None of them were household names when they began appearing every night on television to explain the O.J. Simpson trial. By the end, they’d become friendly faces in living rooms across the globe.
Now, the legal analysts who were swept up in the maelstrom of the Simpson case are cashing in on their newfound fame as celebrity pundits. One already is starring in a television news show. Others are pondering book deals and career changes. A sample of the new opportunities for this elite handful of talking heads:
“People began to see I am not always a mad dog.”
Leslie Abramson, who provided running commentary for ABC’s “Nightline,” is under contract with Twentieth Television to produce a pilot for a half-hour syndicated news commentary show that would run five days a week.
“This would not be just about the legal world but whatever we find worthy of talking about,” said Abramson, a respected Los Angeles defense lawyer who gained prominence for helping Erik and Lyle Menendez avoid conviction in their murder trial. “It would have reported pieces and interviews with newsmakers. It would be more opinionated and confrontational than ‘Nightline.’ The hope is to creep out from beneath bogus objectivity so people can know where you stand.”
If all goes well, the show will begin airing next September, after the conclusion of the Menendez retrial. Although Abramson is refusing to take on any other legal cases, she says she intends to complete the Menendez case.
Abramson said television interest in her began before the Simpson case but “what Simpson did was it changed what I was marketable for. . . .After Simpson I was a regular on ‘Nightline’ and people began to see that I’m not always a mad dog and that on occasion I can actually become a more credible figure as a newsperson.
“Definitely that exposure made me attractive to people in serious television. It’s just amazing to me.”
She said she was looking for a career change, and Simpson provided one.
“I was looking long before,” she said. “Then O.J. happened and I was getting all these calls to comment. . . .The whole thing was just bizarre from the beginning, the whole notion that a case would get that kind of attention and that I could make a living by talking about someone else’s case, it was just amazing. It was something I never anticipated.”
Abramson hopes that her autobiography, which she began long before Simpson, also will be completed and in bookstores at about the time the new show airs.
“I hit the lottery”
Roger Cossack already has started his new career in television.
Cossack, a onetime Los Angeles County deputy district attorney and a former assistant dean of the UCLA School of Law, is co-hosting “Burden of Proof” on CNN. The week-old show covers the legal ramifications of news stories and courtroom issues.
Cossack said his arrival at CNN was completely unexpected. Soon after the opening of the Simpson trial, several news organizations--including CNN--saw him quoted about the proceedings in a newspaper article. The media outlets were impressed and sought him as an analyst.
Cossack decided to cover Simpson’s preliminary hearing for CNN, a stint he figured would last about three weeks and allow him to benefit from CNN’s global reach. “I thought, for my 15 minutes of fame, I’m going to go all over the world. I was one of those lawyers who was picked from relative obscurity. I hit the lottery.”
Cossack stayed on as a CNN analyst for the duration of the trial, which he covered with veteran CNN legal analyst Greta Van Susteren. Last week, CNN quickly launched “Burden of Proof” with Cossack and Van Susteren anchoring the half-hour show. Cossack left his Los Angeles law practice and moved to Washington to work on the show.
Among the first guests: Lead Simpson attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. and Robert Tourtelot, Mark Fuhrman’s former lawyer.
Cossack said the Simpson case has provided rich material for the program. “I see this trial as not only this incredible legal event but also this historical and cultural event,” he said. “I see this story as a description of how we view each other, of racism in America, of the way blacks and whites view police departments and what happens in the criminal justice system.”
In their debut program, both Cossack and Van Susteren seemed less comfortable asking questions than answering them, as they did while analysts. Cossack says he is still learning the ropes.
“I’m a real newcomer,” he said. “It is an incredible opportunity, a brand new learning process. If I have to be on television, better that I should be discussing law than doing a cooking show.
“God damn,” he added with a laugh, “it’s tough to be interesting five days a week.”
“I don’t think the world needs another book on the Simpson trial”
Not all the pundits have lined up media work. Some are taking a more reserved approach, returning to their old jobs and waiting to see what offers come their way.
UCLA law professor Peter Arenella, who served as a legal consultant for ABC News and appeared regularly on “World News Tonight” and “Good Morning America,” said he is mulling several inquiries from news organizations in the wake of the Simpson case.
Arenella, who was also a daily contributor to “The Legal Pad,” The Times’ survey of lawyer comment during the Simpson trial, said agents have asked him to do legal commentary on future high-profile court cases.
“I’ve been contacted about whether I want to change careers and work full time in TV,” he said. “I don’t. I like being a law professor.”
However, Arenella said he wants to keep his options open, noting that one job as a legal editor sounded interesting. “I’m thinking about it,” he said.
The former defense attorney said he also has received an offer to write a book about the Simpson case. “It’s under consideration, but at this juncture I don’t think the world needs another book on the Simpson trial,” he said. “I’m more interested in writing about my ongoing scholarship,” including such topics as mental disability legal defenses.
“I’m a lawyer. I’m not a television personality”
Former Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Robert Philibosian, who served as legal commentator for ABC News, is among the pundits who say they have little, if any interest in an ongoing role in the media spotlight.
The Simpson trial, Philibosian said, provided an intriguing forum to speak about one of the country’s most compelling legal cases. But now he wants to return to his usual routine.
“I’m a lawyer. I’m not a television personality,” he said. Philibosian was a highly visible media figure throughout the trial. He appeared regularly on “Nightline” with Abramson, as well as on “World News Tonight,” “20/20,” “Prime Time Live” and “Good Morning America.” He also headed up ABC’s gavel-to-gavel coverage of special events during the trial, including closing arguments and the verdicts.
Philibosian says he remains open to working for ABC but that he has said no to a “multitude of calls” from other media outlets seeking his services.
“I’m happy with my career,” said Philibosian, a partner in a Downtown firm that handles government and administrative law for corporate clients.
Philibosian said he expects his life to calm down now that he won’t be running from one appearance to another while also trying to keep up with his legal duties.
“Life after the Simpson case is the same as life before the Simpson case for me,” he said. “I had an active law practice before and during the case, and I am having an active law practice after the trial.”
“This case has been a boon to writing my treatise.”
Loyola law professor Laurie Levenson also has little interest in pursuing a career as a television commentator.
“I know there are a lot of people who want their owns shows, but that’s not what I want out of life,” said Levenson, who provided legal analysis for CBS, appearing frequently on the “CBS Evening News,” and was also a daily contributor to “The Legal Pad.” “I very much like being a law professor and that is what I will continue to do.
“To the extent that the media has legal questions, they have my number,” Levenson added. “But no, I don’t want to cross over into the broadcast industry.”
Levenson, a former federal prosecutor, said she learned about state law by covering the Simpson case, and the knowledge has helped her write an article on California criminal procedures.
“Frankly, this case has been a boon to writing my treatise,” she said.
Levenson, who donated her trial-related income to charity, said she plans to return to teaching and research. She has been on a previously scheduled sabbatical in recent months.
Among the projects currently under way is a law review article she is co-authoring with USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky. The subject: ethics of legal commentators. “We chose the topic because we think it’s an important one,” she said.