A Law Unto Herself

Times Staff Writer

Matt Farrell, a video producer, needed an attorney after he had been charged with growing marijuana. He hired Allison Margolin, "L.A.'s dopest attorney," on a friend's recommendation.

Farrell's first impression was "she was hot." His second was doubt. She looked too young to be a lawyer.

Then he saw the Ivy League degrees on her wall.

Like actress Reese Witherspoon's character in the movie "Legally Blonde" -- a rich, ditsy Beverly Hills blond who goes to Harvard Law School -- Margolin, 28, is the kind of lawyer who might be easy to dismiss. The graduate of Beverly Hills High talks like a Valley girl, preceding adjectives with "like" and using "whatever" as a period.

Her years at Columbia University and Harvard Law School failed to dim her fascination with movie stars. She is devoted to the tabloids and knows intimate details about the rich and famous.

Her husband said she used to believe whatever her clients told her, accepting preposterous explanations for crimes. There was the woman who didn't mean to stab her boyfriend. She just threw a basket that happened to contain a knife.

And there was the time Margolin burst into tears after a prosecutor told her she had only minutes to decide whether to take a deal that would put a client in prison for 17 years. The prosecutor relented and extended the deadline.

A lawyer for 3 1/2 years, Margolin has gained notoriety for unorthodox ads that proclaim her "L.A.'s dopest attorney." She even has a video publicizing her practice on the Internet site www.youtube.com.

Her self-promotions have raised eyebrows in a profession in which many lawyers still frown upon advertising as ambulance chasing. Until not quite 30 years ago, lawyer advertising was banned altogether.

"Need warrant recalled?" her radio, movie and newspaper ads ask. "Want to smoke pot on probation? All criminal defense, from drugs to murder. Harvard Law, affordable."

She is the daughter of Bruce Margolin, the widely known defense lawyer who has championed efforts to decriminalize marijuana and once ran for governor on that platform.

Farrell's case was big for her because it involved more than 100 marijuana plants. Farrell faced up to three years in prison.

Delayed by a flat tire, she had scurried into the courthouse 30 minutes after court started, clutching a pink leather briefcase and trailed by two 19-year-olds she introduced as her assistants, Daniel Samadi and Raymond Hay.

The pair of college students are Boy Fridays, answering her cellphone, fetching her food, walking her dog and soothing her when she gets tense.

Slender and small with olive coloring, her auburn hair pulled into a ponytail, Margolin was in constant motion, biting her lips, rubbing her chin, pulling at strands of hair.

She wore a black Armani pants suit and a sleeveless red top with a plunging neckline, revealing a silver-blue lacy camisole and generous cleavage. Frameless glasses perched on her nose.

At one end of the court hallway, she huddled with Farrell. Her defense was that Farrell grew marijuana for medical reasons and had a doctor's recommendation for it, as did three others who were part of his marijuana "collective."

She had five witnesses prepared to testify that the amount Farrell grew would produce an appropriate yield for his medical needs and those of the three other patients.

At the other end of the hallway, the prosecutor was meeting with the police officers who had arrested Farrell.

The prosecutor had just learned that Farrell had a current doctor's recommendation, which is similar to a prescription, for marijuana and wanted to postpone the hearing.

But Margolin, who had prepared all weekend, opposed a delay.

"It's just not cool," Margolin said.

Hours passed as Margolin shuttled back and forth between her witnesses and the prosecutor. Farrell was tense. Margolin told him she would speak to the judge.

"I am going to tell the judge they are still jerking us around," she said, flipping her ponytail.

She paused and grinned. "But I won't say it that way."

Margolin does not let hard work go to waste.

She studied relentlessly to achieve at Beverly Hills High, and the payoff was Columbia University in New York, where she said she "just felt the vibes" and fit in.

At Columbia she pulled seven-hour study stretches on Saturdays and Sundays, was an editor on the college newspaper and taught a political science class.

That helped when she applied to Harvard Law School, although her application essay was risky. She argued that drugs should be legalized, a position her father warned would doom her chance of admission.

She was admitted anyway.

Once there, "I was like the most eccentric person," she said. She remembered feeling like a neon sign in a bright yellow vest and tinted glasses in the classrooms.

"I studied a lot, and I didn't lie about it, and people would make fun of me for it," she said. "People at Harvard pretended they didn't have to work because they were geniuses. "

She pursed her lips sideways and fiddled with a strand of hair. "They called me the Dirty Librarian because I swore and wore glasses."

She said she was not intimidated by some of the bullying law professors because her mother's boyfriends over the years had made her used to nasty lawyers.

The title of her law school thesis was "The Right to Get High."

She passed the bar on the first try: "It was like a miracle," she said.

Munching on scrambled eggs and sausages her assistants bought from the courthouse cafeteria, Margolin tapped her patent leather toe steadily and sipped V8 juice.

Samadi asked if she was nervous.

"No, I am OK," she replied. But the waiting was wearing.

"It's like ridiculous."

Although Samadi and Hay are nearly a decade younger than Margolin, they hover over her paternally. They drive her to court appearances, a valued task given Margolin's tendency to get lost. Her mother remembers the time she called from Encino and complained she couldn't find Pacific Coast Highway.

A woman in the jury pool in one of Margolin's cases once mistook the pair for gang members.

"They are Persian Jews from Beverly Hills," Margolin said. "She thought they were Hispanic."

After several hallway conferences in Farrell's case, the prosecutor agreed to drop the charges. Margolin, ecstatic, clapped her hands as she told Farrell the news.

Her father arrived as she headed into the courtroom. A lawyer whose name is almost synonymous with marijuana law, Bruce Margolin sat in a middle row to watch his daughter.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Dennis J. Landin dismissed the charges, but that was not enough for Margolin. She asked that police return the marijuana plants and the growing equipment. With no objection from the prosecutor, the judge agreed to the order.

"Your daughter is a beauty," a lawyer in the courtroom whispered to her father.

"Thank you," the elder Margolin replied.

"And a damn good lawyer."

"Thank you."

Outside, Allison Margolin was jubilant. "This was like amazing. They don't usually say no objection" to returning the plants.

Then she noticed her father's Cole Haan shoes, which she had bought him. "Dad, you're wearing your Father's Day shoes!"

Margolin said he feels "validated" that his daughter embraces his battle for marijuana rights and chose to follow his career path, "although it is hard job, fraught with all kinds of frustrations I don't want for her."

Being the daughter of a prominent marijuana activist, Margolin was well versed in drug lore from her early years. She wrote a school paper about the Colombian drug trade when she was 12.

In high school, "people would always ask me if I could get them pot," but "I didn't allow marijuana smoking in my environment. I was very straight."

Margolin said her father was a "marijuana and psychedelic purist" who lectured her about the evils of alcohol.

Her parents divorced when she was 2, and both are on their third marriages. Margolin has three stepsisters, two half sisters and one half brother, ranging in age from 6 months to 15 years.

Having multiple parents "sucked," she said, "but now it is good."

"The new husband is the best," she said, referring to her mother's third husband, Jeffrey Sklan, a criminal defense lawyer.

Margolin worked six months for her father's firm after passing the bar, then quit and refused to speak to him for a while.

"My dad is an anti-nepotism kind of person," she said, explaining her unhappy tenure at his firm. She characterized their relationship as "kind of competitive."

But on the day of Margolin's triumph in court, Bruce Margolin seemed merely proud. He wanted to buy her and her witnesses lunch to celebrate. They agreed to meet at a restaurant near Chinatown.

When Margolin approached her black BMW with a reporter, Samadi and Hay went to work on the seats, clearing out the workout clothes, empty water bottles and wrappers.

Margolin confided that she has a physician's recommendation for medical marijuana for a mild ailment she preferred not to disclose, "but I wouldn't want people to make an issue of it."

Santa Monica Deputy City Atty. Patrick Brooks, who has been her opposing counsel, said he teases her about her ads, which he described as "clever" and effective.

"She is young and very smart and very hardworking and very committed," Brooks said. "A lot of younger attorneys are afraid to go to court, but she is confident in court and not afraid to go to trial."

Geoffrey Lewin, a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney, said Margolin was the winner in one of only four cases he has lost in his career, a medical marijuana case.

Some prosecutors "see me, and they like underestimate me and they don't prepare," said Margolin, who works out of her mother's law firm in Beverly Hills. Her mother, Elyse Margolin, is a family law attorney.

Allison Margolin has won acquittals in two of her four trials, and the other two produced compromises she counted as victories. In one, she got the equivalent of a traffic citation with no restitution for a drunk driving defendant who had hit three parked cars. Like most criminal defense lawyers, she resolves the bulk of her cases with plea bargains or, as in Farrell's case, by getting the charges dismissed.

After celebrating Farrell's victory with her father, Margolin headed home to the Fairfax district to change for an afternoon workout.

She and her assistants pulled up in front of the Spanish-style bungalow she shares with her husband, physician Steven Kilmann. Margolin asked Samadi to help find her orange-striped workout bra in the chaos of the car. He plucked the bra from the floor of the front seat.

Her workout was a steep climb in a Beverly Hills park on the edge of a neighborhood of mansions. She believes buying one of the mansions is achievable now that her client base and notoriety are growing.

For a client caught with more than 100 plants, she usually charges a $10,000 fee. She also has done cases for free, but confesses to aspiring to wear "only Chanel" suits.

"I plan to make a lot of money," she said matter-of-factly.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
61°