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Legal fray still suits Gloria Allred just fine

When you walk into Gloria Allred’s office to interview her, she hands you her book — “Fight Back and Win” — and suggests you read it. Immediately.

“Would you mind?” she asks. “I think it will answer some questions.”

Smiling, she leaves you in the firm’s conference room, with its long, glossy table and panoramic view of Los Angeles. This is where Allred holds most of the news conferences that have made her both famous and infamous — sitting at the head of the table, jaw set, arm wrapped tightly around a weepy client as cameras zoom in.

This afternoon, it’s a study hall for a lone reporter frantically skimming the book subtitled “My Thirty-Year Fight Against Injustice — and How You Can Win Your Own Battles.”

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Whether you see this command cram course as an exercise in vanity or efficiency won’t matter to Allred. As she writes in the book, “Early in my career, I decided that if I intended to be a strong advocate for women I couldn’t be deterred by my critics.”

She has not been. Allred has escorted into the spotlight a parade of castoff women — the TV star fired for being too pregnant, the banker fired for being too sexy, the jilted mistresses and wronged girlfriends of famous philanderers and murderers.

With her latest client — the sad-eyed housekeeper Nicandra Diaz Santillan — she may have helped spoil the gubernatorial chances of billionaire candidate Meg Whitman. After the housekeeper said she had worked for Whitman for nine years and then been fired for being undocumented, Whitman’s poll numbers dropped and Jerry Brown’s lead widened.

Allred has denied political motive, saying she was simply helping a woman who was coldly dismissed and says she’s owed more than $6,000 in back pay.

“I think she wanted to have a voice,” she says of Diaz Santillan, whose only public utterances have been prepared statements read at Allred’s side.

Allred has refused to say who referred Diaz Santillan (law firm policy) or whether she has been paid for the case (attorney-client privilege).

When she was asked by reporters whether she was doing the bidding of Jerry Brown, her determined face cracked a little smirk. “All I can tell you,” she said, “is that anyone who knows me knows nobody tells me what to do.”

The Diaz case is unlikely to change anyone’s mind about Allred, an attorney whose career has spanned three decades of touchstone issues. She has represented women (and men) who said they were sexually harassed at work. Nearly two decades before abuse by priests became a prominent issue, she sued the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and seven Catholic priests on behalf of a woman who alleged sexual abuse that started when she was 16 and ended with her pregnancy at 20.

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Allred got the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department to stop shackling pregnant inmates during childbirth and the Friars Club to admit women. She represented a lesbian couple and a gay couple in a 2004 lawsuit that was the first to legally challenge the state’s ban on gay marriage. One of those same-sex couples — Robin Tyler and Diane Olson — was the first in Los Angeles County to be issued a marriage license in 2008 after the California Supreme Court overturned the ban.

To some, Allred has been a trailblazer. Others say that even if she has broken some ground, she has undercut that accomplishment by shamelessly inserting herself, Zelig-like, into one prominent controversy after another. (Can you remember when you didn’t know the name Gloria Allred?)

Erwin Chemerinsky, founding dean of the UC Irvine School of Law, says publicity and serious causes can go hand in hand. “She’s using the media to help her client. I think it’s unfair to say she’s using the media for her own self-aggrandizement,” he says. “I have tremendous admiration for her, for what she’s contributed to changing the law.”

Her slick personal website contends, “Gloria Allred is the most famous woman attorney practicing law in the nation today....”

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But she’s so famous that she’s also famously mocked. “Saturday Night Live” recently kicked off a show with a scathing satire of her. Jay Leno quipped, “How ‘bout we let the maid stay, we deport Gloria Allred?” In one episode of TV’s “Glee,” Coach Sue Sylvester launched a threat with: “You can expect a call soon from my lawyer, Gloria Allred. I’m gonna sue the pants off you.”

Allred’s perfectly arched eyebrows do not so much as twitch when asked about the charge of being a publicity hound.

“Did they say the same thing about Johnnie Cochran?” she asks about the late legal icon who made his reputation on landmark civil rights cases. “Johnnie Cochran was certainly in the news. When a man was in the news, then that was admired.”

So the criticism is sexist?

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“I think there’s some sexism involved,” she says. “Which other woman has spoken out and gotten the results we’ve gotten?”

Results have ranged from settlements to apologies to, well, just public forums. Her tribunal of choice is more often the news conference than the courtroom — in which she sometimes appears but never as lead attorney.

“It’s not the best use of her time,” says her partner and close friend, Nathan Goldberg. “The best use of her time is to use her extraordinary talent to fight for as many people as possible, to bring people in, to work with different people in the firm, to work on strategy.”

With Michael Maroko, another of their Loyola Law School classmates, they formed Allred, Maroko & Goldberg in 1976.

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Goldberg describes Allred as a fierce advocate for clients, particularly in mediation sessions: “She will not rest until she gets every last dime for the client. She really takes it very personally. She will go toe to toe.”

Allred, too, speaks of herself as a warrior. “I’m actually in the battlefield,” she says, settled into a thick leather chair in the conference room.

She chuckles. Away from the cameras, she’s less humorless combatant than playful sparring partner. Still, she clearly enjoys a swashbuckling stance. Showing off her office, tastefully bedecked with Persian rugs and an antique wooden desk with figures of women carved in the sides, she flips through a coffee-table book (“Fearless Women”) to a portrait of herself, thrusting a sword toward the camera.

Her everyday armor is a knit St. John pantsuit. On this day, it’s purple, adorned with a chunky gold necklace — costume. (She doesn’t know why everyone thinks she only wears red.) She owns a closetful of the expensive suits scooped up in rare forays to the St. John stores in Beverly Hills and New York.

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The suits, she knows, often are part of the parody — and she tries to go along with the joke. She made a cameo appearance in a movie comedy, “Rat Race,” in which a woman slips and falls down a flight of hotel stairs only to find Allred at the bottom ready to sue.

“You have to be able to laugh, to have a sense of humor,” she says. She won’t say whether the SNL skit annoyed or flattered her, instead seizing on it as proof of what happens when women get in the face of powerful men. “It’s nothing compared to what the suffragists went through. They were literally spat upon,” she says.

Framed photographs of suffragists are scattered throughout her offices, illuminated by the bright sun that lured her from the East Coast decades ago. A struggling single mother, she figured if she was going to be poor, she might as well be warm. She taught high school for four years in Watts before entering law school.

At least publicly, Allred metes out her passion equally to her clients, seeing no reason why Tiger Woods’ mistresses (she has represented at least three of them) deserve less than, say, corporate women harassed at work. Tell her that the cameras caught reporters snickering at her news conference with Veronica Siwik-Daniels, the porn actress who said she was one of Woods’ mistresses, and Allred is unfazed.

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“Veronica had a three-year intimate relationship with him,” says Allred. “He asked her to give up her only source of income because he didn’t want her to be with anyone else. He pursued her until he caught her and she fell in love with him. When the scandal broke, he dropped her like a hot potato.”

Her client wanted an apology, Allred says: “Any time a man breaks a woman’s heart, he should have to say he’s sorry.” She leaned forward in her chair, her voice quiet and steely. “Simple as that.”

Allred has suffered her own heartbreak. She grew up working class in Philadelphia. Her father, a door-to-door salesman, and her mother, a homemaker, stressed education and taught her to be “color-blind,” she writes in her book. She went off to the University of Pennsylvania, where she fell in love freshman year.

“I married him as a sophomore, gave birth to my daughter as a junior and divorced him as a senior.” (The ex-husband, who suffered from a mental disorder, committed suicide years later.) On vacation in Mexico in 1966, she was raped, got pregnant, had an illegal abortion and almost bled to death. The experience led to “my decision to become a lawyer and fight for women’s rights,” she writes.

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The name Allred comes from Marriage No. 2 — which worked out well until it didn’t.

“I ended both of them,” she says of her marriages. In fact, marriage, she says, is something she’s sworn off, along with romance. She doesn’t have time. “I’ve had the experience of having a family, marriage. Now I choose a different path,” she says.

She shuttles between her houses on the beach in Malibu and in Los Angeles, often spending time with her daughter, Lisa Bloom, a lawyer and TV legal analyst, and her grandchildren.

But mostly she works. She offers up a copy of a statement she made about a case that was recently resolved. Female corrections officers in a juvenile facility were sexually harassed routinely by male inmates, she says. Their bosses ignored it.

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“Is that a Gloria Allred case or what?” she asks, smiling triumphantly.

carla.hall@latimes.com


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