Does Lisa Bloom Deserve Redemption?

- April 28, 2018


You remember Bill O’Reilly. Even now that so much time—what, months? A year!—has passed. Tall man. Loud. He reigned as one of the most powerful men in cable television, until all of a sudden, he did not, thanks in part to attorney Lisa Bloom.

Bloom, just now, is recounting the details of what she calls Operation O’Reilly. An affable Los Angeleno, she is sitting over coffee in the lounge of Manhattan’s NYLO hotel on a Thursday in March, wearing a zip-up oatmeal-colored sweater, plaid trousers and reading glasses dangling from a chain. In the late months of 2016, Bloom remembers, the New York Times was preparing a bombshell story revealing that O’Reilly and his employer, Fox News, had paid some $13 million in confidential settlements to five women accusing him of sexual harassment. The paper had tracked down Wendy Walsh, an occasional guest on “The O’Reilly Factor” whose lucrative offer to become a contributor had vanished, she said, after she rebuffed an O’Reilly advance. Walsh was free to talk, but she was worried and wanted to know what Bloom thought. Should she go on the record? “Who do you think you’re talking to, Wendy?” Bloom said.

Who Walsh was talking to, of course, was one of the most media-savvy practitioners of women’s-rights law, a two-fisted celebrity feminist who learned her trade at the knee of her mother, the pugnacious Gloria Allred. The names Allred and Bloom are synonymous with aggressive legal strategy on behalf of wronged women, and relentless public-relations campaigns against rich and influential men. During a 42-year career, Allred—the more famous of the two—has pioneered scorched-earth tactics that Bloom, who has her own firm, has largely adopted. Over the years, mother and daughter have represented, to take a few examples, female Marines whose male colleagues posted nude photos of them (Allred); a woman who claimed an Uber driver groped and verbally abused her (Bloom); women who accuse President Donald Trump of sexual misconduct (both); and women who say they were drugged and sexually assaulted by Bill Cosby, who was recently found guilty of doing just that to one of his dozens of accusers (again, both Allred and Bloom).

When the Times story about O’Reilly was published, Bloom turned to a stock tactic: holding a news conference to “publicly shame” O’Reilly, whom Walsh could not sue because the statute of limitations had expired. Then, Bloom moved to stock tactic No. 2: “Keep the story alive in the news,” as she puts it. In the Times article, a 21st Century Fox executive had pointed out that none of the victims had called Fox’s sexual harassment hotline. Bloom found the number, had Walsh phone in her complaint, videotaped it, posted it on social media and tweeted at Fox, taunting the network to investigate. The spectacle brought forth another accuser, and Bloom ran the same drill. Advertisers were fleeing “The O’Reilly Factor”; protesters ringed the Fox building; and, lo and behold, Bill O’Reilly was fired.

The ouster of cable TV’s most puissant strongman was transformational: Beyond one man and his accusers, it signaled to harassment victims that it was possible to speak out and be believed. This tectonic shift would help usher in the #MeToo movement, one of the most remarkable and, so far, unstoppable civil rights campaigns of the modern era, as woman after woman has come forward—and men have suffered consequences.

If things had continued to go that well, Bloom right now would be savoring the moment she helped create. But just as #MeToo was about to reach its tipping point, her media instincts, and her integrity as a feminist advocate, failed her. Last fall, another devastating Times report revealed that Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein had settled at least eight confidential sexual harassment lawsuits, for episodes in which he allegedly lured women into hotel rooms promising to help their careers, then pressured them to participate in skin-crawling scenarios like giving him massages or watching him shower. He now stands accused by dozens of women of offenses ranging from harassment to rape (he denies any “criminality”).

When the Weinstein story broke, there was another startling revelation: His legal defense team included Lisa Bloom.


Bloom and Allred, in separate interviews for this article, both point to Weinstein as the case so egregious that it set off the #MeToo era as we now know it. “I see it as similar to a wave that’s been coming in to the beach, and coming in and coming in, and then going out, coming in and going out,” Allred says, “and ultimately it became a tsunami.” Bloom agrees. “Clearly there’s something different that’s happening now. And clearly it started with the women speaking out against Harvey Weinstein,” she says.

Those who cheered the momentum of #MeToo struggled to understand Bloom’s role. Further reporting in the Times and the New Yorker established that she wasn’t just being used to whitewash Weinstein’s reputation. She had been working—hard—to deny allegations, pressure reporters and, according to some accounts, discredit victims, using her trademark hardball tactics in the service of precisely the kind of person she would normally be trying to take down. Bloom is not the only feminist lawyer to deploy her expertise and ferocity on behalf of a powerful man accused of harassment. The renowned attorney and professor Susan Estrich appalled many by working on the legal team of Roger Ailes, now deceased, who was himself accused of making advances at female Fox employees. But while Estrich remained fiercely loyal to Ailes, Bloom apologized—yet faced a greater barrage of criticism. “Why did you switch sides?” George Stephanopoulos asked her on “Good Morning America.” “Not only was she a hypocrite, but she was a sellout,” is how the Los Angeles Times summarized it, pointing out that Weinstein had optioned Suspicion Nation, Bloom’s book about Trayvon Martin, to be made into a miniseries.

Months after the fact, the story of Lisa Bloom tells us something about the perils of power (and money) and their seductive attractions, and about the unforgiving politics of pivotal social moments. Her career interest managed to put her on the wrong side of public opinion, as well as justice. And like the accused, often liberal-minded men caught up in the cascade of revelations, Bloom saw her normally useful Twitter feed melt down under the weight of vilification. But this is also a cautionary tale about full-on litigation in the public arena. Allred pioneered the celebrity-lawyer archetype, putting women front and center and managing to find her own way into every camera shot. It seems fair to say Bloom followed that path too far. The very thing she is so good at—seeking publicity, using a media strategy to drive a legal strategy, representing A-list (and B- and C-list) clients, doing what her mother calls “creative lawyering” to control the media narrative—was what landed her in the worst moment of her career.

Bloom initially rationalized her choice by describing Weinstein as a “dinosaur learning new ways” under her tutelage, a defense that fell short for many—including her own mother. The day the Times story ran, Allred said in a statement that she herself would not represent Weinstein—but would represent a Weinstein accuser, even if it meant going up against her daughter. Allred’s statement got enormous play in the media, which loves a catfight, but she felt it was misconstrued. “She has a different law firm, and she makes her own decisions about who she should represent. And I make my own decisions [about who] I should represent, so, no, I did not criticize her,” Allred told me. When I asked if Bloom got too much criticism, in general, she responded, “Yes.”


While the worst of the storm now has passed, in the legal community there remain critics and skeptics who see Bloom’s actions as undermining all victims. “It was reprehensible,” says Debra Katz, a Washington lawyer with the firm Katz, Marshall & Banks who specializes in sexual harassment. Deborah Rhode, an expert in gender law and legal ethics at Stanford Law School, points out that “side-switching is uncommon” in this legal field, even for a single client or case. “We never want to be in a position to make arguments or create case law that are going to hurt women who come forward to assert sexual harassment,” Katz says. “And you will, if you’re going to be zealously representing men who are accused.”

Bloom herself thinks she has done penance. She has said she made a “colossal mistake,” and told me she takes comfort in the idea that failure begets growth. The question now is what it takes to win redemption, not so much in the eyes of TV bookers, who continue to invite her on, but in the eyes of serious observers of the #MeToo movement who want to understand the changes it has unleashed and the moral questions it raises. When can—when should—a one-time offender be welcomed back? As a woman—and not just any woman, but an architect of this movement who is the daughter of another architect—Bloom invites us to think hard about transgression and forgiveness. How much time must pass before someone who has fallen from grace can resume a credible place among the ranks of her pink-hatted sisters?

It also shows that the public forum can be a treacherous place, emotionally, even for those who walk it with assurance. When I began reporting this article, Bloom said she and her mother were not talking much, and what talking they were doing seemed to occur through the media. More than six months after the crisis blew up, this mother and daughter power duo were still not fully reconciled.

***

Gloria Allred has earned a reputation as the voice of feminist dudgeon, immortalized in her fondly satirical portrayal on “The Simpsons” (“That is assault!” says the cartoon Allred, identified as Shrill Feminist Attorney). But her flamboyance masks the real contributions she has made to the law on behalf of women: employing creative means to deal with the statute of limitations, the window of time in which victims can seek civil remedy or pursue a criminal case. The statute of limitations for sexual harassment is 300 days in the vast majority of states; for criminal rape cases, it tends to be longer, but not long enough, advocates say, given that women rarely come forward right away. “There’s a real reluctance to be the only, you know, penguin on the ice floe,” Rhode says. “Single complainants are demeaned, devalued; oftentimes their credibility and performance is undermined; it’s viewed as professional suicide.”

Allred, who began practicing law in the 1970s, intuited that one way to work around these challenges was to use the public forum. “In the court of public opinion, there is no statute of limitations” is how she likes to put it. She pioneered the tactic of holding news conferences in which victims could tell their stories, often bringing out new witnesses and other victims, or persuading an accused to settle confidentially to avoid that.


Allred employed ringmaster tactics from the outset of her career. She challenged the Beverly Hills Friars Club because, as its first female member, she was denied access to certain facilities; sued a dry cleaner who charged women more than men; advocated equal pay and child-support collection. Like Billie Jean King taking on Bobby Riggs, she understood the power of stunts and was unafraid, even eager, to mix it up with men who denounced her. One California state senator called her a “slick butch lawyeress.” Some clients were less sympathetic than others, but it’s striking how prescient many of her cases were. In the 1980s, one of her clients sued the Los Angeles Archdiocese for sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests. Allred was an early advocate for same-sex marriage. And in representing the family of O.J. Simpson’s slain ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, she helped prevent the murder victim from being slut-shamed in court.

Bloom saw all this up close. She was born when her mother was a sophomore in college; Allred had attended the University of Pennsylvania and married a student, Peyton Bray, who suffered from mental illness and had violent outbursts. (He later committed suicide.) Allred left the marriage in part to protect Lisa, supporting them by working as a teacher. But during a vacation in Mexico, Allred was raped at gunpoint. She almost died seeking an illegal abortion. “This will teach you a lesson,” a nurse told her. She went to law school and began practicing when Lisa was an adolescent. “I was proud of her,” Bloom says. As an undergraduate at UCLA, Bloom emerged as a champion debater. She went to Yale Law School knowing she “wanted to represent the underdogs.” She worked for her mother’s firm, then left to appear as a legal analyst on television, eventually getting her own show on Court TV. After a decade, she returned to practicing and now has her own firm in the Los Angeles suburbs. “I have always encouraged her to be a strong feminist,” Allred says.

Bloom has worked to differentiate herself from her famous mom. At news conferences, Allred likes to sit at a long table with a nest of microphones and a fat phone directory underneath her (she is short). Bloom prefers to stand and likes to project visual aids; when her client Andrea Buera filed for a restraining order against the singer Trey Songz, Bloom says, “We had pictures of my client’s bruises.”


There are more fundamental differences, however. Allred comes from a generation that felt sexism at its rawest. She divorced her second husband and does not wish, any more, to date. “Work is my life,” she says in a Netflix documentary, Seeing Allred, which shows her rolling her overnight bag through airport after airport. Allred has not taken a vacation in years. Bloom, who is married, belongs to a generation of women who aspire to work-family balance. She takes exotic vacations and attends Burning Man with her adult kids.

For decades, all of this worked in the pair’s favor. As recently as last July, Bloom and Allred were photographed together for a profile in W Magazine, which noted in its headline: “Mom is Suing Trump. Her Daughter Took Down Bill O’Reilly. Gloria Allred and Lisa Bloom are the Defenders of Women in 2017.”

***

The gauzy coverage ended on October 5, 2017, when the Times published its first story about Weinstein. The article quoted Bloom saying the movie mogul denied “many of the allegations”—which spanned decades—“as patently false.” For the past year, she had been counseling Weinstein on “gender and power dynamics,” as the Timesput it, a gig that had started when he optioned her book. In a statement, Bloom said she, “as a women’s rights advocate,” told him he needed to “evolve to a higher standard.” In her interview with me, Bloom floated a similar explanation: She thought she could temper the way Weinstein treated accusers, teach him not to bully and malign. And, she points out, she got him to apologize.

Yet, a few weeks after the scandal broke, reporter Ronan Farrow published a New Yorker article outlining Weinstein’s monstrous intimidation tactics, which included hiring ex-Mossad officers and opposition researchers. Bloom would later say she did not intimidate anyone. But the Times and other outlets reported on leaked emails from her to the Weinstein Co. board in which Bloom said Weinstein would file a defamation suit against the Times, and that “more and different reporting” and “photos of several of the accusers in very friendly poses with Harvey” would come out. And according to Farrow’s article, in the chaos of that first day, “Bloom and others pored over pictures that … showed ongoing contact between Weinstein and women who made allegations.” Bloom told me the reports “twisted” her emails and she was only predicting such photos might appear in the media. But emails showed that board members felt she was urging the photos’ release.

On October 7, after she learned of even more serious allegations, Bloom (who says she is constrained by attorney-client privilege from talking about the case) quit the Weinstein legal team. During an appearance on “The View,” she admitted that her judgment had been clouded by excitement over the Weinstein miniseries deal. For this, she paid the price. “I went through a very difficult period,” she says now. “A lot of death threats, rape threats—and from the left.” It didn’t help when stories soon emerged showing Bloom had worked to discredit parts of a report about another of her clients, Amazon Studios head Roy Price. Bloom acknowledges that she “presented evidence to some news organizations.” She does not believe Price, who lost his job for allegedly making obscene remarks to a producer (which he denies), should have been ousted over a single infraction. The campaign nonetheless earned her media enemies, especially after journalist Kim Masters wrote an article for the Columbia Journalism Review about Bloom’s tactics.

During the hate-mail period, Wendy Walsh, the O’Reilly accuser, says she took a long hike with Bloom in the L.A. canyons. “We joked about—we’re like Hillary in the woods,” Walsh told me. Bloom, a believer in apologies, did change course. She says she “immediately” apologized to the members of her 14-attorney firm for her involvement in the Weinstein case. In turn, the firm agreed to no longer represent anybody accused of anything, “no matter how innocent they may come across.” Bloom doesn’t seem thrilled about the move. “I have men who are dear friends who insist they are wrongly accused of something and they can prove it. And they want me to help them,” she says. “But I don’t. I pass.” For the firm, the decision was “a matter of defining very clearly who we are,” she says—which sounds more like a branding concern than one of philosophy or ethics.


Watching the #MeToo moment unfold, Bloom has found herself out of sync, sometimes, with forces she helped to unleash. “I’m a little more of a believer in redemption than other people,” she says. When it comes to sexual misconduct, “If somebody over and over and over again is accused of rape, they’re going to be in the penalty box for the rest of their lives,” she says. “And they should be in prison.” But she has also been mulling restorative justice: “If somebody says something much more minor, and they’ve grown from it, I mean, I think I would let their victims speak about what they think would be appropriate.” One wonders if she identifies even a tiny bit with the men who have been tried in what has become a very big court of public opinion. “No,” she says. “I wouldn’t say I feel solidarity.”

Bloom also pushes back on the idea that she has been sidelined, citing her growing firm, regular speaking engagements and interviews. She has continued to take on clients accusing powerful men, such as Representative John Conyers, casino mogul Steve Wynn and actor Steven Seagal. “A lot of people say, ‘Why doesn’t Lisa Bloom just go away?’” she says. “And I say, ‘Well, why don’t you not follow me on Twitter if you want me to go away?’”

***

Bloom and Allred both have represented accusers of Trump, and are keenly observing events. Bloom often tweets her admiration of Michael Avenatti, the no-holds-barred lawyer representing Stormy Daniels, the adult film entertainer who accepted $130,000 to keep quiet about her alleged sexual relationship with Trump. (You can recognize the Allred/Bloom moves: Avenatti is feeding the news cycle regular tidbits, Bloom says, and “laying a lot of great traps” for the president’s team.) She also points out with pride that her own daughter, Sarah Bloom, has joined her firm, and is being trained to deploy the legal spotlight. When we spoke recently, Lisa Bloom had just gotten the hip-hop artist 50 Cent to take down an Instagram post on behalf of Trey Songz claiming her client was making a “money play” against him. The right people were mad at her again. (A few days later, a judge rejected her client’s case against Trey Songz.) To be sure, some haters were slinging her past: One recent tweet called her a sellout, another referred to “your pal Harvey.” But those mostly just blend into the cacophony that is hate-Twitter.

Allred, meanwhile, is at the zenith of her career. She represented 33 accusers of Bill Cosby; when he was found guilty on April 26, she—what else?—held a press conference and declared, “Justice has been done!” and, “Finally we can say, ‘Women are believed.’” She is representing Weinstein accusers, too. And state legislatures are showing more willingness to extend or even eliminate certain statutes of limitations—Allred has been instrumental in pushing for this. The only excess of the #MeToo movement she worries about is women making allegations online and getting sued for defamation; she thinks they should sometimes think twice before posting. When I asked about her own philosophy of representation, Allred told me, “I do think that the accused have a right to be represented,” and she respects lawyers who do that. “That’s not what I do,” she continued. “Anybody is entitled to have an attorney. Everybody is not entitled to have me.”


Another lingering consequence from last fall is that Bloom and Allred have been working to patch things up. At first, Allred tried to reach out—in the media—telling Vanity Fair that she respected and loved Bloom. “I do not in any way criticize her decision to represent Mr. Weinstein,” Allred said. She put up a Facebook post to the same effect. Bloom, when I first interviewed her, did not seem mollified. “I was very hurt by that,” she said. “Family is more important to me than that.” A couple of weeks later, she mentioned that she had not been invited to the premiere of Allred’s documentary, “even though I spent a great deal of time helping create it,” and didn’t receive a copy. “She’s amazing in terms of her work and what she does,” Bloom told me. “With her family, she can be difficult.”

Events put them on a similar trajectory, however. Prior to the retrial of the Cosby criminal case, a judge ruled that five alleged victims whose own cases are time-barred could testify in the trial. One was the model Janice Dickinson, a Bloom client; three were Allred clients. “I’ll look forward to seeing her,” Allred said shortly before the retrial began. “We’re probably on the road to having probably, ultimately, a healthier, better relationship,” Bloom predicted. Sure enough, in early April, both attorneys arrived in Pennsylvania and met at the King of Prussia mall, where they had dinner at the Mistral restaurant (“not mistrial!” Bloom pointed out). Allred selected the place, Bloom said, because it had good vegan options for her daughter. When I asked Bloom how it went, she said, “I think we have for the most part resolved our differences. … No two strong-minded people are going to agree about everything,” she noted. “That’s not really a precondition to having a relationship with my mother.”

As a reporter, I felt awkward asking such personal questions, but both women dwell and litigate in the public domain to the point where it becomes hard to separate public from private—for me, but also for them. When the Cosby verdict came down, Bloom tweeted out a compliment to her “fighter mama.“ At the trial‘s outset, when I had asked Allred whether it was true that she had not invited Bloom to the premiere, she, by way of reply, sent me a selfie they had taken together at dinner hours earlier. Bloom, for her part, had already tweeted out a similar shot.


 

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