-star Michael Richards on the witness stand at a mock trial after he shouted the N-word at black nightclub patrons who didn't think he was funny. When "Late Show" host David Letterman admitted to sexual liaisons with some of his staff, a smirking Allred held up a big sign for the cameras: "David Letterman, Just Say No to Sex in Your Workplace."

There is, however, another side of Allred.

In February, a few days after loudly demanding that Tiger Woods apologize to porn actress Joslyn James for cheating on James while he was cheating on his wife with James, Allred quietly entered a New York courthouse on behalf of the family of Megan Wright, a young woman who committed suicide after reporting she was gang raped in a dorm at Dominican College.

The suit, scheduled to come to trial next year, has already been credited with prompting an investigation by New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, who concluded the school was underreporting campus crime statistics.

So which is the real Allred?

The bombastic publicity seeker who went on television to hector authorities to investigate the late Michael Jackson's parenting skills? (Jackson himself told her to "go to hell.")

Or the one who won a $15 million settlement with Circuit City two years ago for 217 workers who said they were fired for being too old?

Is it the one who sued a condominium board for telling a woman to quit kissing her boyfriend in her driveway, or the one who persuaded a jury to award more than $18 million to a man who said he was fired for reporting his female boss had sexually harassed him?

To Allred, they are one and the same.

"I don't regret any of the cases I've taken on," says the attorney, dressed in a pinstriped pantsuit with a turtleneck top and pink jacket as she sits in the conference room of her law firm's spacious 15th-floor office. To her back is a stunning panorama of Los Angeles, stretching from downtown to the Hollywood sign.

"I'm not a politician. I don't put my finger in the wind to try to determine which way it is blowing, to try to curry favor with the public. I do what I believe is right," Allred insists.

Meticulous attorney that she is, Allred has come well prepared for an interview that will last nearly three hours. She is toting a thick stack of files on civil rights cases in which she has prevailed, including a $1.7 million settlement she won for six poor migrant farmworkers who said they were denied employment because they were women.

It was not quite the headline-grabbing case Allred took on earlier this year when she persuaded the federal Transportation Security Administration to change the way it screens airline passengers after one of them was handed a pair of pliers and told to remove her nipple rings.

But Allred sees a common thread running through those and all her other cases: Always, she says, she defends the powerless.

In the process, she has become arguably the most recognized civil rights attorney in the country.

"She's generally treated like a rock star by the average person when you walk down the street with her," laughs Allred's daughter, Lisa Bloom, a well-known attorney in her own right and a legal analyst for CBS News and CNN. "Women especially, and older women especially, will often come up and say, 'Thank you for being an inspiration.'"

Those who have been on the other end of an Allred assault likely feel differently, although it's hard to find any who will say a bad word publicly about her.

"She is not somebody I would want mad at me," says Hollywood publicist Michael Levine who has represented Jackson and others who have run afoul of Allred. "She is unrelenting and ferocious."

But Levine also says he counts Allred as a friend, as does criminal defense attorney Mark Geragos, who tangled with her when he represented Scott Peterson, a California man convicted of killing his pregnant wife, Laci, in 2002 and dumping her body in San Francisco Bay. Allred represented Peterson's mistress, Amber Frey, whose testimony helped convict Peterson in court while Allred lambasted him on TV during his trial.

"Personally, I think the world of her," Geragos says of Allred. "She's a tenacious advocate."

Allred was just six years out of law school when she caught the public's attention at a 1981 state Senate committee hearing where she gave the late Sen. John Schmitz the chastity belt. He was so angry he called her a "slick butch lawyeress." She sued and he eventually apologized and paid her $20,000.

Since then it has become increasingly hard to recall any extended time when Allred wasn't in the news.

It's possible that her public appearances add to that impression. With a steely eyed, don't-mess-with-me glare and a slightly nasal, Philadelphia-accented voice that can drip with sarcasm, Allred is an intimidating presence.

"My clients have told me, 'You look fearless up there,'" she says during a moment of quiet reflection. "Well, you've got to look fearless when you do what I do."

Away from the cameras, a quieter Allred emerges, softer-spoken, disarmingly charming and often very funny. She is also unfailingly polite, to the point that she is reluctant to address anyone by first name until permission has been granted.

"This is what happens when you go to an all-girls high school," she says sheepishly.

Which is exactly what Gloria Rachel Bloom did.

The only child of a door-to-door salesman and his homemaker wife, Allred's top grades got her into Philadelphia's High School for Girls, where she was a cheerleader and won a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania.

During her four years there, she married, gave birth to her only child, divorced her husband and graduated with honors.

After earning a master's degree from New York University, she taught English at public schools before enrolling at Los Angeles' Loyola Law School. By then she had become a union activist, embracing the philosophy of one of her heroes, Mother Jones, who famously declared, "Don't agonize. Organize!"

Her support for women's rights, she says, was reinforced by a personal horror: She was raped at gunpoint during a Mexican vacation.

By the time she earned her law degree in 1975, she had decided exactly what she would do with the rest of her life. She called aside fellow graduates Nathan Goldberg and Michael Maroko and told them the three would "do good things in this world."

"Nathan was No. 1 in our class at graduation at Loyola and Michael was very high up in our class as well," says Allred, who herself graduated cum laude. The three formed Allred, Maroko and Goldberg and still work together.

Married and divorced a second time, Allred spends what free time she has these days doting on her daughter - "She's grown up to be what I consider my best work" - and her two college-age grandchildren.

She will mark her 70th birthday in July, but has no plans to retire.

"As long as I have this gift of life I intend to do it," she says.

Then, with a wry smile, she adds: "Some people think I will still try to do it from the Great Beyond."