Taking Down an American Icon
Larry Feldman takes on "bet-the-farm" cases, including one against Michael Jackson
Published in 2007 Southern California Super Lawyers magazine
on January 25, 2007
Updated on January 12, 2017
Larry Feldman’s reputation was already solidly established when the family of a 13-year-old approached him in 1993 about a child molestation case. Feldman was well known as a high-stakes litigator, but there were few cases with stakes higher than the one brought to him that day, because the accused molester was Michael Jackson, the nation’s No. 1 pop music icon. Feldman took the case, and it would change his life.
By the time Feldman joined the case, it had already been all but tried in the court of public opinion. The family had originally hired another attorney to plead their case against Jackson, whom they claimed had repeatedly molested their son. That first attorney arranged a press conference, then the family fired her. “She represented the kid for about a day,” says Feldman. “The Department of Children’s Services leaked a report of the accusation. That’s why [the case] took on a life of its own. The press got the leak, and that’s what made this thing into a firestorm.”
Enter Feldman, who decided that the most practical course of action was a lawsuit rather than criminal prosecution. Many questioned his strategy. Feldman insists it was the path of least damage. “The boy was in terrible pain,” he says. “[The press] knew where he lived, where he went to school. He had death threats. You’ve got to end that.”
Feldman took the case, entering a world whose intensity far exceeded that of his everyday world. Pundits such as Alan Dershowitz and F. Lee Bailey discussed his decisions nightly on television. There were rumors that Feldman’s life was in danger, that he needed bodyguards to feel safe. Feldman scoffs at these rumors. “I didn’t have bodyguards,” he explains. “I had security. The Department of Justice put things into my office so that if something happened I could push a button and police would come.” True, his life had changed, but Feldman did not feel endangered. “I had crazy people that would call and leave voice messages at 3 in the morning,” he recalls, “but I never felt in danger.”
During the Jackson case, Feldman met another character soon to become infamous in L.A. legal circles—private investigator Anthony Pellicano, Hollywood’s self-proclaimed “ultimate problem solver.”
“I’d never heard of Pellicano, and when I got the case he had already been on television telling the world that Michael Jackson slept with little boys,” says Feldman. “I wanted to pin him down and get some names. As a result, I’m one of the few people that have taken a Pellicano deposition.” Though this was long before Pellicano’s questionable methods and associations came to light, Feldman does note that the deposition “wasn’t a pleasant experience. Pellicano wasn’t talking much.”
Eventually, Jackson’s team settled with his accuser for a total reported to be $20 million. Despite his involvement in the case, Feldman never got to actually meet the King of Pop. “When the day came to interact, they quit,” he recounts. “When [Jackson] had to come to the party, he declined the invitation and settled.”
Today, if you do an Internet search for “Larry Feldman,” you will find several venomous message boards populated by posters with usernames like “JackoFan” and “MichaelisInnocent.” Starry-eyed to the end, they vehemently believe that all Feldman did was help frame a misunderstood, gentle icon.
Twelve years later, Jackson again found himself accused of child molestation. This time, the accusing family chose to prosecute in criminal court. They consulted Feldman. “They weren’t interested in money,” he says of Jackson’s 2005 accusers. “They wanted to prosecute him.”
Unfortunately, says Feldman, this family learned that it can be difficult to prosecute a major case under the leadership of the district attorney. “When you’re the plaintiff in a civil case, you’re the star. Your lawyer is running the show. It’s not that way in the criminal system,” he explains. This time, Jackson was exonerated of the charges.
Though the Jackson case was undoubtedly Feldman’s highest-profile case, it would be wrong to assume that his star rose entirely at the expense of Michael Jackson. Or that he was born into success.
A Los Angeles native to his core, Feldman says he grew up in the “most humble of humble beginnings.” The son of an electrical equipment salesman and a homemaker, he was the first of his extended family to go to college, graduating in 1966 from what would eventually become Cal State Northridge. “I had lousy grades,” he admits, “so being a lawyer was not in my vision. Frankly, going to college was barely in my vision.”
Inspiration came, as it sometimes does, in the person of an influential teacher. As an undergraduate, Feldman took a business law class and found that the professor “was the coolest dude ever.”
“I thought, ‘That’s the guy I want to be like,’ so I took the LSAT to see what would happen,” he says. The last student admitted to Loyola law that year, Feldman emerged three years later ranked No. 1 in his class, and he was the editor of the law review.
Though courted by many more glamorous law firms, Feldman joined a small firm in 1968 (while still in law school), one that would eventually become Fogel, Feldman, Ostrov, Ringler and Klevens. He liked the firm for the opportunity it gave him to almost immediately try cases in court, and he admired the firm’s “working class” politics.
Because, you see, white-shoe lawyer Larry Feldman is still a scrappy kid at heart. Though he counts many celebrities as friends and clients, his office walls are free of framed photos, save for those of his family. He is not a self-promoter, though he admits he does like to be recognized as having done his job well. The son of lifelong Democrats, Feldman says he was taught as a child to “believe in the rights of the little guy.”
“[My parents] weren’t political, but they would always tell stories of less fortunate people and the need to be charitable and kind to the underdog.” Perhaps this ethic came from their own backgrounds. Feldman’s father, an orphan, came to Los Angeles at 16, while his mother, the daughter of a Boston tailor, moved west at age 13, in the middle of the Depression. Feldman has never forgotten the lessons his parents taught. He still holds in contempt the time-honored villains of the underdog: “People who use their power to hurt people who get in their way.”
“I don’t like government when they do things that are stupid,” he says, “and I don’t like big people who bully little people. That’s where my passion lies.” This is why, during his career as a trial lawyer, Feldman has worked both prosecution and defense. And since you never know what your next underdog is going to look like, it also explains how Feldman has worked for Exxon, has testified for Mike Ovitz in his case against Disney, and continues to work for Al Davis and the Raiders in their battle against the NFL.
And why, when asked which cases he’s found most rewarding, Feldman points not to Michael Jackson but instead to a civil rights case regarding a black worker who was fired without cause. “I got the highest civil rights verdict for an individual in the history of the country,” he says proudly. “I felt like JFK or Robert Kennedy.”
“[Larry] is incredibly sincere and convincing,” says client and friend Allan Browne of the Beverly Hills firm Browne Woods & George. “He won’t take a case that he doesn’t believe in. He has to believe that his client is correct. And then he’ll pull out all the stops.”
Feldman is not beyond taking on a case with long odds, as long as he has that belief in his client. He once represented two firefighters who had been accused, during a televised interview with the L.A. county sheriff, of starting a major fire. “It turned out they were actually heroes, not criminals,” he says. Feldman knew that he had little chance of winning the case, because of “a privilege problem,” but he proceeded anyway. In the end, his clients lost. More important, says Feldman, “they got the ability to defend themselves in a court of law, and that’s something. What they did win is someone advocating for them in the press, in public, saying that [the sheriff] was wrong.”
“I don’t see myself as a mover and shaker,” says Feldman, in response to a question asking just that. “I still get a kick if someone remembers me and knows who I am.” He may not see himself that way, but plenty of other people—F. Lee Bailey, for example—do. Feldman tells a story of Bailey approaching him at a party during the first Michael Jackson case. “F. Lee Bailey, the same guy who’s been critiquing what I’m doing on TV, comes over and hands me a dollar.” Feldman, nonplussed, asked Bailey what the dollar was for. “He says, ‘You’re on my retainer now; I never want you against me.’”
There are many ways to measure success. For Feldman, success doesn’t necessarily mean a corner office in a chic Century City tower, though his corner office at Kaye Scholer is exactly that. Nor does it mean making Los Angeles Magazine’s list of highest-paid lawyers, though Feldman’s name has appeared on such a list more than once.
From his well-appointed office high above the Avenue of the Stars, Feldman is the very picture of success, no matter what camera use to take the snapshot. But for Feldman, success means having the luxury to choose.
It means that you take only the cases you want to take, the highstakes cases he’s come to love. Feldman calls them “bet-the-farm” cases. By this measuring stick, Feldman has been an astounding “success” since 2003, when he dissolved Fogel, Feldman, Ostrov, Ringler and Klevens and joined Kaye Scholer as special counsel.
“I turned 60,” he says of his decision to shut down his company, “and I was running a law firm where 90 percent of the cases and almost 100 percent of the business was totally dependent on me.” Looking down the road a bit, Feldman saw a firm whose primary partners were aging, with no one in the wings to take their place. “And so,” he says, “I thought it was time to make a change.”
Seeing Feldman so at ease, tanned, relaxed, leaning forward in his chair, it is difficult to imagine him feeling taxed or overworked. It is also difficult to imagine that this easygoing, laid-back man is the litigator who took on Michael Jackson and won; was also Johnnie Cochran’s personal lawyer; now represents Al Davis’ Oakland Raiders in their suit against the NFL; and has been president of the Los Angeles County Bar and the Los Angeles Trial Lawyers Association.
We must assume that somewhere underneath Larry Feldman’s casual untucked linen sport shirt beats the heart of a lion. And that is precisely the picture painted by Allan Browne. Feldman represented Browne’s firm in a recent fee dispute case. “He is laid back, but at the proper time,” says Browne. “You wouldn’t know it necessarily, but he’s able to turn it on. He has a very intimidating and wilting cross-examination.”
Browne says Feldman saves his most devastating cross-examinations for powerful and sophisticated witnesses. “If the party on the stand is a sophisticated person, no one, and I mean no one, is better than Larry. He leads them down the primrose path and then slaughters.” Of his personal experience with Feldman, Browne recalls, “[Our] case settled right after he cross-examined the defendant.”
Considering the contrast between Feldman in the courtroom and Feldman in repose, Browne adds, “If he weren’t so relaxed some of the time,” he says, “he wouldn’t be alive.” Feldman concurs. When immersed in a case, he says, “I’m up all night. I don’t want to do anything but think about the case, strategize, read as much as I can.”
What drives Feldman to such Herculean efforts on behalf of his clients? Not, he says, potential settlements and money, but rather the most basic of desires. He wants to win.
“It’s never about the money,” he says. “In an individual case, it doesn’t interest me. I want to win. And with that comes my reputation.”