Attorney Karen L. Goldstein: “Why, how you say it, rather than what you say, is often most important”
How you say it, rather than what you say, is often most important for a jury. If you can make an argument with passion and conviction, and deliver it in an authentic way, even if it’s not a great legal argument, you may be able to win.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Karen L. Goldstein, who became a criminal defense trial lawyer because of her strong desire to fight for the underdog and to protect constitutional and human rights. She has been practicing criminal defense exclusively since 2003, and founded her own law firm, the Law Offices of Karen L. Goldstein, in 2007.
Ms. Goldstein focuses her practice on trying complex state and federal jury trials, including child molestation, rape, RICO, drug trafficking, murder, and white-collar crimes. In 2019, these trials included a federal RICO/murder trial and a state child molestation case. The state case was first dismissed in the middle of voir dire, and then on retrial, Ms. Goldstein obtained a hung jury that voted overwhelmingly for not guilty, on all six counts, saving her client from a life sentence.
Ms. Goldstein is well-known within the defense community for tackling difficult, high-stakes cases and is undeterred by the clear challenges her clients face in a modern #MeToo era. She is adamant that clients from all socio-economic backgrounds deserve a vigorous defense. Ms. Goldstein is a member of both the State Indigent Criminal Defense Appointment (ICDA) Panel and the Federal Criminal Justice Act (CJA) Panel in Los Angeles where she represents indigent clients who cannot afford to hire a private attorney.
Her law firm motto, “Persistent, Principled, Passionate,” appropriately sums up her approach to criminal defense: apply laser focus, handle every detail meticulously, fight with integrity, and offer relentless advocacy.
Ms. Goldstein sees tremendous value in being a community advocate and volunteering her time both professionally and personally. She currently mentors young female scholars from underserved communities through the nonprofit organization MOSTe (Motivating Our Students Through Experience), an organization dedicated to helping students get into college, many of whom are first-generation college students.
An aspiring lawyer from a young age, Ms. Goldstein was drawn to Georgetown University because it was a diverse, international community known for valuing social justice and service to others. In 1999, she graduated magna cum laude from Georgetown University with a Bachelor of Arts. In 2003, she graduated cum laude from Georgetown University Law Center, with a Juris Doctorate.
Ms. Goldstein has been consistently named as a Southern California Super Lawyer from 2012–2020 and has also been recognized as a Top 100 Trial Lawyer. She is a member of the California and Washington, D.C. Bars and is currently being admitted to the New York State Bar. She is fluent in French and speaks Spanish conversationally.
Ms. Goldstein is thrilled to be the 2020 recipient of the Jerry Giesler Memorial Award. This distinction feels particularly significant because she is only the fifth female attorney to be given this acknowledgment in the history of the Criminal Courts Bar Association.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I got my first taste of being a trial lawyer when I was in 5th grade and we were all assigned roles from the movie, “12 Angry Men.” I was part of the defense team and I loved writing sarcastic cross-examination questions for the witnesses assigned to me.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
I wouldn’t be able to pick just one. One interesting case, which also shows how corrupt our justice system is, involved an alleged violent inmate prison assault that was captured on clear video. The sheriff had formed a type of inmate fight club and forced various inmates to fight for his entertainment. I was able to get the charges dismissed once it was made clear that the three inmates appeared to be really play fighting (no notable injuries) and that they never would have been able to be on the same floor without a deputy unlocking the area and letting them all be in the same space.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Although there are naturally funny moments during all of my trials, mistakes that happen when you are a criminal defense lawyer, especially when people’s lives are in your hands, don’t tend to be very funny.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
I practice criminal defense which means that in every case, it is my job to defend my client zealously, to defend the constitution, and to hold prosecutors and judges accountable for their actions. We have a very flawed justice system that suffers from racism, classism, and mass incarceration.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted by your cause?
Many of my clients are facing life sentences or sex registration for life. I recently represented a client who had dedicated his life to his Army career for 16 years. He was facing sex registration for life, jail time, and losing his career. I was able to take witness statements and submit mitigation so that he was able to do a diversion type program and earn a complete dismissal of the charges without ever having a conviction of any sort.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
- Abolish federal mandatory minimums to allow discretion in sentencing on federal drug cases;
- Create more alternative sentencing programs in state and federal law for all crimes aside from the most violent ones to reduce the number of people in prison; advocate for counseling and mental health dispositions
- Hold police accountable when they continuously stop and arrest minorities at a higher rate than non-minorities and also shoot and kill minorities without ever facing prosecution.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Using a public platform to collaborate with people from different walks of life to make changes that are systemic and meaningful. An example would be Greta Thunberg, who has taken up the mantle for the voice of all the youth around the planet concerned about climate change and lobbied around the world to try to get a legislative change on this issue.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- A more experienced lawyer is not necessarily a more effective one. It’s important to trust your instincts, even as a young lawyer. Age has nothing to do with good lawyering and many older lawyers “wing it” in court.
- You will lose more often than you will win. It’s the nature of being on the defense side. Fighting for the underdog is a privilege, but it means the deck is always stacked against you. Expect to lose and treasure the wins.
- Jurors, prosecutors and other defense lawyers, still treat female lawyers differently than male ones. It’s still an old boys club, but it’s getting better. During one of my first trials, I was asked to wear a fake wedding ring so jurors wouldn’t be “distracted” potentially thinking that I was sleeping with my male boss who was co-counsel on the trial (and 15 years older than me)
- 75% of jurors make up their minds about the case during opening statements and visuals are as important if not more important than sound bites for the jury. Jurors have often commented on how they remembered an image I used to convey a theme during my opening statement with Powerpoint or closing with Powerpoint.
- How you say it, rather than what you say, is often most important for a jury. If you can make an argument with passion and conviction, and deliver it in an authentic way, even if it’s not a great legal argument, you may be able to win.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Abolishing the death penalty across the US.
Can you please give us your favorite, “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” — African Proverb
The justice system works best when people work together collaboratively– prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges. For my practice specifically, my strongest trial defenses developed over time and after speaking with lawyers, friends, and family, who all weighed in on themes and arguments and what resonated with them. Human minds work differently and jurors are all individuals with different lives and backgrounds.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
Ruth Bader Ginsberg. She has a brilliant legal mind and she is universally recognized for being one of the hardest working justices on the Supreme Court as well as a lifetime champion for women’s rights.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Twitter: Karen L. Goldstein @klgcrimdefense
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!