Gloves-off Gloria

'Why do we treat him like a pal of ours?' Gloria Allred is a top US lawyer - and she's gunning for OJ Simpson. Tim Cornwell met her in Los Angeles
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"Danger. Don't get between Gloria Allred and a television camera," reads a sign hung by the entrance to the Santa Monica courtroom where OJ Simpson, once again, is being called a cold-blooded killer. "She's a nuisance," said Irma Reed, one of a loose crowd of Simpson hangers-on who placed it there, along with a bunch of other pro-OJ slogans. "She's always been like that, running where there's a microphone."

Sure enough, here is the lady herself, petite yet purposeful, striding in a hugging yellow outfit with large black buttons, trailing an assistant who adjusts a few loose strands of her big reddy-brown hair as she sits for a television interview on the courthouse lawn. "Yeah, Gloria's coming, and she's got Melissa with her," says a cameraman into his portable phone.

Gloria is on first-name terms, it would seem, with virtually every reporter who's covered the Simpson case, and a good few others beside. In Britain, Gloria Allred might be a leftist actress or Labour MP, of the type that Daily Mail readers love to hate. In the US, she is that very American artefact, the celebrity attorney. She is a women's civil rights lawyer, who combines her very public quest for feminist causes with a multi-million dollar law practice, and a knack for driving angry white males into fits of apoplexy. She sues on behalf of rape victims, abused children, pregnant actresses, vegetarian bus drivers and girls who want to be boy scouts, but by some accounts represents no one better than herself. She spends her weekend nights as a talk-show host for a Los Angeles radio station, and can call a news conference quicker than you can say media sensation.

"We believe women should have their principles and their money," she says, kicking out soundbites like footballs in her generously appointed office, looking down Wilshire Boulevard from the sixth floor. "They shouldn't have to choose." Fathers who dodge alimony, she adds for good measure, "should be prosecuted like bank robbers".

In 1994 Allred, undoubtedly one of the best-known female lawyers in America, called publicly for the death penalty for OJ Simpson. She no longer represents anyone in the Simpson case, but that seems a mere technicality. Until recently she was an attorney for Nicole Brown Simpson's family, and she continues to skewer OJ on every possible occasion. With a blanket gag order barring all participants in the trial from talking to the press, she is still free to speak out. Like most Americans, she says, she believes "justice was not served" in the criminal trial. "It bothers me that most of the press call him OJ," she said. "Why are we treating him like the man next door, the boy next door, a pal of ours? People still call him a football star, they don't call him a convicted wife batterer. Why this neighbourliness?"

Her latest move was to endorse the opponent of Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti, who oversaw the prosecution in the Simpson case and is up for re-election in November. Allred accused him of mishandling People v Simpson - by moving the case to mostly black downtown LA, failing to heed danger signals on the make-up of the jury, and underplaying the most incriminating evidence of domestic violence. Taxpayers and victims, she said, were "short-changed with this prosecution".

Earlier this month Allred made a public appeal for contributions on behalf of Louis and Juditha Brown, Nicole's parents, who are fighting Simpson for custody of their grandchildren. Speaking as "a person who cares about the Browns", she said the Browns had incurred $100,000 in legal fees, and asked for help on their behalf. Last May she was denouncing Simpson's trip to the UK, and his appearance at Oxford University, as disgusting and tasteless. "It is difficult to fathom why people of good conscience would subsidise the trip for a convicted wife batterer and a man who was accused of double murder," she said.

The office of Allred, Maroko and Goldberg has gleaming white carpets and roomy corridors. It is intended to speak of money, she said - a message to big corporate law firms that they can't bleed their opponents dry with delays.

For our interview Allred laid on a show of her British bits, including a genuine horsehair wig. Her mother was from Manchester - home to Emily Pankhurst, she is quick to note - and she has a British bobby's uniform on a mannequin in the corner. "The reason I bought it was to remind women that they used to have to fight people in uniforms like this to win the right to vote," she said.

Outside in the hall, her assistant Layne picks up the phone, listens and tells someone to call the police and go to the hospital. It was a woman beaten up by her boyfriend 20 minutes ago. Women call the office constantly and ask for help, because the Allred name rings bells in domestic abuse cases.

As she answers questions Allred leans forward, demanding eye contact with a Thatcherite focus. She smiles through immaculately finished red lipstick and brushes aside questions she doesn't want to answer. Like a journalist, she can hardly remember yesterday's story: last week, she was talking child sex harassment on CNN's Crossfire programme, and yesterday she was staging a mock presidential debate with a right-wing talk show host on C-Span, the political cable channel. Tonight she is on her way to a fund-raiser for President Bill Clinton.

Gloria Allred was the only daughter of a poor Jewish couple in Philadelphia. She went to an all-girls public school, worked as a teacher, then went to law school and, 20 years ago, founded her own practice. Her two partners are men, but most of her associates are women. Her only daughter, Lisa, works for the firm, which is reported to have billings worth several million dollars a year. She proudly points out a framed note from a 12-year-old girl, Desiray Bartak, who won a suit brought by the mother-daughter team against her godfather for sex abuse. "Dear Lisa and Gloria, thank you for giving my life back," it says. Divorced for 10 years, Allred says she spends as much of her spare time as possible with her grandchildren.

The Allred name regularly turns up on the lists of LA's most powerful and influential. In 1980, she won a major case forcing the county to stop tying pregnant women to their beds as they gave birth. This year, she claims to have set legal precedent with a California Supreme Court ruling giving a divorced mother the freedom to move away with her two children, rather than be "held hostage" to her ex-husband's access rights.

It is when she is asked what cases she is handling that she comes alive. In a celebrated scandal at a fertility clinic in San Diego, where women's eggs were removed and implanted in other patients without their knowledge or consent, she is representing a mother who recently discovered she has a seven-year-old son, born to another woman. She lately filed a lawsuit for 11-year-old Katrina Yeaw, who was forbidden to join the Boy Scout troop in Sacramento where her twin brother Daniel is a member, seeking an injunction requiring them to cease and desist from sex discrimination. She is representing women victims determined to see the celebrated "Pillowcase Rapist", a suspect in 200 rapes, go back to jail. Other recent clients have the same ring of publicity: an actress suing after she was denied a job on the soap Melrose Place because she became pregnant, and a vegetarian bus driver sacked when he refused to hand out coupons for a hamburger chain.

The case of the seven-year-old Georgia boy suspended for "sex harassment" after he kissed a classmate provoked amused headlines worldwide, and has become grist for the mill of right-wing outrage against political correctness. True to form, on CNN Allred came to the defence of the school and the girl, who she fairly notes was not asked for her side of the story, while the boy became an instant celebrity. "People assumed it was harmless. The allegation of the school was it was unwelcome touching.

Little girls, like big girls and women, have a right to say no. Little boys need to know that you don't touch someone else's body without consent. You have to ask first, for permission".