Rosalind Russell and Me
“My, my, my, what an eager little mind,” said Rosalind of Jan
Published in 2006 Southern California Super Lawyers magazine
on January 20, 2006
Updated on April 6, 2017
What’s the best way for an attorney to overcome anxiety about speaking to a packed courtroom? A two-year nightly stint on a Broadway stage would certainly do the trick. Just be sure to start young. Or, if you’re like Jan Handzlik, very young.
By the age of 10, Handzlik was reciting lines to a few thousand people each week as the character of Patrick in the classic Broadway play Auntie Mame. These days, Handzlik is part of the cast at Howrey, performing for panels and courtrooms across the country as one of L.A.’s most highly regarded white-collar criminal defense attorneys. In addition to his thriving practice, Handzlik is an active member of the larger legal community, both in Los Angeles and nationally. He recently served as chairperson of the American Bar Association’s National White Collar Crime Committee composed of more than 700 business crime prosecutors and defense counsels nationwide.
Even with his notoriety as an attorney, fans of the 1950s theatrical production of Auntie Mame or the film version that followed probably remember Handzlik as the young, poised Patrick, who is sent to live with his eccentric aunt, played by Rosalind Russell. The story, with its whimsical household and wild assortment of bohemian characters may seem a bit removed from the buttoned-up world of white-collar crime, but for Handzlik the path from one to the other has felt perfectly natural. As he sits at Howrey’s massive conference room table, after spending the morning in an unexpectedly lengthy meeting followed by a battle with late-afternoon Santa Ana freeway traffic, his composure is flawless. Whether it’s due to years of acting or years in the courtroom, this is a man who does not get flustered easily. The only indication of the tough day he’s had is a discreet removal of his tie.
“Even as a youngster I was always very independent and self-reliant,” he recalls. Handzlik grew up in a family of performers — his grandparents were musicians and his mother was a Broadway actress and contralto — which made his leap to the stage fairly effortless. At age 9 he beat out hundreds of other young actors for the role in Mame. “I think the casting people probably saw that I was pretty self-composed and mature. I assume that’s what separated me from the other actors,” he speculates. Handzlik remembers how, even at that young age, he would walk home in Manhattan by himself when his mother had to stay late at the theater. “It was a different, safer era, of course, but nevertheless, being that independent never fazed me.”
At 12, Handzlik came to Los Angeles to star in the screen version of the play. Compared to the vibrant immediacy of the stage, Handzlik recalls that making the movie was “a bit more tedious, lots of waiting around.” After Mame, Handzlik did a few other acting jobs, including a Twilight Zone episode, but went back to his family in New York, and the frequency of auditions slowly faded out. As he puts it, “I didn’t leave acting; acting left me.”
Fortunately, Handzlik avoided the curse of the washed-up child actor. His legal career — more than 30 years of handling complex commercial litigation and white-collar crime — has won him rave reviews. He attributes his success to his mother’s emphasis on education. “She would have been happy if I had stayed in theater, but she always wanted me to go to college. It became a goal more important than acting.”
In fact, Handzlik traded the acting bug for the law bug quite readily. “From watching Perry Mason and To Kill a Mockingbird and reading about trial lawyers and their exploits, I was drawn to being an attorney at a young age,” he says. At the time, Handzlik recalls, he may have been too young to understand much of the actual content of the law profession but the performance aspect of trial intrigued him.
As he moved through his undergraduate studies at USC and then on to law school at UCLA, Handzlik’s interest in the law blossomed. While finishing his degree, he got a clerkship with a federal judge. “I would get to sit in court and watch people try their cases and then I’d talk to the judge and other lawyers to find out how they thought that lawyer was handling the case,” he says. By the time he got a job at the U.S. Attorney’s office in Los Angeles in 1971, Handzlik recalls, “I knew what was expected of me.”
He spent five years with the U.S. Attorney, an experience he describes as essential to his development as an attorney. At the time, the Los Angeles office was small and the criminal division even smaller, creating an exceptionally supportive environment. “It was a training ground where everyone was helping each other out and learning from each other’s mistakes,” he says.
It was there, trying cases on a federal level, that Handzlik realized the advantage of his theater background. “At that point, it felt like my work was all part of a continuum,” he says. “Because of my acting experience I wasn’t at all intimidated to stand up in front of a tough judge and argue a difficult case in front of a jury.” Handzlik finds numerous parallels between the courtroom and the stage: “You have to focus and communicate clearly, you have to understand your audience, you have to listen, you have to be persuasive, and of course,” he smiles, “there’s always an element of drama and the need to put on a good performance.”
Just as Handzlik had some memorable performances on stage, his experiences in the courtroom have at times been equally exhilarating. A federal racketeering case involving teamsters provided one such moment. Handzlik was defending an official in the Teamsters Union local who was accused of using intimidating tactics to organize moving and storage companies. During trial, a government witness denied having any opposition to the defendant’s bid for union office, insisting he felt no personal animosity toward him. But, unknown to the witness, Handzlik had obtained a copy of a pamphlet printed and distributed by the witness that told quite a different story. The pamphlet called Handzlik’s client a “crook” and featured a drawing of him behind bars in jailhouse clothing. Handzlik remembers revealing the pamphlet during cross-examination and questioning the witness about the drawing’s implications. The witness’s baffled reply: “Well, he’s in a striped shirt.” To this, Handzlik asked, “So he’s a basketball referee?” A wave of uproarious laughter swept the courtroom.
“Of course, I wasn’t going for the laughs,” Handzlik recalls, “but the situation presented itself and the guy was just so stunned. The jury burst out laughing, the judge was almost in tears — everybody thought it was funny with the exception of the prosecutors.”
In the years following his time at the U.S. Attorney’s office, Handzlik enjoyed exercising his courtroom chops in a wide variety of cases while maintaining a strong focus on the corporate sector.
Because of the changing nature of business litigation, Handzlik’s had fewer opportunities to go to trial in recent years. This is unfortunate, he explains, not for his own benefit but because of the profound ramifications it holds for the business community. “The whole climate now discourages corporations and corporate individuals from going to trial and intimidates some to plead guilty when they don’t feel fully responsible. It’s a shame that people are deprived of testing the government’s case in front of a jury, but with the current sentencing regulations they often just can’t take the risk.”
Also jeopardized, according to Handzlik, is the ability to justly determine one of the most central concerns in white-collar crime — the question of intent. It’s a dilemma that Handzlik has wrestled with for the past three decades and still finds fascinating. “The thing I like about doing white-collar crime is that these are intent crimes. If a guy goes into a supermarket with a gun and robs the place, it’s fairly clear that it’s illegal. But if you take a businessman or a board member and put him in a situation where he has to make many crucial decisions on a daily basis, it’s interesting to explore what classifies as him going over the edge.”
According to Handzlik, the question of intent is particularly delicate in an era when intensely complex regulations are being imposed on the corporate sector. For him, the ease with which corporations can get themselves into trouble unintentionally makes the nature of corporate crime today quite different from that of the past. As a veteran of the Savings and Loan crisis, he explains, “during that time, you had people running financial institutions who used savings and loans or banks to finance projects in which they had a clear conflict of interest. In many of those cases there was knowledge on their part that they were doing something wrong.”
Handzlik finds that with regulations such as Sarbanes-Oxley, “a corporation and its officers can trip over something very easily.” In fact, he continues, “the policies have gotten so complicated and numerous that I like to joke how it’s like the California Vehicle Code — you can’t back your car out of the driveway without violating six or seven provisions of the code.”
Handzlik has found a voice for these frustrations by participating on many committees and panels. He serves on the governing council of the ABA’s 8,000-member Criminal Justice Section and on an attorney-client privilege task force appointed by ABA president Robert Grey. For Handzlik, not only do these groups fill an important education function for younger lawyers, but they also “allow one to see things in a broader perspective.” It’s reassuring, he explains, to realize that the issues he encounters are happening nationwide and concern many other attorneys.
Even with his dedication to law, Handzlik continues to find time for theater. Recently, he visited his old haunts in New York City, attending a performance of Glengarry Glen Ross on Broadway. Watching the skilled actors left him exhilarated and reminded him of yet another similarity between his former and current careers. “In theater, as in my job as an attorney,” he explains, “these are people’s stories that we’re dealing with. To be a good, effective actor or a good, effective attorney, there has to be a high level of compassion or understanding for the individuals involved.”
Perhaps an extension of this understanding is Handzlik’s ability to maintain a degree of civility for all parties involved in a case. “As much as it may seem like a war at times, especially in litigation departments of big firms where everybody is going out to kill and bury each other in paper, I feel strongly that treating people with courtesy and respect is supremely important.” In a profession where reputation is crucial, courtesy is not only nice, it’s practical. Handzlik finds that “people never forget,” and proof comes when he receives client referrals 20 or 30 years after a case, even from adversaries. It’s a lesson he learned early on as an actor.
“In theater there’s so much petty jealousy and ego,” he says. “It’s just like in law.” Having a respectful, self-contained attitude is a true asset in both professions. While at times it’s a challenge to stay civil during a heated case, Handzlik just takes a deep breath and draws from the composure that has carried him onto many stages and into many courtrooms.