Sara Azari is a criminal defense lawyer and published author located in Los Angeles, California. Sara founded her firm over 15 years ago, and her practice focuses on federal and state criminal matters with complex legal issues. She has consistently been named as a “Super Lawyer” since 2009. In addition to being a lawyer and author, she is a TV and media legal analyst and commentator, who uses her media platform to educate the public from her perspective as a criminal defense attorney. I hope you enjoy getting to know the multi-faceted Sara Azari as much as I did.
You regularly appear as a TV legal analyst and commentator for CNN and other networks. How did you get involved in media and what is most rewarding about it?
My experience in the media started over a decade ago when I was asked to comment on Michael Jackson’s death. I loved the experience and began the hustle. I put together a reel, used my network to connect with shows and producers and it eventually took off. What I enjoy most about my work as a TV legal analyst is that I get to use the media platform to educate a large audience on the law, dispel myths, and these days, call out BS. It lends another dimension to my law practice and I’m very grateful to the journalists and producers who rely on me for legal expertise.
You also recently authored a book. Can you tell us about your book and what you learned in the process of writing it?
Unprecedented is an easy to understand white collar crime guide that breaks down the Mueller Investigation and summarizes the Mueller Report because let’s be real – how many Americans have actually read the Mueller Report (though every American should)? And how many Americans can cut through the noise of left and right media, emotion, politics, and simply apply the law to the facts? It was a much-needed piece.
I never aspired to write a thing (other than my motions and briefs of course). But as a brown immigrant and American lawyer who fights for justice and constitutional rights, I saw this as my duty. To be honest, it was daunting to me. But it ended up being one of my most rewarding achievements. There’s something very special about holding your very own published book.
You’ve written a book, you’re on TV – no one can say you aren’t putting yourself out there. What impact has engaging with the public in these ways had on your practice?
Having a presence in media is about credibility. There is no direct correlation between how many TV appearances you do and your bank deposits at the end of the month. The chances of a CNN viewer watching a news segment and calling the legal expert they see because they just so happen to need a criminal defense attorney is slim to none. That said, if you produce good content – and these days that can be done on YouTube, in your office or home, on your iPhone, a blog, your website, social media – and you’re good about uploading your work onto a platform that is visible to the public and your potential clients, it lends credibility and makes you stand out. For example, someone is being investigated for public corruption and bribery and they are online looking at a myriad of law firm websites and lawyer bios, when they happen to see a news segment that a partner has done regarding the Varsity Blues case; suddenly they see and hear you in action and that leaves an impression. In the day and age of quick sound bites and limited attention spans, anything you do to ramp up your presence is a plus for a practice. For me, media presence has meant establishing trust. When people see and hear you, they feel as though they’ve met you and can trust you before they even walk through the door.
Let’s go back to how you started your own practice. You opened your own firm in 2005. Can you share with us your history before starting your own law firm?
I started off as an associate at Baker & McKenzie in their Rio de Janeiro office. Practicing law in a country I love, at the first U.S. firm to be established internationally, was a dream job for me. But I soon realized that I had a greater mission in life and in my career. I didn’t become a lawyer to negotiate mergers and oil and gas deals. I was here for the underdog. I was meant to fight for what mattered most – life and liberty – and against governmental overreaching. Criminal justice was my passion since law school. That passion was further fueled by the travesties and injustices I witnessed my friends and my community experience. So, I did what I have always done: I dove in. I put myself out there and I was blessed to have been offered clerkships and associate positions with some of the best criminal defense lawyers in the nation. They took me under their wings and taught me how to be a great lawyer in and out of the courtroom. Two of those lawyers became my “law dads.” I love sharing about the origins of my career because I don’t find that working as a public defender or prosecutor is necessarily the only way to gain valuable experience in this profession. I wouldn’t trade that early experience for anything!
After a few years, when I was able to establish my own network of professionals and clients through bar associations, speaking engagements, and networking groups, I created my firm. The rest is history. Those of us who are solo practitioners or members of small firms know well that we have two jobs: the practice of law and the business of law. Without the business, there is no practice. For those pondering venturing out on your own, timing is the key. The right time is when you are confident you have solid sources of referrals and a well-established reputation – and not sooner.
You’ve had your own firm for approximately 15 years. Can you tell us about your practice today and what your ideal case looks like?
My ideal case is one that gets my adrenaline pumping. Sometimes when I’m assessing a case – having done this for a while now – my spidey sense alerts me. I just know something isn’t right. The case presents some aspect, whether procedural or factual, that motivates me and my creativity starts firing. Then I can see the path forward. When I start working on a case like that it makes me feel like I’m in the right place, at the right time, with the right set of skills to make all the difference in the world. I live for those moments in my practice.
Today, my practice consists of less volume and more cases with complex issues. About 65% of my cases involve federal investigations and prosecutions. And on the state side, my focus is on larger cases involving allegations of sexual misconduct, fraud and theft, cybercrimes, white collar crimes and other serious felonies. Of course, I’m going to help out a client with any criminal issue no matter how big or small; crime is crime, and even a misdemeanor can be life-changing for an individual facing charges. But after over a decade, my practice is less about volume and involves more complex felonies in both the federal and state systems.
What do you think it takes to make it in private practice? Is the advice different for a woman?
Private practice takes drive and a passion to fight and be of service to others. It also takes time management skills and the ability to network and bring in business – because if you can’t bring cases in, you have no practice. But the passion to fight and serve cannot get lost in the mix of the business of law. Maintaining that balance is something you grapple with as a lawyer who is also a business owner.
As a woman, let me break it to you: we are still hustling in a man’s world. We have to work that much harder to stand out. I’m always fascinated by the data around the perception of women in criminal justice, both as to women lawyers and women perpetrators. Much like when an individual is accused of murder, the assumption is that the accused is a male, often times when an individual thinks of hiring a criminal defense attorney, their first thought or mental image is that they will be represented by a male. As women, we need to recognize that fact. With that fact in mind, we can strategize about how to overcome this undeniable bias. I do this by reading the terrain and showing a potential client why I am the best fit for their case. I can better explain to a potential client that I understand the issues, have the connections and resources, the specialized experience, and in some cases, why – as a woman – I can best convince 12 jurors that my client is not guilty.
I believe that as women we have a far better ability to relate emotionally, which leads to stronger trust and communication with our clients and juries. We are more detail-oriented. Women can find that needle in a haystack that many men would gloss right over. Women have many qualities that inherently make them strong lawyers.
How has COVID-19 affected your practice? Do you believe that it will create lasting changes for lawyers and law firms moving forward?
COVID-19 and the weeks of shelter-in-place have been a time of not only self-reflection but reinvention including for lawyers and law firms. None of us ever expected or imagined a pandemic in our lifetime. Talk about learning to be fluid and living and practicing outside the box! While we continue to work remotely from home, we’re all facing the challenge of how to prepare for the next wave. What are the needs of our clients and how can we best serve them? The impact of the virus is long-lasting, as will be the changes for all of us at small and big firms alike.
For the past eight weeks and while courts are under limited operations orders, my practice consists mostly of representing individuals who are seeking compassionate release under the First Step Act. The motions for release are extremely individualized and subject to broad judicial discretion. Much like the virus is unprecedented, so is how district courts deal with the numerous motions and issues pending before them: what circumstances are “extraordinary and compelling reasons” to merit early release?; how much time out of a defendant’s sentence is sufficient but not greater than necessary punishment weighing in favor of release? and; does the prison facility need to have reported cases of COVID-19 to merit release of a vulnerable inmate? The answers are up to the judicial officers with very little precedent over the past several weeks. I am so grateful for the camaraderie and sisterhood in the Womens’ White Collar group who share invaluable information and briefing, and have been so helpful to me. This week, one of my motions was granted in the Northern District of California, and my client walked out of prison and headed to home confinement. My client and his family are elated and still in disbelief. I am basking in the victory. These are the moments that make the fight so worthwhile.
Clearly, life during and after COVID-19 is a new life and the same applies to lawyering. We can’t lament the comfortable ways of the past. Instead, we need to act on our toes and think outside the box. We have to acknowledge the changes, figure out how best to serve our clients and conduct business efficiently and safely. This shift should come naturally to us as lawyers. We are problem solvers and solution seekers.
I have days when this pandemic bums me out and messes with my strength of mind and spirit (as I imagine others do too). But on most days I find it empowering. Reality is in large part a matter of perception. So let’s survey and acknowledge the damage and our new normal so that we can create a plan to move forward. We do this every day in our cases and for our clients. We are fighters. This is just the next challenge. We can and will do this, and we will be better because of it.