‘Notorious’ defense attorney Mark Geragos spins real life into TV drama

By Carl Koslowski

Mark Geragos also fights for his clients in the court of public opinion Photo by Mercedes Blackehart

Mark Geragos also fights for his clients in the court of public opinion
Photo by Mercedes Blackehart

If ever there was a perfect name for a show about celebrity defense attorney Mark Geragos, ABC TV found it: “Notorious.”

The series, which debuted on Sept. 22 in the 9 p.m. slot that long housed “Scandal,” pulls back the curtain to show how an enterprising lawyer creates a symbiotic relationship with a major TV news producer to spin and ultimately win headline-making cases.

Geragos is an executive producer and consultant for the show, which is indeed based on his 20-year professional relationship with Wendy Walker, a longtime top producer at CNN. Walker allowed Geragos to make frequent appearances
on the network that won her scoops and great ratings. He turned his chance to comment on cases into an opportunity to set the tone of public opinion toward his cases and clients.

With a client base that has included Chris Brown, Scott Peterson, Michael Jackson, Winona Ryder, Susan McDougal and Barry Bonds’ personal trainer, Geragos has established himself as the go-to attorney for stars facing serious legal challenges.

In addition to his high-profile clients, the affable barrister has received widespread acclaim for his extensive pro bono work and other charitable endeavors, developing a reputation as a pillar of the local Armenian-American community.

Geragos, 58, took time out to speak about his approach to the media, hanging out in the writers’ room and why he became a defense attorney.

How closely does “Notorious” tie into your life?

It’s loosely based on my relationship with Wendy Walker, who for 20 years was a senior vice president at CNN and was the executive producer of “Larry King Live.” Wendy has been a very close friend of mine. Piper Perabo plays Wendy, and Daniel Sunjata plays my part. There’s a fascinating dance we do between someone like myself representing high-profile clients and someone like Wendy, who’s producing shows that get all kinds of ratings. I don’t think the public quite gets the dance, or the symbiotic relationship, between two people like that, but this is going to pull back the curtain.

What would you say to those who find that kind of attorney-press relationship questionable?

I’ve always said if you as a lawyer are representing clients who are high-profile in the culture, if you don’t try to shape what’s going on in the culture, then you’re doing your client a disservice. And that’s precisely what the show is about.

The show has the same fun, thriller vibe as “Scandal.” Some of the twists in the pilot are jaw-dropping. Are the plots close to the reality of your cases?

The first show is about my character, Jake Gregorian, whom I named after my son. He goes to the house of a client whom the LAPD has surrounded after he’s supposedly barricaded himself in his house. Just last week, I was doing a podcast and got a call that Chris Brown was in his house with the LAPD surrounding it. I had to go up there. When he finally came out after I got there, he raised his hands just like the character of client Oscar Keaton in “Notorious,” and that was a perfect example of life imitating art. Not only could you not predict it, but when I was living it, I was thinking to myself, “People are going to think I set this whole thing up.”

Is the show drawing cases largely from real life, like “Law & Order?”

The first episode, I couldn’t have planned it if I wanted to, to have a client with an identical situation. But most of the other episodes, I’ll sit in the writers’ room and give them trials and cases I had and the writers will run wild with it. It’s different from “Law & Order” because it’s not only the public cases that I’ve got, but also things that nobody knows about that the writers take and run with.

Do you get a lot of criticism or pushback for taking on some of your clients, whom the public sometimes broadly assumes are guilty?

All the pushback I get is ironic. As soon as someone has a problem, the first person they call is me, and then they don’t understand why things don’t go as smoothly as they would hope. There’s an old expression that “a Democrat is a Republican who’s been indicted.” Until you have the authorities coming after you, you don’t truly understand or appreciate what a lawyer can do for you.

Do you ever turn down anyone who asks to be a client?

I’m in a very good position now. In the old days, I’d tend to take anyone who’d pay. I’m in a position now that that’s not the case. I take cases I believe in, clients I believe in, and that’s liberating. My criterion is that I like to like the client or the cause, and I tend to want to be the person who’s fighting against the authorities and helping the underdog.

You got your start in law by growing up watching your father, Paul Geragos, in action.

My father, who’s my hero, was a [deputy] district attorney for the first 13 years of my life. He’s still alive and through 2003 was my partner, and that’s why we called [the firm] Geragos & Geragos. I used to follow him around in courts up until I was in eighth grade, watching him prosecute. The reason I didn’t become a prosecutor and am a defense lawyer is I watched him put
a guy away in state prison for having marijuana, and I said, “Dad, how can you do this? It’s unbelievable.” And shortly thereafter he left the prosecutor’s office. He and I worked 20 years together.

My father is my hero — still alive, but not hitting on all cylinders. What I inherited from him was his passion for his work. There are a lot of easier ways to make money than practicing law, so it’s not about that. It’s about the change you can effect by working in the law and helping the underdog.

A version of this story first appeared in The Argonaut’s sister paper Pasadena Weekly.