Stereotype Buster

Liberal Cristina Arguedas fights for those downtrodden, underdog corporate honchos

Published in 2007 Northern California Super Lawyers — August 2007

Criminal defense attorney Cristina Arguedas has a unique way of sensing victory during a cross-examination. “I know I’ve succeeded when the witness starts to say, ‘Yes, sir,’ ‘No, sir,’” she says with a smile. Arguedas has heard that submissive response with impressive frequency over the course of her career. She finds it satisfying not just because it signals a win but because the 5-foot-2-inch blonde loves busting stereotypes. 

As she reclines in a chair at her Berkeley office, feet up on the coffee table, it’s difficult to imagine this mellow attorney causing witnesses to crumble. But Arguedas’ cross-examination skills are so legendary that O.J. Simpson’s “Dream Team” called on her to give their client a test run before determining whether he should take the stand. Citing attorney-client privilege, Arguedas doesn’t give details of the practice session, but the facts speak for themselves: O.J. never took the stand.

For more than two decades, Arguedas has successfully defended all manner of unpopular people—from Hell’s Angels to Enron executives. When other lawyers are asked whom they would want as representation if they ever get in legal trouble, her name frequently arises. Sometimes that hypothetical question becomes a reality. Hewlett-Packard’s former general counsel, Ann Baskins, recently caught in the storm of the company’s leak investigation scandal, called on Arguedas, who successfully defended her. And Nancy Heinen, the former general counsel of Apple Computer Inc., sought out Arguedas to advise her on the back-dating controversy surrounding her past employer. As of this writing, the Apple case was pending.

Even through her relaxed, off-duty demeanor, Arguedas’ intensity comes through, especially her concern for her clients. “It’s an awesome responsibility because a person’s future depends on the outcome of the case,” she says. “I take that extremely seriously.” Arguedas says she has always loved standing up for the underdog and relishes the rebellious aspect of her job. “I don’t mind going up against power. In fact, I like it.”

In Berkeley, Arguedas’ home, fighting for the underdog is a local pastime. But Arguedas’ clients aren’t always the type of underdog to qualify for her city’s short list of powerless parties. In recent years, Arguedas has spent most of her time defending top executives caught up in corporate scandal. But Arguedas loves going against the grain. For her, handling high-profile white-collar cases from an office located in the heart of an anti-corporate, counter-cultural haven is the perfect mix of incongruities.

Arguedas’ interest in law started at a young age. “As soon as I realized girls could be lawyers, I wanted to be a lawyer,” she recalls. The New Jersey native traces the realization to 1970, her junior year of high school, when she attended a Betty Friedan-led women’s rights rally in Central Park. Until then, Arguedas says, “I would watch The Defenders on television and think, ‘I want to do that,’ but I didn’t see any depictions of female attorneys.” 

On her way to graduating summa cum laude from Rutgers Law School, Arguedas worked part time at the Center for Constitutional Rights in Manhattan. “It was a real lefty, liberal place,” she says. Intending to focus on gender discrimination issues, she was first assigned a class action suit concerning battered women and their challenges with the police department’s response to domestic abuse. “The case had been going on for five years, there were seven rooms full of documents, and there wasn’t really contact with the clients,” she explains. “But there was another case, a battered woman’s self-defense murder case that had three little boxes of documents and a whole lot of investigation to be done, witnesses to interview and work with the client.” Arguedas chose to go with what was behind door number two—“trial work and people.” 

Arguedas spent most of her second year of law school building the self-defense case for trial, and her team was “very successful.” In 1979, she became one of the few lawyers to get hired out of school by the highly regarded San Francisco federal public defender’s office. Undaunted by the prospect of going up against prosecutors twice her age, Arguedas says, “Nobody outworks me, so I was always extremely prepared.” She continues, letting a bit of Berkeley-speak slip in, “From the beginning I just felt ‘at one’ with being in the courtroom.” 

Arguedas’ courtroom skills proved highly effective. In her very first trial at the public defender’s office—a case involving mail theft—the jury came back with an acquittal for her client in record time for federal court, a mere 20 minutes. Soon after, Arguedas convinced a conservative judge to acquit a deli owner accused of laundering food stamps; she used the unlikely defense that he had fallen under the spell of a beguiling undercover policewoman. Barry Portman, longtime head of the public defender’s office, describes Arguedas as “one of the most marvelous cross-examiners you’ll ever see.”

Arguedas used her time there to continue polishing her skills. “There were a lot of great lawyers coming through that courthouse—John Keker, Jim Brosnahan, Tony Serra—whenever they would be doing anything in the courtroom, I would go and watch them,” she explains.

In 1983, shortly after she left the public defender’s office, and just before she reached her 30th birthday, Time magazine named Arguedas as one of the country’s five most promising women attorneys under the age of 40. It cited her outstanding 13-2 record in injury verdicts at the public defender’s office. “The Time thing was a very big deal for me,” she says. “I was only 29, and even though I had started to build a reputation around San Francisco, this was national.” Then she adds playfully, “But what I really learned was that Time magazine hangs around in dentists’ offices for a long time. People I went to high school with were calling me about that thing more than a year later.” 

Shortly before the article was published, Arguedas had started her own practice with seasoned criminal defense attorney Penny Cooper. The two took on many drug-related cases in the beginning, and as Arguedas explains, “No case was too small.” Even today, the now seven-lawyer firm of Arguedas, Cassman & Headley prides itself on dealing with criminal justice matters of all sizes. But more often than not, Arguedas’ cases are likely to make the front page. They also tend toward the corporate, a trend Arguedas traces to 1987, the year of the Wedtech Corp. defense contracting scandal and her first major foray into the world of white-collar crime. During the corporate calamity that embroiled the Reagan administration, Arguedas helped defend a San Francisco businessman, W. Franklyn Chinn, indicted on multiple counts of racketeering and fraud in connection with the defunct Bronx defense contractor. Chinn won half of the counts at trial and got the remaining counts reversed on appeal. Arguedas, who cites his initial conviction as a low point in her career, breathed a sigh of relief.

Arguedas remains very involved in the white-collar world—she represented Enron’s Timothy Belden, accused of gaming the California energy market, and former McKesson Corp. executive Jay Gilbertson, who became entangled in one of the largest securities fraud suits ever. 

Considering that she describes herself as “your basic liberal Democrat,” Arguedas’ representation of high-powered corporate executives is seen by some as strange. But Arguedas emphasizes that she represents “people, not corporations.” Even so, she says, “I wind up giving certain explanations about corporate cases over and over again. In particular, my belief is that the government is criminalizing behavior that should not be criminalized.” She cites both the HP case and the back-dating controversy at Apple as examples. “When you have practices that cut across 200 companies, and within each company are hard-working executives and 20-person boards, you can’t just pick a few people out and overkill them.” Arguedas feels that the government should focus on corrective action, not “scapegoating individuals and trying to turn them into criminals.”

Arguedas’ professional life has often put her at the center of a media storm. On the personal front, her longtime partnership with California State Sen. Carole Migden has also made the news. Like Arguedas,  Migden is known for her no-nonsense, determined approach to her job. She’s also known for her “power-player” status with close ties to people like Barbara Boxer. Prior to being elected to the Senate in 2004, Migden spent years in the Assembly, served as chairwoman of the state Board of Equalization, and was a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

The couple, together for over 20 years, married in February 2004. The ceremony was officiated by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom soon after his controversial decision to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. In fact, Migden herself crafted California’s original domestic partnership laws during her time as state assemblywoman. Six months after Newsom’s decision, the California State Supreme Court declared all same-sex marriages performed in San Francisco to be void. Migden and Arguedas’ partnership, however, remains solid. 

Besides corporate honchos, Arguedas’ help has been sought out by another class of non-underdogs—celebrity athletes. She helped sprinter Tim Montgomery avoid criminal charges for his alleged use of steroids, and successfully defended former Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden on drunken-driving charges. Similar to her role in the Simpson case, she was also called in to conduct a mock cross-examination of basketball player Kobe Bryant in 2003, when he was accused of rape. The charges against him were later dropped. She made headlines when she represented Oakland Raider Darrell Russell in a rape case that never made it past Arguedas’ pretrial grueling cross-examination of the accuser. The prosecutors decided to dismiss all charges before the case went to trial. 

Arguedas acknowledges that representing a celebrity athlete accused of rape is challenging. “With all the media blitz, nobody seems concerned as to whether the guy gets a fair trial.” In the Russell case, she says, “I just wanted him to be treated like a normal person,” adding confidently, “and, of course, to show that he was wrongfully accused.” 

Regardless of the case, Arguedas is committed to preserving the sanctity of the Sixth Amendment. “The Sixth Amendment is a constitutional imperative, and almost everyone, including Northern California liberals, can get behind that,” she says. “When it comes down to it,” Arguedas adds, “everyone I’ve represented has been unpopular in some way or another, so I’ve been giving a version of explanation my entire life.” 

And clearly, Arguedas wouldn’t have it any other way.   

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