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'The fight has just begun': Gloria Allred, tough-talking attorney and feminist, reveals what drives her

Gloria Allred, perhaps the most famous attorney in the United States advocating for women, offers her perspective on the Bill Cosby verdict, the #MeToo movement, and her controversial approach to practicing law.

Allred's take on on Bill Cosby verdict, #Metoo, and her controversial approach to practicing law

Bill Cosby's spokesman Andrew Wyatt, left, and attorney Gloria Allred argue outside the court during a break in Bill Cosby's sexual assault trial on April 12 at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, Pa. (Matt Slocum/Associated Press)

Moments after a jury found Bill Cosby guilty of three counts of sexual assault in April, several of his alleged past victims who huddled together outside the courthouse in Norristown, Penn., reacted in a powerful display of emotion. Attorney Gloria Allred led the women to a nearby podium as journalists and television crews joined them for an impromptu news conference.

"I'm attorney Gloria Allred. I represent 33 accusers of Bill Cosby," she said. "We are so happy that finally we can say, 'women are believed.' And not only on #MeToo, but in a court of law."

She added: "Bill Cosby, three words for you. Guilty, guilty, guilty."

Allred is perhaps the most famous attorney in the United States advocating for women, having found her way to the centre of many of the biggest celebrity cases in recent years.

The National's co-host Rosemary Barton visited Allred in her light and airy corner office in Los Angeles recently. Allred discussed the stunning Cosby verdict, the #MeToo movement — including a client who has accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault — and her controversial approach to practicing law.

Gloria Allred and The National's Rosemary Barton in Allred's Los Angeles office. (Carmen Merrifield/CBC)

'Music to my ears'

Allred says she remains shocked by the Cosby verdict.

She's not alone. Allred describes how, after the verdict was read, one of Cosby's past accusers was so overcome that she fell forward and hit her head on the court room bench.

Allred says she had not allowed herself to think that the jury would actually convict on each and every felony count of aggravated, indecent sexual assault.

"But they did. I'm so used to women often not being believed in the criminal justice system, so I thought there might be another deadlocked jury in this trial. Or, maybe at the most, one count," she says.

"To hear 'Guilty, guilty, guilty' was definitely music to my ears."

Lawyer and feminist Gloria Allred on the battle against inappropriate sexual behaviour by men towards women. 'The fight has just begun.' 0:22

Self-promotion

Throughout her more than 40-year career, Allred has been involved in many high-profile celebrity cases in the U.S.

She represented two of Tiger Woods' alleged former mistresses, one of Anthony Weiner's sexting correspondents, and Amber Frey — a girlfriend of Scott Peterson, the California salesman who was sentenced to death for murdering his pregnant wife. She also represented the family of Nicole Simpson during the murder trial of O.J. Simpson.

At the same time, Allred has also represented female farm workers in California in a class-action sex-discrimination suit. She filed the first lawsuit in California challenging the state's ban on same-sex marriage, in which the California Supreme Court ruled in their favour. And her latest clients, announced Friday, are a five former NFL Houston Texans cheerleaders who are suing the team over compensation issues and claims of bullying and sexual harassment.

Still, Allred's critics say many of her cases are more about being tabloid-friendly and self-promotion than a genuine interest in the practice of law.

Allred speaks with members of the media during Bill Cosby's sexual assault trial outside the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, Pa., on June 7, 2017. (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)

Barton asked Allred why she thinks she's viewed this way, and whether she is bothered by other negative terms, such as grandstander, sensationalist and opportunist.

"There are many people who would like women to be silenced. And they're very disturbed by the fact that I help individuals who are not celebrities — who allege that they have been victimized by celebrities — to be heard," Allred replied.

"And there are people who don't like that, because for some reason, they may think that only celebrities matter. Maybe they just like the sound of men's voices, I don't know. Or maybe there's some other reason.

"But, women's voices matter."

Lawyer and feminist Gloria Allred on why she fights so hard for the right of women to be heard, despite pushback from her critics. 0:51

The art of the news conference

Much of the disdain from Allred's critics is centred on her use of media conferences to present her cases before dozens of cameras, photographers and reporters.

In the law offices of Allred, Maroko & Goldberg, there is a large white room dedicated to staging these events. Allred generally sits next to her client to provide support during the press conferences as they recount their alleged assaults, often in tears.

Natassia Malthe, one of Allred's clients, was in the Los Angeles attorney's office the day CBC News visited. Last October, Malthe accused Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault. She alleged Weinstein forced himself on her in a London hotel room in 2008. (Allred's daughter, attorney Lisa Bloom, briefly represented Harvey Weinstein, dropping him as a client two days after the October 2017 New York Times story about the harassment allegations against him.)

Asked whether it helped having Allred with her as she made public her accusations against Weinstein, Malthe replied, "Yes, because when you have a powerful female lawyer, then you feel like you're safe. You feel like okay, you've got this enormous strength in your corner."

Malthe adds that Allred didn't coach her on what to say. 

"I ask her questions, and she's like, keep it short. I say what I want to say. She doesn't coach, no."

Natassia Malthe sits with Allred during a New York press conference on Oct. 25, 2017, where Malthe detailed an alleged sexual assault by movie producer Harvey Weinstein. (Alba Vigaray/EPA-EFE)

Malthe added that she felt a tremendous sense of relief after her statement.

"Yeah, I — I felt relieved. I had a dark cloud over me, a secret. You know, mostly there were only a few people who knew about it. But for years, it was haunting me."

For many of the women Allred represents, these media events become a court of public opinion. They provide a way forward, given that the cases have often exceeded the legal statute of limitations, the attorney says.

"It was clear to me that some of the accusers of Mr. Cosby, because they were denied a day in court, wanted to have some access to justice, some form of making Mr. Cosby accountable. And of course, there's no statute of limitations in the court of public opinion," Allred says.

"There are risks to speaking out. There can be potential consequences, like being sued for defamation. Nonetheless, many of these women did wish to have their voice heard, to tell what they say was the truth about their lives, in order to help to make Mr. Cosby accountable."

Allred walks outside during a break in Bill Cosby's sexual assault hearing at the Montgomery County Courthouse on Nov. 1, 2016, in Norristown, Pa. (Mel Evans/Associated Press)

Allred's personal story

Allred has personal experience with sexual assault.

In the mid-1960s, she was vacationing in Acapulco, Mexico. She met a doctor who invited her to dinner, and he explained he first had to check in on several patients who were recovering at a clinic and a local hotel.

While at the hotel he took her to a room, pulled out a gun, and raped her.

"I was in complete shock, and I still am to this day," Allred says. "Why would he do that? Completely unexpected. I couldn't explain it then, I haven't been able to explain it to myself since."

Lawyer and feminist Gloria Allred talks about the rape and resulting abortion that galvanized her determination to fight for women's rights. "A woman shouldn't have to be ashamed," she tells CBC's Rosemary Barton. 2:32

Allred feared reporting the crime, and returned to the United States. She soon discovered she was pregnant, at a time when abortion was illegal in the state of California.

"I had a decision to make, and ultimately I got an abortion."

After returning home, she began hemorrhaging. Her roommate called an ambulance and Allred was taken to hospital.

"I almost died, I had to be packed in ice, I had a 106-degree fever. And then a nurse said to me, 'I hope this teaches you a lesson.'"

Whether it was a sense of betrayal or anger at the nurse's words, Allred found another purpose in the experience.

"I still don't know what lesson she thought she hoped that it would teach me, because the only thing I learned from it is that it is wrong and dangerous to the lives and health of women for abortion to be illegal, unsafe, unaffordable, unavailable."

It was many years before she shared those details with anyone publicly.

Asked if it is difficult to tell her story, Allred says, "Many women feared talking about the fact they had an abortion. There was a stigma. But I felt that I needed to be truthful, and so I shared that. And that was it. Because a woman shouldn't have to be ashamed."

Lawyer and feminist Gloria Allred weighs in on whether forgiveness is possible in some of the cases she's brought to court for her clients, and the 'four steps' she'd personally require someone to go through in order for them to warrant her forgiveness. 2:45

#MeToo momentum

In the 42 years since Allred first started practicing law, there has been a tremendous shift in the general culture regarding issues of sexual misconduct.

Asked what accounts for that shift, Allred told CBC News: "Well, women have just been sick and tired — of being sick and tired of being silenced, and they've decided they want to speak out.

"And they are feeling that if I speak out it might help other women, because there may be other victims of that same perpetrator," she adds.

"And so, if I put it out there, others may be encouraged to also to say 'me too' and have facts to back them up. That is, in fact, what has happened.

"And wanting accountability from perpetrators of rape, or sexual assault, or sexual harassment, is contagious."

Lawyer and feminist Gloria Allred on the reasons why women are coming forward to talk about inappropriate sexual behaviour by men. 'Wanting accountability from perpetrators of rape or sexual assault or sexual harassment is contagious.' 0:57

    About the Author

    Carmen Merrifield

    Current affairs producer for The National

    Carmen Merrifield is a producer with CBC's The National. She has produced news, current affairs and documentaries for CBC throughout Canada, the U.S., Latin America, Afghanistan and Europe.

    Photos/reporting by Carmen Merrifield and Rosemary Barton, video by Dave Rae.