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Riding the stormy sea of celebrity law

Lawyer-to-the-stars Debra Opri was a star in her own right on cable TV. Now she needs the legal help.

July 22, 2007|Rachel Abramowitz and Robert W. Welkos | Times Staff Writers

UP until last month, there didn't seem to be a TV camera that attorney Debra Opri wouldn't embrace. The brash, self-professed blue-collar gal from New Jersey had secured a costarring role in the Anna Nicole Smith media circus as the attorney waging war to prove that Larry Birkhead was in fact the father of the now-deceased Playboy bombshell's baby girl. Her hair long, dark and stick-straight, the 47-year-old hovered perennially at Birkhead's side, always ready to hit the Larry King-Bill O'Reilly talk-show circuit on his behalf, always filled with snappy quotes for reporters. Before Smith died, Opri routinely chastised the buxom blond from myriad courthouse steps. "Where's this woman's decency? Where's her fairness?" a righteous Opri asked.

Now, her former star client is asking the same question about Opri.

In March the two acrimoniously parted ways, and in June, Birkhead sued her for fraud, breach of fiduciary duty and legal malpractice. He also filed a complaint with the California Bar Assn., which is investigating. Two weeks ago, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Charles C. Lee gave Birkhead his first victory in what is expected to be a long skirmish -- granting his request that $591,250 of Birkhead's money Opri had sequestered in her attorney-client trust account be transferred into a separate blocked account, that could be touched only by court order.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, August 17, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part Page Metro Desk 4 inches; 172 words Type of Material: Correction
Debra Opri: In a July 22 Calendar article about Los Angeles attorney Debra Opri, Larry Birkhead, a former client who is disputing her bill in court among other claims, said that Opri billed him for a box of Cuban cigars that she took home. According to Opri, the cigars were Graycliff brand cigars, which are made in the Bahamas. She also said the cigars were a gift for Mark Speer, who was handling security on the Birkhead case for no pay. The same article incorrectly stated that lawyers for David Hasselhoff filed a motion in Los Angeles Superior Court to get his ex-wife Pamela Bach's financial records and Opri's records so they could determine the exact sum that they allege Bach and/or Opri received in connection with the sale of a video of a drunken Hasselhoff. The legal document Hasselhoff's attorney filed was in opposition to Opri's motion to quash the subpoenas seeking financial records. The article stated that Opri denied having anything to do with the sale of the Hasselhoff video.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, August 19, 2007 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 4 inches; 170 words Type of Material: Correction
Debra Opri: In a July 22 article about Los Angeles attorney Debra Opri, Larry Birkhead, a former client who is disputing her bill in court among other claims, said that Opri billed him for a box of Cuban cigars that she took home. According to Opri, the cigars were Graycliff brand cigars, which are made in the Bahamas. She also said the cigars were a gift for Mark Speer, who was handling security on the Birkhead case for free. The same story incorrectly stated that lawyers for David Hasselhoff filed a motion in Los Angeles Superior Court to get his ex-wife Pamela Bach's financial records and Opri's records so they could determine the exact sum that they allege Bach and/or Opri received in connection with the sale of a video of a drunken Hasselhoff. The legal document Hasselhoff's attorney filed was in opposition to Opri's motion to quash the subpoenas seeking financial records. The article stated that Opri denied having anything to do with the sale of the Hasselhoff video.

While it's unclear how the case will end, Birkhead's allegations have the potential to seriously dent Opri's once-promising career as the next Greta Van Susteren or Nancy Grace, one of those tough-talking, camera-ready legal eagles on call to opine about the day's courthouse skirmish. To journalist and author Diane Dimond, who first noticed Opri at the second Michael Jackson trial, Opri was at the vanguard of a "disturbing trend of attorneys that began to show up at high-profile trials like Scott Peterson, Robert Blake and Michael Jackson." Lawyers, Dimond explains, who essentially show up for the cameras to "get face time." With law and celebrity increasingly intertwined in a tabloid and 24-hour-news-dominated culture, the matter of Birkhead vs. Opri is more than just a nasty spat. It's also a revealing excursion into a high-stakes world where punditry and legal representation can collide and where six-figure deals between newsmakers and the media are part of the game.

Opri got her start in this rarefied corner of the law by working for the late singer James Brown and then the parents of Michael Jackson. She made a splash giving interviews during Jackson's molestation trial. Her career, her detractors say, is a vivid case study of how lawyers can push their way into the media circus and sometimes profit from their exertions.

Birkhead's claims raise questions of whether she ran roughshod over her client's interest in a quest to rack up airtime and legal bills. His suit isn't her only problem. Opri represented actress Pamela Bach in her legal faceoff in court against her erstwhile husband, "Baywatch" star David Hasselhoff. Last month, Bach fired Opri after she lost full custody of her two daughters.

Meanwhile, Hasselhoff's lawyers have filed a motion in Superior Court to get her financial records to determine the exact sum -- believed by his lawyers to be hundreds of thousands of dollars -- that Bach and/or Opri allegedly received in connection with the sale to the media of the infamous video of a drunken Hasselhoff. Opri denies having anything to do with the video.

She also adamantly disputes Birkhead's accusations and has brought on Sitrick and Co., the crisis P.R. firm, to help her quell the stirring controversy.

Sitting in the lush backyard of her Santa Monica home, the lawyer is all coiled energy in slacks and a white jacket. "This has been a nightmare," said a teary-eyed Opri. "It's not fair, it's not right." She believes that Birkhead was behind the leaking of her legal bill to him, which totaled $620,492, and included items such as a lobster barbecue, thousand of dollars' worth of limo rides and $1,500 a month for her publicist. According to her legal bill placed in the court file, she routinely charged Birkhead about $119 per e-mail, not to mention the over $96,000 she billed him for her time on cellphone calls.

"The bill in and of itself is not outrageous," she said. "This is a bill he doesn't want to pay on any level. I never agreed to work pro bono. I don't work for free," she said repeatedly, responding to one of Birkhead's claims. "I just don't. I can't afford it."

His side of the story

FOR his part, Birkhead said he's paid the Florida and Bahamian attorneys who worked on his case. "Their fees were reasonable. I was not supposed to be charged by [Opri], and she took money she wasn't supposed to take," said the photographer in an interview last week in the Valley, accompanied by his lawyer, M.L. Trope. Birkhead characterizes his relationship with Opri as a bad marriage that he's had trouble shaking.

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