My phone rang at 4 p.m. on the dot. I knew the caller was Gloria Allred. For some people, picking up the phone and hearing the renowned women’s rights lawyer on the other end has not been welcomed. But not here. It was something I’d long been trying to make happen.
Allred’s schedule is manic, and it took many months for our call to come together. All the while she was apologetic and offered that I keep reaching out to her. On a Sunday afternoon in late March the pieces fell into place.
Allred greeted me warmly and acknowledged my patience. I asked if she was calling from Malibu, where I know she has a second home on the beach. She is. She told me she’s staring at the ocean. I, too, have a view of the water. It’s raining in Philadelphia.
Allred, 75, is one of the best-known lawyers in America. But this achievement has not come without a price. Her countless high-profile cases, often with a celebrity component, have overshadowed some of her lesser-known, including groundbreaking, work. Such drowning-out is inevitable when you accuse behemoths like Bill Cosby and President Donald Trump of sexual misconduct. Or represent Tiger Woods’ mistresses.
But Allred’s career is far from merely those made-for-TMZ cases. Few probably know that Allred successfully represented a male couple, in a suit against a photographer, over his refusal to include their photograph in a high school reunion yearbook. This sounds a lot like the frequent cases these days against bakeries, over refusing to make wedding cakes, for same-sex couples. Except there’s one difference. Allred sued the photographer 30 years ago.
And 33 years ago, Allred prevailed in a suit brought on behalf of a lesbian couple who were denied the right to sit in a semi-private booth in a restaurant. And then there’s the man with AIDS Allred represented, who, in 1986, he was denied the right to a pedicure in violation of a West Hollywood ordinance.
Such is the paradox of Allred—much is unknown about such a well-known lawyer.
All of this is to say that Allred has been at it for a long time. She told me that her representation of gays and lesbians in the 1970s and 1980s, in what she noted were “pioneering cases,” was at a time when “many people didn’t want to do gay and lesbian rights cases because lawyers were afraid that they would be called a lesbian or a gay person, as though that were something bad or to be avoided. But I didn’t really care. I only cared what the rights of my clients were.”
Allred’s support for same-sex couples was on a very large stage in 2008 when she successfully represented a lesbian couple, before the California Supreme Court, winning for them the right to marry. (The opinion needs eight single-spaced pages just to list the lawyers and amicus parties involved.)
Meeting the Press
Allred is famous for holding court at press conferences to announce her cases. The 5’2” Allred can be seen seated behind a sea of microphones, filleting her target. You can practically picture the guy looking for his check book before the press conference is over.
But this certainly wasn’t the case recently when she represented a weather news anchor, against television stations, for their refusal to hire her client because of gender and age. There was no quick settlement here. The case went to the California Court of Appeal – twice. Oh, and Allred’s client was a man.
While virtually all civil cases settle, I wondered if Allred does so more quickly—to avoid, as I put it, “the Gloria Allred factor.” Allred shares that there’s a value in early settlement, but not for the reason I suggested. It’s because, she tells me, that her firm has “proven that if the case doesn’t settle, we will litigate it for as long as our client is willing to litigate it and in some cases for years.” The litigation against the reunion photographer lasted 10 years. Allred tells me that the case on behalf of the AIDS-affected man who was denied a pedicure, went on for 16 years, even after he died, “because the issues that were involved were so important.” And she recounted for me her 23-year battle against the Catholic Church in one of the earliest priest abuse cases.
While Allred does seem Forrest Gump-like when a woman has been mistreated by a well-known man, sometimes as a cad and other times far worse, “Most of our cases have nothing to do with celebrities,” she tells me. That she is just a lawyer “helping to improve the status and condition and the lives of women [and minorities] so that they are able to enjoy equal protection under the law” is a common refrain by Allred throughout our call.
A Career in the Mirror
In many ways, Allred’s career resembles Gloria Allred. She grew up in Philadelphia, the child of a working class family. Married during her sophomore year at the University of Pennsylvania, a mother at age 19 and divorced by her senior year, Allred was forced to sue her ex-husband for child support. Years later Allred took on the fight for legislation to assist with child support collection.
In 1985 she staged a sit-in, at the office of the L.A. district attorney. She was locked in the building overnight, after he wouldn’t meet her to discuss child support enforcement. The following year, Allred was handed the President’s Volunteer Action Award by President Ronald Reagan for her work on child support enforcement.
After college graduation, the future discrimination attorney took a job as an assistant buyer at Gimbels department store. She learned that she was making 15 percent less than a man in the same position. Allred decided to try teaching and commuted from Philadelphia to New York to get her master’s at New York University. She ended up at an almost all African-American high school in Philadelphia. Here, she says, she was exposed to the problems of minorities. In 1966, Allred headed West to Los Angeles, and taught high school in the city’s Watts neighborhood.
That same year Allred had an experience that would send her to law school to pursue a career as a lawyer for women’s rights. While on vacation in Acapulco, Mexico, she was raped at gunpoint. Allred returned home and learned she was pregnant. A then-illegal abortion ensued and Allred nearly died. Despite a 106-degree fever she feared going to the hospital because the abortion had been illegal.
Allred has long been committed to assuring the availability of safe and legal abortions. “I don’t want anyone else to have to suffer what I had to endure. Not knowing whether I would live or die from an unsafe and illegal abortion.”
Allred graduated from Loyola Law School in Los Angeles in 1974 and did the unusual – she started a law firm shortly thereafter. Along with two classmates, Michael Maroko and Nathan Goldberg, the firm Allred, Maroko & Goldberg was formed. And then the unimaginable took place – 41 years later the three are still partners in the 12-attorney firm.
The earlier part of Allred’s career is dotted with several cases where principles, and not money, were the real focus. In 1984 she successfully sued a dry cleaner because it was charging 40 cents more to clean a woman’s shirt than a man’s. The case settled within hours. Obviously it wasn’t about a quarter and three nickels.
Allred’s class action again Saks Fifth Avenue forced the retailer to stop its nationwide practice of charging women for alterations, but not men. Allred’s youngest client in a sex discrimination suit was a 3-year-old girl whose mother was charged $2 more for a haircut than if she had been a boy. Her 1985 lawsuit put an end to this discriminatory pricing.
I commented that these discrimination cases took place in a different era and such practices seem unfathomable when viewed through a 2017 lens. But Allred said that she is “aware that there is still a great deal of discrimination that often is severe and it’s pervasive and it’s harmful.” She encourages people to turn to small claims court if they have the evidence.
Allred’s early successes weren’t just about women being discriminated as consumers. She also had the workplace in her crosshairs. In 1988, following an eight-year battle, Allred prevailed in a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit case (called “landmark” by the L.A. Times) that placed restrictions on an employer’s right to ask a prospective employee about off-the-job sexual activity.
The Celebrity Lawyer
Allred knew, going in, that the story I wanted to tell was of the lesser-known aspects of her career. As we wrapped up after 30 minutes, I told her that I achieved my objective: not a single celebrity name was spoken on the call—except hers, I joked. But she dismissed that notion.
“I don’t think of myself as a celebrity,” she said. “I just think of myself as a lawyer who is doing the work that we can to protect our clients’ rights and to win them as much justice as is possible under the law.”
But Allred acknowledged that she is approached in public, often by women who thank her for what she does or have questions about how they can assert their rights if they’ve been victimized. She doesn’t mind it, she told me, and is happy to offer suggestions. But she also wanted me to know that she is approached by men, who tell her that they are happy for what she does because “it’s important for the future of their daughters.”
Allred is at the age, and seemingly has nothing left to prove, where the question had to be asked: How much longer do you plan to go at it? Her response was immediate and unambiguous:
“For as long as I can keep working and being effective for my clients I am going to,” she said. “There is nobody in my law firm or my life who would even think that I would ever retire. Because they know I never will.”
That I’m speaking to Allred on the day the Lord set aside for rest is of no significance to her. She explained that she doesn’t take weekends, holidays or vacations. Before our call she was on her computer working and that’s where she’ll be when we finish, I’m told. She travels the country for her cases and has an office in New York, where she is admitted to practice. She tells me that she loves what she does, is blessed to do it, has a duty to do it, is in great health and has boundless energy.
“Even after I’m no longer physically on this earth, I’ll find a way to keep up the important work for women’s rights and minority rights.”
Randy Maniloff is an attorney at White and Williams in Philadelphia, where he represents insurers in coverage disputes. He is the co-author of “General Liability Insurance Coverage – Key Issues in Every State” (third edition, National Underwriter) and the publisher of the newsletter and website www.CoverageOpinions.info