This week, I had the opportunity to interview Cris Arguedas, a criminal defense attorney based out of Berkeley, California. If you haven’t heard of her, it is time that you did. Cris has a national reputation as an outstanding trial lawyer and is renowned for her cross-examination skill. She has been a champion of justice for over 30 years, was a federal public defender in San Francisco, and went into private practice in 1982. By 1983, at the age of 29, she was named by TIME as one of the five most promising women lawyers under 35 in the country. She has been recognized in Best Lawyers for 29 years in a row and called a “star” in California white-collar crime and investigation by Chambers USA. In 2010 she was inducted into the California State Bar Hall of Fame for Trial Lawyers. She has been honored so many times that I couldn’t possibly list them all here. She also lectures extensively throughout the country. In 1995, she was invited to join the O.J. Simpson defense team and was charged with the task of putting him through her grueling cross-examination to determine whether he should testify. She was on the trial team for Barry Bonds and has represented countless high profile clients in some of this country’s most recognized white-collar cases. Cris Arguedas is without question one of the stars of the women criminal defense bar.
Susan Bozorgi: What is the most significant change that you have seen for women in the criminal defense field?
Cris Arguedas: There are more of us now. Particularly in the public agencies there are women in positions of leadership. These are positions which they have earned through their unbelievable hard work over the decades. However, I would say that there is still a huge gender disparity between what I would call regular criminal cases and white-collar criminal cases. The white-collar bar still looks as male dominated as the entire criminal defense bar used to look like when I started in practice.
"I don’t care if the jury thinks I’m a bitch so long as they think the witness is a liar." - Penny Cooper, Arguedas' former law partner
SB: Why do you think white-collar cases are still dominated by men?
CA: I think it is because white- collar cases are corporate driven, and corporations are more comfortable going to big firms. The major partners at big firms are still predominantly men. The corporations and white-collar defendants haven’t realized yet (which they should) that they would greatly benefit from diverse representation. There are women judges, women prosecutors, and women on juries. It doesn’t help the defendant to walk into court with an army of lawyers and have none of them (or at least none with a major role) be women.
SB: You have a reputation of being a master at cross-examination, a critical skill for a criminal trial lawyer. How did you hone this skill?
CA: By doing a lot of it, but I also have a particular way of preparing my cross-examinations that I think is crucial to my success, which I have lectured frequently about, but doesn’t lend itself to a short description.
SB: Do you have a secret weapon during cross-examination that you can share?
CA: Investigate and prepare.
SB: Is there anything about being a woman that is either an advantage or disadvantage during cross-examination?
CA: I think I do have an advantage. When appropriate, I can have a very aggressive style and I think that it is a little bit easier to take from a woman. If a man were cross-examining as aggressively as I do, he might look like a bully. On the other hand, there certainly are still people who don’t want to see a woman being aggressive in that way.
But truthfully, I don’t really mind if that is what they are thinking when I’m cross-examining. There is a classic line that my former law partner, Penny Cooper, used to use: “I don’t care if the jury thinks I’m a bitch so long as they think the witness is a liar.”
Another advantage is I still think jurors are likely to find me sincere. They don’t see me as a hired gun. I think that comes built in with being a woman.
SB: What does it mean to you to be a successful criminal defense attorney? And when did you feel like you had reached a point of success in your career?
CA: To be a successful criminal defense attorney to me means you are really enjoying it, and you are making enough money to live a good life. I don’t necessarily mean a super-wealthy life, but to be able to live the life you want to live. I thought I was successful when I was a federal public defender. I loved it from the very beginning.
SB: You have handled your fair share of high profile cases. How do you handle the media’s interest with a case when you are representing a client?
CA: That’s a big topic. I set a media strategy and I try to stick to it. The basic principal is you say what you want to say, and you don’t worry about what the press is asking. I’m more inclined to avoid having contact with the media, but sometimes you can’t avoid it.
It is not good for the client to have the lawyer say “no comment” so I think you have to think of something to say that is not “no comment.” But I don’t seek out the press, and I try to discourage it. I don’t walk out of the courtroom and tell them what was important that day or anything like that. During trial, I don’t communicate with the press at all.
SB: Of the women criminal defense attorneys that you know and admire, what makes them stand out to you? Why have you been inspired by them?
CA: My law partner for 20 years, Penny Cooper and I handled many cases, large and small, together. She started our firm. Penny and I were both inducted into the California Bar Trial Lawyers Hall of Fame in 2010, and we had the opportunity to look back through our years of working together. Penny has a fantastic sense of humor, and she was absolutely driven and obsessed when it came to her cases (which I think you need to be), but she had a good time doing it. That set the pace for my practice and our firm.
Today everyone wants to talk about your “work-life balance.” We really didn’t have any work-life balance. We didn’t want it. We enjoyed the work and there was no limit to the hours we would put in working our cases up. But we also had a lot of laughs, great meals, and terrific courtroom moments along the way.
SB: If you could go back and give one piece of career or trial advice to your 30-year-old self, what would it be?
CA: Work hard and have fun. I think this is the best career you can have. You are doing something important. It is not about money. You are on the side of the underdog. You are talking to a group of 12 people who get together to make a collective decision based on actual evidence and not political ads. I don’t want to wax too admiringly about what in many ways is still an unfair criminal justice system, stacked against criminal defendants and particularly indigent defendants, but I think defending the accused is the greatest job in the world.
Arguedas and her firm, Arguedas, Cassman & Headley, along with Allen J. Ruby of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, are currently representing FedEx Corp. in a federal suit wherein the shipping giant has been charged with shipping packages of prescription drugs from illicit online pharmacies. FedEx has denied any wrongdoing and will plead not guilty in the upcoming trial, set to begin in San Francisco in summer 2016.