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Before Sarah Paulson’s compelling portrayal of Marcia Clark in “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” which has transformed the embattled prosecutor into a feminist hero, another woman was hired to play the part. In the real-life O.J. case, a scene unfolded behind closed doors 21 years ago with Bay Area criminal defense attorney Cristina Arguedas channeling Clark in a mock cross-examination of Simpson.

In a new interview, Arguedas calls the FX series “fantastic” and gives her take on the portrayals of Johnnie Cochran and Robert Shapiro. And she discusses sexism in the law, a topic the series explores in a way that has resonated with viewers in and out of the legal profession.

Arguedas, legendary in California legal circles for her killer cross-examinations, won’t reveal any details about her work with Simpson. But the FX series offers a fairly believable scenario: A smug Simpson unsuccessfully downplays evidence of domestic abuse involving his slain wife as the prosecutor lobs stinging accusations. The horrified defense team looks on. (Of course, Simpson never testified.)

Despite the many lauded performances in the series, the Arguedas-inspired character is entirely forgettable. An actress named Keli Daniels, a tall brunette who wears a white turtleneck under a double-breasted blazer, bares no resemblance to Arguedas, a short blonde who favors crisp dress shirts with the top button fastened. And while Arguedas has mastered the art of the shred (see U.S. v. Barry Bonds), the TV version, labeled in the credits only as “Marcia stand-in,” is excessively formal and prim.

Still, Arguedas counts herself among the fans of the series, which wraps Tuesday with a 10th and final episode, “The Verdict.”

Here’s a lightly edited interview with Arguedas, of Arguedas, Cassman & Headley in Berkeley.

Cris Arguedas

What did you think of your cameo? I thought it was too short [laughing]. I thought both he and I had more charisma in real life.

What did it get right about your role in the case? I never have discussed what went on between us because that would violate attorney-client privilege.

So any source material the makers of the series used for your role came from somewhere else? Johnnie Cochran used to talk about it publicly, that I went there to cross-examine [Simpson]. A lot of books have mentioned it. [But] Johnnie never talked about the content of what happened but the fact of what happened.

If you had a choice, what actor would play you? Jodie Foster.

What kind of feedback are you hearing in the legal community about the show? Not particular about my little cameo, but people are intensely interested in this show.

Does that surprise you? It does. It surprised me that I was interested in it. Because I thought, “I already know all this.” But I think they are doing a fantastic job. They are showing us a backstory that we didn’t necessarily know, the lawyers talking to each other and the strategies they are coming up with, the tensions. To the extent that I knew some backstory, I’m finding it to be extremely accurate. And it’s Jeffrey Toobin’s book ["The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson"], so I would think it would be accurate. And the fact-checkers keep telling us that it’s accurate.

First of all, it was just such an amazing story with perjury and racism, and it happening so soon after the riots in L.A., it’s unbelievable. And they’re doing a great job of [of showing that in the series]. I think people are very interested in it.

On the episode, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia”… The episode about Marcia Clark was so hard to watch but so important. And I personally have never seen such an excellent depiction of sexism in the courtroom. And I have to say during the whole O.J. trial, I felt a lot of empathy and compassion for Marcia because of the way she was being treated. The fact that they depicted it on TV must be both painful and satisfying for her.

Do you relate to her? I don’t have any of the same specifics as Marcia does. I don’t carry myself in the same way, I am not going to have divorce and children, any of that. Not a prosecutor. However, being the only woman in a male courtroom, that I relate to. Being the person in charge and being a woman, I relate to. Being in a world that is trial lawyers’ work and the criminal law world, and it is male dominated in every respect, and that I relate to. Seeing her being treated that way at the time, partly because I think the judge was besotted with celebrity, was really hard.

Is it any different for women now, 21 years later? Yes, because there are more women in lots of places in the legal world. But, no, because there are still not very many women in certain places in the legal world. So, if you are in a big corporate case and you are a woman who is a lead counsel, you are likely to be alone in that position. On the other hand, there are plenty more women trial lawyers handling criminal cases–public defenders, more women judges, more women in positions of power in prosecutors’ offices. All of that is different and better, but there are plenty of places where we are unique and on our own.

Robert Shapiro was portrayed as kind of an empty suit, concerned about his image. Do you think that’s fair? There were credible reports that he was worried about his own image during the trial, which, of course, is something you cannot do as a criminal defense attorney. That is verboten. They [the makers of the TV series] may be being accurate as they portray that, but I think they are not giving him enough credit for what he did do, which is put together that team. And in the first 10 days, he hired all of the forensic experts, which was important to the acquittal. He set in motion the theme of the defense, that O.J. was set up by racist cops. But I think they are not really giving him enough credit for it. To the extent that he became worried that this would hurt him personally, that is something that you cannot care about as a defense lawyer.

Are there any particularly realistic moments that stick out to you? I think all of it has been realistic. It’s truncated, but it is what it’s like. When Marcia’s putting her head in her hands because she’s seeing the case go down the drain… I think it’s all been very realistic.

On the jury episode, “A Jury in Jail.” I was glad they did that whole thing with jury being sequestered. I think that was important to show how this [lengthy sequester] happened, and then they are picked off. I think that caused them to be a collective group in a way that caused them to have an acquittal and not a hung jury.

Have you ever had a sequestered jury? No one is ever going to give you a sequestered jury ever again. I have never sought one.

What do you think of Judge Lance Ito’s handling of the case? I think Judge Ito did lose control of the courtroom. I think he was too enamored and paying too much attention to the fact there were a lot of celebrities involved. There were reports he was asking some for autographs.

Do you see shades of that in any of your cases? No, I ‘ve had high-profile cases and judges do admirably.

What else strikes you about the series? Johnnie’s being given the credit he deserves. He was a civil rights lawyer doing important police brutality cases before O.J., and they do have that, which I think is important. And then he’s so brilliant in the courtroom. He knew what he was doing. He did it well. He was fierce. He understood he needed to care about what was happening outside the courtroom, which was a shame but true. He handled that, too.

Did your role in this case impact your career at all? Hmmm. [Pause] You know, I don’t know. Probably. To the extent that they could have gone anywhere and gotten anyone to cross-examine O.J. Simpson, the fact they picked me meant they thought I was a very good crossexaminer. So, yeah.

How did you get hired? I can’t remember. Barry Scheck or Johnnie called me and said we want you to do this. I said OK. There are plenty of people who disapproved of anyone being associated with [the case]. So, does it help my career? Plenty of people in my life thought, “what are you doing helping him?” Particularly women and feminists said stay away. When you’re a criminal defense lawyer, you’re immune to judgment about the cases you take.

Contact the reporter at glaroe@alm.com.

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