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April 18, 2012

The Formula for Success

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Shawn Holley Celebrity defense attorney

LAWYERS AREN'T USUALLY SUBJECT to "a star is born" moments, but Shawn Holley had hers in the early '90s while working in the Los Angeles public defender's office. She'd always liked representing the underdog and saw firsthand what fair legal representation could mean to someone in trouble. "You could make the difference between someone going to jail or being able to keep their job and provide for their family," she says. "You could keep someone's life from going into a downward spiral."

One day, Holley was in the courtroom for a complicated preliminary hearing. In the gallery: legendary attorney Johnnie Cochran. "I was feisty and fought really hard," Holley recalls. Cochran liked what he saw and poached her to work for him. Six months later, she was a part of O.J. Simpson's legal dream team, defending him against murder allegations. Though Simpson's acquittal was widely seen as a miscarriage of justice, Holley isn't troubled by it. "It's the job of the prosecution to prove someone guilty beyond a reasonable doubt—if he was guilty and got away with murder, then the prosecution failed," she says plainly.

Holley went on to head Cochran's criminal division, where she defended rappers like Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dogg. She's also represented other high-profile clients like Sara Jane Olson, the Symbionese Liberation Army bomber who evaded capture for 23 years by reinventing herself as a doctor's wife. Holley performed so effectively that she was again poached, this time by Kinsella Weitzman Iser Kump & Aldisert LLP, a boutique entertainment and business litigation firm in Santa Monica. Her practice "grew into what some people call Celebrities Behaving Badly," she says wryly.

In the years since, Holley, 50, has become the go-to attorney for stars in a fix, including indiscreet starlets like Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie, the Kardashians, and, most recently, Lindsay Lohan. Holley sees these women as underdogs—albeit famous ones—besieged by a media that delights in their missteps. "From the moment I pull up to court with Lindsay, there are cameramen jumping out of the bushes, and you can see helicopters overhead," Holley says. "You get the sense that they want to watch her go down. She's like a little girl who's in a scary place, and there are a lot of people rooting for her to fail." She's grown so attached to Lohan, in fact, that Holley says Lohan "calls me her West Coast Mom."

Surely Holley has issues securing a pass for clients so cavalier about flouting the law? "The Constitution protects us all," she explains. "It can't be a system where we pick and choose who gets a defense. I'm making sure the system is fair, and I really see that as an honorable role."

As a female partner at a law firm, Holley is a rarity. Though almost half of all law students are women, only 19 percent ever make it to partner, largely because the profession, with its emphasis on billable hours, can be ruthless to women looking to squeeze a family into the mix. Holley started hers late in life. "I always thought, One day I'll have a baby—just not right now," she admits. "By the time I was 40, I had just taken a five-year lease on a two-seat convertible and resigned myself to the fact that I wasn't going to be a mom."

And then she discovered she was pregnant. Before the year was out, she had a husband—Dorian Holley, vocalist for Jay Leno's house band—two stepdaughters, and a baby girl. As one of the few working mothers at her daughter's "fancy school," Holley has felt conflicted at times about the professional demands on her time. But her own mother had worked as a legal secretary, and Holley says she never wanted it any other way. "I admired her for going to work and getting her master's at night," she says. "I really do see the value in showing my daughters what it is to go to work and do something you think is important."


1. EVERY CLIENT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT. Holley relished defending even petty-theft cases. "You could make the difference between someone going to jail or being able to provide for their family," she says of her years as a public defender.

2. DON'T APOLOGIZE FOR YOUR SUCCESS. Holley was part of O.J. Simpson's defense team. "It's the prosecution's job to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt—if he was guilty and got away with murder, then the prosecution failed," she says.

3. EMPATHY IS GOOD FOR BUSINESS. Holley, who has represented Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton, calls even her rich, sometimes reckless clients underdogs. "I'm making sure the system is fair," she says. "And I really see that as an honorable role."

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