A version of this story first appeared in the May 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
During a February debate in Houston, Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio took a shot at rival Donald Trump: “There are people who borrowed $36,000 to go to Trump University, and they’re suing now — $36,000 to go to a university that’s a fake school.” Three days later, Trump, stung by the attack, took aim at the judge handling the case, in which thousands of former students claim they were duped into taking out loans to pay for worthless seminars bearing the GOP frontrunner’s name. “It has to do with I’m very, very strong on the border,” Trump said of U.S. District Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel. “Now, he is Hispanic, I believe. He is a very hostile judge to me.”
Daniel Petrocelli bursts out laughing at the memory. As Trump’s lead lawyer in the case, Petrocelli, 62, faced Curiel in a San Diego courtroom just days after his client’s incendiary comments. “Trump is a very opinionated guy,” Petrocelli says with a wry smile. “Yeah, it was certainly unusual. I think the judge recognizes the rhetoric that takes place in politics is not for the courtroom, and I think he’s separated the two.”
Petrocelli hopes so. The Trump University case, which likely will go to trial later this year, is perhaps the most high-profile litigation he’s taken on since the matter that launched his career, the successful 1996 wrongful death case against O.J. Simpson on behalf of the family of Ronald Goldman. (The Goldmans were awarded $33.5 million but have collected only a small fraction of that.) A Trump loss in the class-action fraud case could not only impact the billionaire’s bottom line. More importantly, it could embarrass the candidate and deflate his image as a successful businessman just as he makes his case to his own party and general election voters at the July convention. Trump could be forced to take the witness stand to defend a business that, according to court documents, advised students to max out credit cards and empty 401(k)s to hear motivational speakers — including one convicted felon — who supposedly were “handpicked” by Trump.
Petrocelli acknowledges the political stakes, but he hasn’t become a $1,200-an-hour litigator by showing his nerves, if any. This is the lawyer who, on behalf of Warner Bros., rescued Superman from a complex copyright mess involving the families of creators Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel. In the early 2000s, he resolved the decadeslong Winnie the Pooh litigation for Disney. He represented Jeffrey Skilling in the former Enron CEO’s criminal trial. He’s currently defending the dozens of lawsuits from TV viewers feeling cheated over last year’s “Fight of the Century” between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao. And in March, he was brought in to help pop star Kesha resolve her sordid battle with Dr. Luke in which she claims she was raped by the music producer. “He’s not just looking to kill the other side, but if the hammer needs to be put down, there’s no one better,” says music manager Irving Azoff.
How Petrocelli came to be at the center of more Hollywood controversies than any lawyer is a testament to his aggressive disposition and a bit of good fortune. A registered Democrat (when asked if he’d vote for Trump, he says only, “It depends who he is running against”), he lives in Brentwood, a stone’s throw from the former Simpson estate, with his wife, Alison, and two (of their four) children. A New Jersey native who came to UCLA to study music (he once was in a band called The Hamburgers), he took night classes at Southwestern Law School, a third-tier school in Los Angeles, and managed to get his foot in the door at L.A.’s Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp firm, which specialized in music law. He then made partner in six years and began to sign clients. One of them, Paul Marciano, chairman of Guess, told Petrocelli that if he was victorious in a particular trial, he’d turn over all his business to him. “We won in spectacular fashion and true to his word, he put me in charge of all of Guess’ legal work,” Petrocelli recalls. “Not only that, but he introduced me around. He had a rocket Rolodex.”
Boy, did he. When Simpson was acquitted of double murder charges in 1995, Petrocelli heard Fred Goldman wanted to bring a civil lawsuit over his son’s death. It was a case every L.A. litigator salivated over, given how the Simpson criminal lawyers all had become legal stars overnight. “Ron Goldman worked for a friend of mine, so I had him put me in touch with Goldman’s father,” explains Marciano. “I said [to Fred], I saw the news and was sorry. I told him that I didn’t think he had the right lawyer.”
Mere days after O.J. was set free, Petrocelli secretly drove to Fred Goldman’s house in the San Fernando Valley, and they spoke until sunrise. Petrocelli got the gig. He later would take Simpson’s deposition under oath — and the defendant crumbled under withering examination. The $33.5 million verdict against Simpson was a catharsis for the millions who thought O.J. got away with murder — and a watershed moment in Petrocelli’s career. He left Mitchell Silberberg for L.A.’s much larger O’Melveny & Myers (some say his former partners felt betrayed after the firm had given Petrocelli his start and thrown its full effort behind the Goldman case). To this day, rumors about Petrocelli fly in the legal community. He allegedly hogs credit for positive results and is said to have insisted he be the only lawyer photographed with Skilling outside the courthouse (he and a former partner deny that). Insiders say he pushed for the highest salary at O’Melveny at a time when the firm was suffering financially and that the firm’s top brass has made a conscious decision to let him have the limelight despite O’Melveny traditionally being quite publicity shy. And his demeanor in everything from firm meetings to phone calls with opposing counsel is said to be less than cordial.
But Petrocelli waives off the negativity. On taking too much credit, for instance, he says, “Sometimes clients say, ‘I want your name on a case because it sends a message but don’t want you to work because it’s too expensive.’ ” Adds Marvin Putnam, a top litigator who left O’Melveny for Latham & Watkins last year, “Dan is a very successful and driven litigator, and as a result, people are going to dislike him, and to be frank, be a little of jealous of him.”
And even those who don’t like him can’t argue with his brilliant tactical sense. When Petrocelli began representing Disney in the Pooh case in 2002, the billion-dollar franchise was under threat from the family of literary agent Stephen Slesinger, who had made a deal with Pooh creator A.A. Milne in 1930. It was alleged that Disney had grossly underpaid royalties on what had become its most lucrative character. Petrocelli, facing off against Johnnie Cochran in a bizarre postscript to the O.J. saga, turned the case around by revealing the other side had used private investigators to steal confidential Disney documents from trash dumpsters. “It was a great move, a smart one,” says lawyer Bert Fields, who repped the Slesingers early in the case.
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Similarly, Petrocelli entered the Superman fracas when things weren’t going well for Warner Bros. In a bold move, he sued Marc Toberoff, the attorney for the Siegel and Shuster families, claiming Toberoff had interfered with dealmaking and stood to gain personally from the Man of Steel via a plan to exploit the property. Toberoff criticized Petrocelli for relying on documents taken from his office “under very suspicious circumstances.” But a federal judge (who graduated Southwestern the same year Petrocelli did) ruled that signed contracts barred an attempt to terminate Warners‘ rights, giving the studio full control of Superman. “We had a big boulder to push up the hill,” says Warners general counsel John Rogovin. “He was tenacious about understanding the story of Superman back to 1938. There was a lot riding on it, and he was strategic and aggressive.”
Toberoff today: “Dan is actually a good guy, with all the attributes of a plaintiff’s lawyer. … He just hasn’t realized that yet.”
Petrocelli says there is a part of him that aches for the kinds of cases where he’s representing the downtrodden. Those clients, of course, don’t typically pay. Until then, he shows his heart in his own way. For example, during a conversation at O’Melveny’s New York offices, he addresses the plight of Kesha, who is locked into a recording contract with her alleged rapist. “That one needs to find a path to resolution,” he says. “I feel really sorry for her because she hasn’t been able to get into the studio to record. It definitely should be settled.”
When he made that comment, he wasn’t representing Kesha, though he did help her manager escape a Dr. Luke claim. Within days, though, in the midst of a losing streak in court, Kesha added him to her team. How did it happen? She and Mark Geragos asked, he says. “The parties have been trying to get it resolved,” he explains afterward. “I would hope that we could figure out a way.”
Petrocelli would like to resolve the Trump case too — or at least delay it until after the election. The matter, filed in 2010, never was supposed to be such a circus. But when Trump ran for president, the case took on new life. A few years ago, Marciano introduced Petrocelli to Tom Barrack Jr., chairman of Colony Capital, the investment firm and former Miramax owner. Barrack was a friend of Trump. “This is complicated,” Barrack says he told Trump of the case. “You need to really step up.”
“Oh yeah?” Trump asked. “So who is the best?”
“I know the best,” responded Barrack. “But I don’t know whether he’ll take the case.”
It wasn’t just Petrocelli’s busy schedule that Barrack was thinking about. The Hollywood fixer is currently handling some of industry’s biggest (and undoubtedly most expensive) court battles at the moment, including Warner Bros.’ fight with the J.R.R. Tolkien estate over merchandising rights to Lord of the Ring and The Hobbit, Fox’s efforts to save the title of the TV drama Empire, Disney’s defense in a lawsuit accusing the studio of rigging the accounting process, SiriusXM’s sticky situation over the broadcast of pre-1972 recordings, and more.
According to Barrack, Petrocelli requires a lot from his clients. Barrack feared that Trump wouldn’t give him the attention he needs. Barrack arranged a blind date of sorts in November. “Afterward, Donald said, ‘This is one of the best guys I have ever seen,’ ” recalls Barrack. (Trump declined comment.)
The Trump University case is both a risk and a challenge for Petrocelli. “I don’t think it would be appropriate to have a trial at this point in time,” he says. “It is unfair to the public to have a leading candidate taken away from the process to defend a court case.” At the minimum, he adds, “it should wait for the convention in July to see if Mr. Trump is the nominee, and if he is, it should await the election in November, and if he is elected president, that’s a whole other issue.”
Judge Curiel is set to rule May 6 when a trial will take place. The plaintiffs are pushing for an early date, so Petrocelli realizes he may be defending a presidential candidate from fraud claims in the midst of an election. “He’s probably having a lot of fun,” says Fields, who once represented Trump. Adds Barrack, “If he ends up losing, it’ll be high visibility, but that will just heighten Dan’s intensity.” Still, there’s some evidence that representing Trump hasn’t been a plus for Petrocelli in Hollywood. Disney declined to talk about him because the company didn’t want to be associated with Trump even via a shared lawyer. “I compartmentalize it,” says Petrocelli when asked to address Trump’s statements about women and minorities. “My goal is simply to advocate a client’s cause. He didn’t hire me for my political views. He hired me for my legal skills.”
And for now, those skills are at work putting together Trump’s defense. “Trump will certainly be an important witness at trial to explain his role,” says Petrocelli, arguing that those who attended Trump University knew exactly what they were getting into. “They didn’t think they were going to USC or UCLA,” he adds. “They were taking real estate courses over a weekend at a hotel. Those who pushed themselves found success, and those who lacked effort didn’t, and I think jurors will get that.”