Arts & Entertainment

Lawyers give tips on managing a celebrity (like Charlie Sheen) in crisis

Charlie Sheen arrives at the Pitkin County Courthhose on August 2, 2010 in Aspen, Colorado.
Charlie Sheen arrives at the Pitkin County Courthhose on August 2, 2010 in Aspen, Colorado.
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When famous people get in serious trouble, it can be too much for their managers and publicists. Charlie Sheen’s publicist resigned Monday after the TV star generated too much bad publicity. KPCC’s Sanden Totten recently attended a conference by the Beverly Hills Bar Association. The title was worthy of a reality TV show - "Celebrities in Crisis."

A sea of suits navigated the tables at Lawry’s Prime Rib in Beverly Hills. Aspiring entertainment lawyers packed the dining room to glimpse Hollywood's biggest legal stars. During a panel discussion, some of those attorneys shared insights into working with and for the rich and famous.

Blaire Berk has represented Mel Gibson, Kiefer Sutherland and Lindsay Lohan – not all at once.

She told the audience that she lays down an ironclad rule when she takes on clients like that.

“I am the captain of the ship if I agree to get involved," said Berk. "I am not going to agree to represent someone if they don’t follow my counsel. And if they stop following my counsel I fire them as a client.”

Because she bills mega-stars hundreds of dollars an hour, Berk said they tend to listen. Her main advice to them is to lie low.

That brings us to rule number two – shield your client from the media glare at all costs.

Mark Geragos has represented tabloid favorites Winona Ryder and Michael Jackson, among others. He said bad publicity not only damages his client’s careers, it can sway juries and even judges.

“I’ve tried cases where the motto would be in the morning, ‘What would Greta say?’ because no matter what happened in the trial that night they would watch what Greta Van Susteren said that night and then come in in the morning and second guess whatever ruling they had. So I want to sequester judges instead of juries.”

Geragos advises clients to avoid cameras and to speak only though written statements. He said that the less the press has to work with, the better.

Some celebrities just can’t follow that rule. Publicist Stan Rosenfield knows. Until recently he handled public relations for “Two and a Half Men’s” Charlie Sheen.

He offered rule number three: “Get ahead of the story. Get your version out there before they get theirs out. Because I promise you, you will not like their version.”

Rosenfield so disliked his client’s version that this week, he parted ways with Sheen. During the panel, Rosenfield said that in less extreme cases, he’s prepared with apologies written and ready to go before journalists have any inkling that something is up.

If a celebrity screw-up goes to trial, Mark Geragos said it helps to put a spin on it. When he represented Michael Jackson on child molestation charges, Geragos said he knew that’s what the defense team would have to do.

“[And we needed to come out and we wanted a theme] and we came out and said it was nothing but a shake down by someone who was pursuing him. And that carried through.”

Sometimes a repeat offender seems beyond redemption. In cases like this, said L.A. County deputy District Attorney Dannette Meyers, lawyers call on help from a higher power to snap clients out of their bad behavior.

“If you keep coming back, then I need to catch your attention. And the way I do that is I let Sheriff Baca house you for a couple of weeks. Because I guarantee you, when you go to the county jail, it is not a pretty place, it will catch your attention. It is not the Beverly Hills Hotel.”

Meyers said she’s seen this tough love approach work wonders for a celebrity’s career. Consider Robert Downey Jr., who spent almost a year in state prison on drug charges.

Prosecutor Dannette Meyers said that wake-up call may have helped Downey shift from languishing behind iron bars to becoming Iron Man – or, as his biography on IMDb puts it, evolving into “one of the most respected actors in Hollywood.”