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Legal system and buddy system going on trial in Christensen case

Writers of legal tv shows (the better ones, anyway) always manage to enhance cases with personal stakes. The star defense lawyer isn't just defending an innocent man, he's fighting to keep his own best friend out of jail.

The reality, of course, is that lawyers represent family or close comrades about as often as surgeons operate on their kids, and for good reason: Errors are made in the clouds of emotion, and even the most cut-and-dried facts benefit from professionally objective analysis.

But don't mention that to Patty Glaser. One of Los Angeles' most aggressive trial lawyers and a fixture in major entertainment disputes, she has taken a page from a sweep-week "Boston Legal" and is representing her colleague of 35 years in a high-profile case that could put him in jail for most of his life.

For those not following the saga of convicted wiretapper Anthony Pellicano, Glaser's embattled client is Terry Christensen, the only lawyer indicted for engaging Pellicano's criminal services. The feds claim that Christensen paid Pellicano $100,000 to wiretap the ex-wife of billionaire Kirk Kerkorian during a 2002 child-support battle, and they say they've got him on tape discussing Pellicano's dirty deeds. Christensen has pleaded not guilty with the "Bert Fields" defense: He knew nothing of the wiretapping, he says, and turned to Pellicano only to investigate death threats against Kerkorian and his young daughter.

The trial, set to begin next month, probably won't garner as much publicity as the first Pellicano circus. But it's likely that prosecutors care at least as much about securing a conviction of Christensen — who, after all, is a lawyer charged with keeping the system honest — as they did with Pellicano and his flunkies. Sending one of L.A.'s legal powerhouses to jail would send a major message to lawyers who hire PI's.

So to defend him in the fight of his life, Christensen didn't look very far.

"Terry is my friend and long-standing partner," Glaser says. "I want very much to see him vindicated."

The sentiment makes sense. Glaser, a West Virginia native with the hint of an accent, arrived in Los Angeles in 1973 after graduating from Rutgers Law School. Despite few opportunities for women at major law firms, she landed a job with Wyman Bautzer, then the city's premier entertainment lawyers, and soon began working with Christensen, a young partner who served as a key mentor. In 1988 they struck out on their own, creating a Century City firm that grew to more than 120 lawyers and represents industry clients from Disney to producer Bob Yari. Glaser long ago stepped out of Christensen's shadow — she won the influential case against Kim Basinger over her handshake deal to star in "Boxing Helena" and is currently representing Warner Bros. in its heated dispute with Fox over the upcoming "Watchmen" movie — but she has remained fiercely loyal.

When Christensen asked her to lead his defense team even though she's never handled a criminal case, Glaser jumped at the challenge.

"It's an honor to know I have earned his trust," she says. "He has the pick of the litter" of top defense attorneys. To that end, she's being assisted by Terree Bowers and Mary Andrues, both veteran lawyers. But when the three- to four-week trial gets under way sometime after July 15, it will be Glaser up there delivering the opening statement — a fact that hasn't gone unnoticed in the criminal law community.

"There's a real danger here," says Laurie Levenson, a Loyola Law professor and former criminal prosecutor. "She's a very accomplished lawyer, but seasoned criminal lawyers have an instinct for it. And you don't have the same perspective when you are representing a friend. You can lose your objectivity, and that doesn't help you make the tough decisions in a criminal trial."

Glaser knows the community is watching her closely, especially after Pellicano disastrously chose to represent himself in the first trial. But she's already scored a few small victories. The government initially tried to disqualify her because she could be called as a witness, an effort Judge Dale Fischer shot down. More important, Christensen initially was to be tried together with Pellicano and his merry band of co-conspirators. But Glaser and her team convinced Fischer to try Christensen in a separate proceeding outside the media frenzy of the first trial (though Pellicano will still be a co-defendant). Given Pellicano's conviction last month, Glaser is now trying to further separate her client from the PI by splitting their trials again.

"We have concerns about Terry getting a fair trial," she says. "With the pretrial publicity, it's not an optimal situation."

That's the truth. Glaser will have a new jury to work with, but it's going to be an uphill battle, especially since she'll be learning the nuance of a criminal trial on the fly — and the stakes couldn't be higher.

"The proof will be in the pudding," she says. "I think I'm very motivated. Is (my personal connection) a negative? I think not. But someone else will be the judge of that."

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