Sara Azari fled Khomeini-era Iran, practiced law in Rio and defends the worst of the worst
Published in 2011 Southern California Rising Stars magazine
on June 10, 2011
Updated on June 14, 2011
Q: In your work as a criminal defense attorney, is there one type of offense you see more than others?
A: I tend to represent a lot of individuals who have been accused of sex offenses and drugs. It’s a wide spectrum—especially sex offenses. They could be charged with possession or distribution of child pornography. There are a lot of allegations of misconduct with minors. But I have a general criminal defense practice, so I handle anything from a DUI to a homicide.
Q: Do you ever think, “How did I ever wind up doing this?”
A: Criminal defense?
Q: This particular niche. You’ve just described some of the worst things people can be accused of.
A: I do sometimes wonder. But my office is on the Sunset Strip so I say, “Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.”
Q: Without the rock ‘n’ roll.
A: Without the rock ‘n’ roll.
With respect to sex offenses, most individuals feel more comfortable with a female attorney. Not to sound sexist, but I think if you’re taking somebody who’s accused of rape before a jury, psychologically, it softens it up. You’ve got a jury looking at a guy who supposedly did this heinous crime, but then you’ve got this woman standing next to him, interacting with him, as if there’s no threat. In my experience, a lot of individuals look to hire females in these types of cases.
Q: Has there been a study on this?
A: I don’t know of any particular study but I do notice most of the prosecutors, on the state court level, are females. There’s one male I’ve had a case with in downtown LA. We always joke around because he’s the token male prosecutor in that unit.
Q: Strictly in terms of cultural mores, is there one crime that’s tougher to defend? Because of the reaction people have to it?
A: [Pause] Nothing stands out. And it differs from court to court. Something that may not be a huge deal to a jury in downtown LA might be just heinous to someone in Pomona.
Q: Once you get a case, is there something in particular you look for?
A: Absolutely. I look to see whether there’s physical evidence or not. Do they have a DNA matchup? If there’s no physical evidence, it’s a he said/she said case, so you start focusing on what motive that minor or even adult may have had to fabricate these allegations against my client. Then we do a lot of investigation. Working closely with an investigator and interviewing possible witnesses is crucial to defending a sex crime. We subpoena school records, and, if [the accuser has] been to counselors, we subpoena the counseling records. Off of each set of records that come in, we dig further: medical records, who they’ve talked to at school, what they’ve told their friends.
In the last few years I go straight to Facebook. You’d be amazed at what’s out there. I’ve actually had cases dismissed based on what I found on the complainant’s Facebook page.
A: There was a quiz [on Facebook] with questions like, “Have you kissed your boyfriend and lied about it?” Things of that sort. This girl, essentially, had lied a lot about things that had to do with her intimate life. So I had my investigator take a screen capture of the pages and we took it to the DA’s office and the filing was dismissed.
Q: On your website, you describe the case of a man accused of sexual conduct with a minor, who faced up to 16 years in state prison. How did you get him acquitted?
A: That was a classic he said/she said case. It was a lengthy trial—almost six or seven weeks—and there were problems with the investigation by the LA County Sheriff’s Department. So there was a lot at play. The primary accuser was a girl who was a special ed student. Her father had been taking her to Kaiser for treatment, and each time he would fill out a form about her behavior at home; and it was always checked off that she lies and manipulates. All of this let the jury know that this is not a child or a teenager whose word you can accept as the truth.
It was very emotional verdict. Probably once a month, my client still sends me a text message, thanking me. He’s doing great. He was never in trouble before and hasn’t been in trouble since.
Q: Is that common? Clients staying in touch after the verdict?
A: Yes. I’ve had clients from years ago, who I think have gone on with their lives; then I get a Christmas card. It’s really nice. You realize you made a difference in their life.
I represented a technical sergeant from the Air Force on a rape allegation, and it was a very interesting court-martial. He just walked into my office with these charges. I’d never done a court-martial before. I was very honest with him. I said, “Listen, I definitely know how to cross-examine this woman, and this is a winnable case, but I don’t know your procedures. So if you want to keep your JAG on board and have me do the work, but then have him advise me on the procedure, I’m happy to help you out.” We did the trial and the judge came back in an hour with the verdict: four counts and all not guilty. So he’s somebody in contact with me.
I always say victory is relative. Sometimes people come in and they don’t want to hear the truth, they just want to hear what makes them feel good. Because this is a horrible situation they’re up against. It’s their lives. They don’t want to hear the reality of what the possible outcome might be. However … a phrase I use routinely is: “I’d rather turn you down now than let you down later.”
Q: You mentioned the sergeant walking into your office. Is that how you get most of your clients?
A: A lot of my business is word-of-mouth. I basically set up shop with all I had to my name, which was 4,000 bucks, which is nothing. It was one of the ballsiest things I did in my life. But it was the best choice I made, because I had a network of people who had confidence in me and who started to send me business. I’m lucky that way.
Q: Who are your mentors?
A: One is Anthony Brooklier, who represented Heidi Fleiss. I did a lot of work for him when I first started practicing criminal defense. Because initially after law school, I didn’t practice criminal defense; I practiced corporate law.
Another one of my mentors is Michael Nasatir. He’s in Santa Monica.
Q: What advice did they give you?
A: From both of them: This is a type of work where your personality [matters]—how you interact with clerks and courts, judges and prosecutors. The more likeable you are, the easier it is for you to fight a case.
Some of the best advice Michael gave me was, “If a client comes to you and they’ve gone through three lawyers? You probably don’t want that client. They’re probably never going to be happy.” That always stuck with me.
Q: You mentioned you came to criminal defense from corporate law. Is that what you expected to practice when you graduated law school?
A: When I was in law school, criminal procedure and criminal law was one of my favorite topics. But at the time I was working for a personal injury attorney and I definitely knew that that wasn’t what I wanted to do. But that wasn’t enough of a process of elimination for me. So when I got out of law school, I was recruited and hired at Baker & McKenzie in their Rio office. I moved to South America and was down there for a few years. I did mergers, I did oil and gas transactions, but a business, or fighting over somebody’s money or house, was never exciting for me. I did it, and I did it well, but I didn’t really have that much passion for it.
There’s so much more at stake in criminal defense. It’s someone’s liberty and their life. Sex registration is a lifetime requirement. It’s like the scarlet letter A on your chest. People will go on the Internet and see your picture as a sex offender. To me, that’s far more important than whether the husband or the wife gets the house, or how much money I can recover for this person, or what kind of deal I can put together. That’s all great but this is what drives me every day. You make an impact on people’s lives.
So when I moved back to Los Angeles, I started exploring this more. And my first day, doing work for Tony and Mike, I knew this was what I wanted to do.
Q: How long were you in Rio?
A: I graduated from law school in ’99. So I was there about two years.
Q: Did you know Portuguese before moving to Rio?
A: I spoke French and Spanish, and I took eight private lessons of Portuguese before I moved down. By the time I was getting ready to come back, I was actually writing legal memos in Portuguese.
Q: Are you from LA?
A: I was born in Iran. I left Iran when I was about 7 years old because of the revolution. Spent years in London before moving to the U.S.
Q: What did your parents do in Iran?
A: My mother was a university professor and my father was an entrepreneur/CPA.
Q: Did you leave immediately in ’79 when Khomeini came in?
A: My sister and I went to the American School and my parents wanted us to go to the same school in London, so we left immediately. But my dad couldn’t leave—he was on a list of people who couldn’t leave the country for whatever crazy reason.
Q: Did your father eventually get out?
A: My father died of a heart attack in ’84 at the age of 43. He was finally allowed to leave. What they were doing at the time of the revolution is they were basically freezing everybody’s assets and not letting them leave, so anybody who owned anything was stuck. Finally things eased up a little bit, and he was able to sell everything there and was moving to LA—I think [moving day] was two months after he passed away.
Q: Any memories of Iran?
A: My memories of Iran are pretty fond, which is why I don’t want to go back. I think it’s probably nothing like how I remember. It was a very Westernized, modern country. It had the beauty of the Oriental but it was modern. It wasn’t about people wrapping things around their head and women covering themselves up. A lot of my friends were American and from other parts of the world. I’ve been exposed to different cultures and different people, hence my love of traveling, and that’s what instilled it in me: being exposed to it in Iran. It was an amazing place. Unfortunately, it’s gone.
Q: When you moved to London and LA, was there still a lot of anti-Iranian feeling around?
A: Absolutely. I’m proud of my heritage today, but as a kid, moving around, it’s difficult. There was so much animosity because of the hostage crisis. You just could not say you were Iranian. And I wasn’t old enough to be able to defend my culture, my heritage, so I found it easier to say I was Italian, because my last name could be Italian. I was denying the fact because I didn’t want to be bullied.
Q: Was this in the U.S. or London?
A: London, primarily. In the U.S. it was a little better, but [Iran] was still not a good place to say you were from.
It’s hard for kids. One of the things I did for a while … I’m a member of the Beverly Hills Bar Association, and they had a program where lawyers would go to various schools in LA, to third graders, and talk to them about bullying. They did a study and found out that that’s the grade where it starts.
But overall I didn’t have a hard time. Today I appreciate it. It taught me tolerance for different people, different colors, different walks of life. I’m pretty fearless. I can go anywhere and feel safe.
Q: What drew you to the law?
A: I’ve always looked beyond what people were telling me. I had that innate analytical mind. I remember growing up, like in third or fourth grade, when girls would have little fights with one another: I was the mediator. I’d listen to one, then listen to the other, then help them make up.
Q: You didn’t take the advocate role.
A: [Laughs] Not at that point. At UCLA I went for French literature, but just before graduation I thought, “What the hell do I do with this?” For some reason my mind was focused on: doctor, dentist, lawyer. Part of it has to do with coming from an immigrant background. It’s really important for parents, after going through all this and making sure their children get a great education, that you become somebody. You can’t just go to fashion school. They want to see the fruits of their labor.
Q: What do you know now that you didn’t know in law school?
A: I don’t think they do a good job in law school teaching you about attorney-client relationships. They assume you have the personality and the people skills that it takes to handle that relationship—but it’s a relationship. It’s like being married. You have to communicate, you have to trust—all the while being truthful and real and open. You have to understand where this person comes from, what kind of cultural background they come from, what their insecurity is, what does it take for them to trust. It’s a relationship you can lose. If you’re doing everything you possibly can to help the client, but you’re not keeping them in the loop, they’re going to think they’re abandoned. Or if you’re keeping them in the loop but you’re not doing it in the way that they’re used to receiving information, they’re gone.
Q: What do you consider your most significant accomplishment?
A: Being able to run a practice, which is really the business of law, and being able to practice law, both effectively, without one jeopardizing the other.
Q: Anything you’d like to talk about that I didn’t ask you?
A: I don’t think I’ve elaborated on the caliber of people I represent. I’ve represented police officers, doctors; I’ve represented people in the entertainment industry; and then there’s the person who doesn’t even speak English. That’s what makes it interesting. All walks of life.