Why is the National Enquirer Afraid of This Man?

Martin Singer may be a mad dog, but he’s crazy like a fox

Published in 2008 Southern California Super Lawyers — February 2008

Priscilla Presley called him a stealth rottweiler. Los Angeles magazine dubbed him a raging bull. Rosanne Barr was so bowled over by his ferocious tenacity—in a suit filed against her—that she later hired him. Yet when you meet Martin D. “Mad Dog” Singer, he is soft-spoken and amiable. Dressed impeccably in a finely tailored, understated suit and lavender tie and smiling as wide as the vista beyond his conference room window, he seems more teddy bear than grizzly.

But this is Hollywoodland, where successful people embrace multiple personas. We are also safe here on the secured 24th floor of a Century City office building, not sitting exposed and vulnerable in a packed courtroom or speeding through a paparazzi-laced gauntlet. In disarmingly pleasant tones, Singer discloses the secret to his celebrity-studded success.

“I’m aggressive,” he says. “Very aggressive.”

He is also direct, no-nonsense, schmooze-free. He is not star-struck, although he appears with Kelsey Grammer in a golf picture that graces his office. He does not drop names, although he could: Britney Spears, Celine Dion, Demi Moore, Sylvester Stallone and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have been clients. He does not preen and swagger. What he does is reach into his pocket and haul out his wallet, which looks like anyone’s wallet, crammed with cards and pictures of loved ones fading behind scratched plastic. He digs around, pulls out a tiny slip of paper, and puts it face-down on the table.

He’s not from here, he explains. He didn’t grow up among the rich and famous. He didn’t always charge $700 an hour, and celebrity clients didn’t always darken his door. In fact, when he and John Lavely Jr. started Lavely & Singer in 1980, he didn’t have any clients at all.

A lower-middle-class kid from Canarsie, a Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood favored by Italian mafia, Singer learned early to work hard—very hard—for what he wanted. An excellent math and science student, he considered engineering. But during Singer’s first year at City College of New York his father died, leaving behind a silkscreen printing factory and a family to support. Singer recalculated. Instead of dropping out, he rescheduled classes to incorporate 30 to 35 hours a week of factory work, and switched to political science, even though he didn’t know exactly what that was. He was told it would lead to law school, which it did; he attended Brooklyn Law School, passing up more prestigious venues to shoulder family responsibilities. He graduated in 1977, and looked west for a job.

Weather, not entertainment industry allure, led him to L.A. He and his bride had fallen in love with California during a stopover on their Hawaiian honeymoon after his first year in law school. When career decision time came in January of his senior year, “it was 20 degrees in New York, with heavy snow and rain. So during the interview process we went to Phoenix, Houston, San Diego and Los Angeles,” he says. He took the bar in California and landed a law clerk position—with no possibility of future full-time employment, the official letter said—at entertainment transactional firm Schiff Hirsch and Schreiber, a key Los Angeles boutique that initially paid him $10 an hour, less than his wife earned as a legal secretary.

The firm boasted such clients as Francis Ford Coppola and Jane Fonda, yet show biz still didn’t beckon. Singer’s math acumen suggested a future as a tax attorney; he assisted one for a while. But, simultaneously, he began assisting in litigation, and he was hooked. Three years later, he was a happily employed associate when, around April Fool’s Day, a memo announcing that the firm would dissolve in 30 days landed on his desk. He thought it was a joke, a cruel one since he’d just bought a small house in the Valley and was expecting his second child. It was no joke. Situation: scary. When litigation department head John Lavely Jr. suggested launching their own firm even though they had no clients in their pockets, Singer hesitated. But his entrepreneurial side prevailed.

He turns the slip of paper right side up. “We went out and celebrated at a Chinese restaurant,” he says, “and this was my fortune: ‘Your intuitions in business decisions are good.’” Never mind that he remained salary-free for three months; they were still in business a year later, when they celebrated their first anniversary at the same Chinese restaurant and—Singer pulls a second slip of paper from his wallet and grins—he got the same fortune.

A self-described workaholic, Singer has a single focus: getting good results. “I care about my work,” he says. “And I work very hard. I’m accessible but I’m also very pragmatic. I often turn down cases or recommend that my clients don’t sue when it’ll cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars and I can’t guarantee that we’ll prevail.”

Handling libel, defamation and media issues is no simple undertaking, particularly when one’s clients include not only movie stars but also high-profile politicians, corporate executives and athletes. Building a celebrity clientele has been a slow process, he says, even for someone who arguably has handled more plaintiff libel lawsuits in the past five years than any other lawyer. Referrals—from other entertainment attorneys, business managers, publicists, accountants, even opposing counsel and clients—are essential. He must please not only famous clients but also their “people.”

“It helps that I’m someone from Brooklyn,” he admits. “I don’t have a laid-back, let’s-go-surfing personality.” A former high school football player whose field presence would still be formidable, he thanks sports—from stoopball to stickball—for his battle mentality. He wants to win. Forget teddy or grizzly; more often he’s the bad news bear. “The last thing a celebrity wants to be is in a courtroom,” he says. “You’re telling them either ‘someone hasn’t honored their commitment or has ripped you off or treated you poorly, and you have to hire a litigation lawyer to preserve your rights,’ or ‘you’ve been accused of doing something wrong and now you’ve got to justify your conduct.’ It’s always bad news, even when you win,” he says.

Singer says he is driven—passionately, consummately driven—to protect the rights of all clients, whether or not they are household names. About 40 percent are defendants and 60 percent plaintiffs; none of the work is easy.

“A lot of celebrities don’t ever want to hear the word ‘no,’ and the CEOs are even worse,” he says. He is no shrinking violet, he adds, and insists that his clients tell him the truth. Sometimes he gets it, sometimes not. Although each client is different, “some are more difficult than others. If they’re too difficult, I’ll stop representing them. Life’s too short.”

On a first-name basis with editors and counsel at the tabloids, Singer practices one rule: never lie to the media. He may implore them to kill a story, change a story, move a story, or print truth instead of fiction. He seldom has the luxury of time; he must act in minutes, not hours, days or weeks. Every week, he contends with about 40 calls involving different publications proposing stories that clients claim are either false or defamatory. Their intended stories may cross essential boundaries, and Singer isn’t shy about pointing them out.

In one case, medical personnel leaked confidential information about Singer’s client, whose medical condition, if disclosed, could affect the syndication of a popular TV series. Singer knew the information was true but had to figure out a way to kill the story. He knew this: If the publication had accurate information, it must have been illegally obtained. If it ran the story without saying whether it was true or false, it violated the person’s right to privacy. And if it ran the story and it was wrong, the negative effect on the client’s future could subject them to $20 million, $50 million, even $100 million in damages. “Was it worth the risk?” he asked the publications.

“Lo and behold, they didn’t run the story,” Singer says. Nine months later, the client decided to disclose his medical condition, and “you know what? That’s the right thing to be done. His family shouldn’t hear about someone having cancer by reading the Enquirer.”

Such issues often involve children. Adults volunteer to live in the public eye, which means they’re fair game, but children do not, Singer says emphatically. “Sometimes the question is whether it’s morally correct to publish a story. I have to use my skills to appeal to [editors] as human beings.” While he can still depose a plaintiff for days on end—professionally and courteously, of course, but skillfully enough that the plaintiff dismisses the lawsuit—Singer says that his practice has changed significantly since his name went on the door in 1980.

“I usually have at least half a dozen major arbitrations a year that would have been jury trials,” Singer says, adding that his last trial was two years ago. Although he has two or three scheduled in the next six months, perhaps only one will reach a courtroom. About 95 percent of all cases settle, he says. And many cases are handled out of state, where California’s anti-SLAPP statute doesn’t apply.

“Do you know where the word ‘arbitration’ comes from?” he asks. “This is in the Marty Singer dictionary: It comes from the word ‘arbitrary,’ because those decisions can be arbitrary. The bad thing about arbitrations in California is that an arbitrator can get it wrong in terms of the facts or the law, but unless you can prove fraud or refusal to allow evidence, you have no right to appeal. I think it’s a disservice to clients when they basically get one shot at the apple,” he says. “I much prefer jury trials.”

The most significant changes during Singer’s reign are due to the Internet. The National Enquirer and Star splashing headlines on the newsstand once a week was one thing; Web sites publishing news 24/7 is quite another. “Many don’t care about the law. They just want to be the first to scoop it, and if it’s false, it’s too late, because it gets picked up by all the other media,” he says. “Not only is it instant news, but they generally don’t have the same approach to fact checking before they run the story. Some just say, ‘Go ahead and sue me. I got nothin’.’ They just get publicity.”

Men and women behaving badly keep Singer on his toes, sometimes literally. Some make up stories, like the one claiming a celebrity was swilling booze when the liquid in question was ginseng. Others jump out of bushes, ambushing a stroller to capture a famous couple’s baby on camera. Inside the courthouse, Singer fights legal wars, but outside the courthouse, he must deal with security issues even more intimidating—and dangerous.

“Paparazzi run rampant here. They’re faceless thugs, many of them, and they basically create stories,” he says. He recalls an incident in an underground parking lot in Beverly Hills, where his car was blocked and he and his client were chased. His clients, of course, face such harassment all the time. Singer’s experience in their presence, simply walking beside them and sharing their fear, gives him compassion for the downsides of fame.

“I just want to make sure justice is accomplished, and many times these people don’t get justice in America,” he says. “It gets harder every day.”

Despite his workaholic tendencies, Singer makes no claim to doing it all by himself; other lawyers often draft his notorious poison pen letters, for example. He claims that his considerable accomplishments—the Daily Journal has named him one of California’s Top 100 Attorneys, and a slew of celebs apparently concur—rely heavily on assistance and support from his partners and associates.

His career commitments, however, don’t keep him from his other loves: watching sports (he’s an avid Dodgers and New York Giants fan), golf (although his local pro says he needs to spend more time on the course) and his family. The father of three grown children (“all brilliant,” he claims, although none is a lawyer), he once, midway through a three-week jury trial, convinced a judge to end an afternoon session early so he could coach his son’s semifinal championship Little League game. The team lost, but Dad was there on time.

At 55, Singer says he wants to work less for the same results, but he has no intention of slowing down. So he’ll continue to embody his moniker, which first came about when a colleague noted his initials—M.D.—and called him “Mad Dog.” Singer immediately took to the nickname—and Hollywood seems to agree.

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