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Ginsburg
Ginsburg surrounded by reporters in Washington. (AP)

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Trying the Fatherly Approach

By Sharon Waxman
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 25, 1998; Page A23

LOS ANGELESóBack in the 1970s when William H. Ginsburg was flying all over the country defending rich swimming-pool manufacturers against lawsuits by grieving, distraught families, he knew how to read his audience.

In Texas, he'd adopt a subtle down-home drawl. In Louisiana, he'd sneak a Southern lilt into his argument. In lower-income Los Angeles, he'd wear polyester. In upscale Santa Monica, Calif., he'd wear a three-piece suit.

He was a chameleon.

So to those who know him, it came as no surprise when Ginsburg showed up in Washington last week as Monica Lewinsky's advocate, bow tie just slightly askew, beard neatly trimmed, projecting a professorial air and fatherly manner as if to unconsciously evoke the question, "What if it was your daughter?"

"She is at the vortex of a storm involving three of most powerful people in the United States, President Clinton, Vernon Jordan and Kenneth Starr," Lewinsky's lawyer intoned with sober, reasonable concern during an interview Friday with CNN. Heavy pause and then, "She's devastated." Like the old hand he is, Ginsburg has been skillfully spinning his client as an innocent pawn in a political chess game way beyond her control and will appear today on three major television talk shows.

While Washington insiders are predicting this California civil lawyer could be chewed up by pit bull prosecutors, Ginsburg's colleagues say Lewinsky is in good hands.

"He knows how to size up a situation and adapt to the circumstances, respond and do it quickly," says lawyer Bruce Givner, who worked with Ginsburg in the '70s and '80s and has followed his career since. "He's not a showman unless it's appropriate for the room. Otherwise he won't take the spotlight from his client. He can assimilate a huge amount of information quickly and spit it out in ways a jury can understand."

Says Robert Eisfelder, a lawyer who frequently represents opponents of Ginsburg's firm, "He's a real sincere, genuine human being. If my daughter was having a problem he'd be the kind of person I'd want representing her."

Oddly enough, Ginsburg's previous experience defending corporate and institutional clients may turn out to be useful training for his sudden, high-profile role representing the 24-year-old former intern. Though the stakes are much higher here and the scrutiny far more intense, Ginsburg is well practiced at putting even very unsympathetic clients in a very sympathetic light.

In 30 years of litigation, the 54-year-old lawyer has tried more than 200 cases, defending pool and spa companies from lawsuits involving swimming accidents at the height of the 1970s lifestyle boom and representing doctors and hospitals in the contentious world of medical malpractice in the 1980s and '90s.

He usually wins. A scan of Ginsburg's most recent cases in a legal database turned up no losses in the past couple of years, and his partner and colleague of 25 years, George Stephan, had difficulty recalling a case that Ginsburg failed to win. "I know that sounds ridiculous, but . . . that's true," says Stephan. "He's one of the best lawyers, I think, in the country. He's very fast on his feet, he has the ability to understand the heart of an issue very quickly, and an ability to communicate with juries on a true common-sense level."

Ginsburg is also no stranger to high-profile cases. In 1984 the lawyer defended a hospital being sued by a dying patient's family who wanted him removed from life support at a time when there was virtually no jurisprudence regarding right-to-die issues. Ultimately a panel of judges ruled that the patient, William Bartling, had a "constitutionally guaranteed right" to refuse treatment by Glendale Adventist Medical Center, a landmark decision for right-to-die advocates. Still, Ginsburg succeeded in getting the $10 million lawsuit against the hospital thrown out.

In another highly publicized case, Ginsburg represented a doctor who treated the flamboyant pianist Liberace. The doctor was investigated by prosecutors for allegedly having covered up the entertainer's cause of death, which was AIDS. Ginsburg's client was exonerated. Ginsburg also represented a cardiologist threatened by a malpractice suit after the 1990 death of Loyola Marymount basketball player Hank Gathers on the basketball court. Ultimately the suit was not filed.

In a case that went to trial last year, Ginsburg successfully defended a doctor being sued by a part-time receptionist who was sent home from the emergency room after complaining of a headache. The woman, Helen Marry, subsequently suffered a stroke and blamed the physician for allegedly failing to diagnose her symptoms and giving her incorrect medication.

Ginsburg won that one, too. "I frankly believe that another lawyer might have lost that case. It was close," says David Demergian, who represented Marry. Given the choice between two opposing expert witnesses, the Orange County jury chose to follow Ginsburg's instructions to find for the doctor, Demergian says. "He presents a very scholarly approach to the jury, he educates them. He has that professorial look -- he wore a bow tie every day -- I was quite impressed." He adds, "He charmed them. There's no doubt about that; I like to think that I do that, too, but I met the master."

Ginsburg has known the Lewinsky family for more than two decades, representing the medical group where Bernard Lewinsky, Monica's father, is a radiologist, and becoming a close friend as well as the family's lawyer. (Ginsburg did not, however, represent either of Lewinsky's parents during their recent divorce.) Ginsburg watched Monica transform herself from a sweet, slightly overweight teenager who left Beverly Hills High School to attend a less academically challenging prep school in Brentwood, to an outgoing, ambitious young woman with an exciting job in Washington.

When the former intern learned she would have to testify in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case, she first hired Francis Carter, a well-known Washington attorney, referred to her by Vernon Jordan. Once she came under Starr's scrutiny, however, her family dropped Carter and retained Ginsburg, the lawyer said in an interview early last week. "Frank Carter is a very, very excellent lawyer . . . and to be candid with you he's not cheap. . . . Who was going to pay him?" Ginsburg asked. Monica, he added, "also wants somebody she can talk to in the nature of deep background, and she knows me."

Born in Philadelphia, Ginsburg completed undergraduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley, in the early 1960s and got his law degree from University of Southern California in 1967. In the 1970s he joined a huge Houston-based firm, heading its Los Angeles office, eventually changing firms before co-founding his own partnership, Ginsburg, Stephan, Oringher & Richman, specializing in civil and health care litigation. He has also lectured and written widely on issues related to health-care law and product liability.

Colleagues say Ginsburg has the presence and sizable ego that often accompany the talents of a skilled litigator and that he can be expected to be tenacious in defending his client's interests, knowing that the spotlight falls as much on him as it does on her. "When I watched him on TV responding, I just thought -- 'Theeere's Bill,' " Givner says. "I'm delighted to see him have his moment of glory."

But there is some evidence that even the savvy litigator can at times lose control of his lawyerly decorum. In repeated statements to the media last week, Ginsburg said that if the allegations regarding a sexual relationship between Clinton and his client were true, then the president is "a misogynist and I have to question his ability to lead." He later apologized on television for the remark, but has made it clear he is no fan of Clinton.

And the lawyer, his colleagues agree, will do what's best for his client, regardless of the consequences. "He won't lift a finger to help Clinton one way or the other. He can't care what happens to Clinton. He doesn't care," says Givner. "He'll let the chips fall where they may."

In a revealing remark in a 1996 article, Ginsburg offered strategic and tactical advice on how to sway listeners and influence juries. "At deposition and at trial, the subjective and personal factors can be crucial," he said in Medical Economics. He added, "A trial is not a game -- but it is theater."

The same might be said about the drama currently unfolding in the nation's capital.

Staff writer Peter Baker contributed to this article.


© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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