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Debra Opri: “Speak your truth quietly and clearly”

I don’t like the word ‘disruptive.’ Frankly, if one tries hard enough one can find disruption in everything. So why focus on the negative? Why not focus on the motivational angle? Why not look at any incident and experience as ‘how did this help me?’ ‘What did I learn?’ ‘Where do I go from here?’ […]

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I don’t like the word ‘disruptive.’ Frankly, if one tries hard enough one can find disruption in everything. So why focus on the negative? Why not focus on the motivational angle? Why not look at any incident and experience as ‘how did this help me?’ ‘What did I learn?’ ‘Where do I go from here?’ An example is, I had a brutal media attack by a former client which I interpreted to be merely an effort to avoid paying a legal bill. It motivated me to move forward identifying those potential clients early on who would be a problem. The experience most would think would destroy you , can in actuality, made you stronger and better. This one in particular gave me a broader sense of the potholes in life. All of this brouhaha, I thought, just because someone did not want to pay? And, again, I remembered my father’s words…’this too shall pass.’ And it did.


As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Debra Opri.

Debra Opri is a lawyer who gained a reputation as a celebrity attorney when she successfully represented James Brown against a sexual harassment lawsuit by a former employee. Her main office is in Los Angeles. Opri is licensed to practice law in California, New York, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia D.C.. Opri is best known as a celebrity attorney and guest commentator on divorce and other high-profile cases.

Opri came to international attention as the lawyer who represented the parents of Michael Jackson, Joseph Jackson and Katherine Jackson, who hired Opri to protect their interests after their son was charged with child molestation; as well as Pamela Hasselhoff and Jermaine Jackson in their divorces.

Other high-profile cases included Anna Nicole Smith on a paternity action by her ex-boyfriend. Debra Opri was successful in securing the father’s paternity rights and in his gaining custody of his daughter, Dannilynn, after Anna Nicole died in February, 2007. Kevin Hart, Liza Marquez against David Caruso. In the Nichelle Nichols case Opri represented Nichols manager Gilbert Bell. Opri also represents the football player, Legarrette Blount, among other professionals.

Debra Opri is licensed to practice law in California, New York, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia [D.C.], and is the founder of the law firm, Opri & Associates, APLC, located in Beverly Hills, California.

Debra Opri continues to practice law through her law firm and continues to be a media personality on current legal cases and issues, with regular television and radio appearances. Opri has been sought out by national media to comment of high profile cases during 2020 including International Business Times and Life and Style on Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt Divorce; The Daily Beast on Justin Bieber; Inside Edition on Jerry Lewis; The Lawyer Monthly on US Supreme Court Ruling on Muslin Ban; FOX News on the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard breakup. Radio and television interviews have recently included the Jeffrey Epstein and Bill Cosby cases.


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 came into family law ‘gently’ taking on cases mostly for a parent who was in need i.e., if there was domestic violence or abuse. Eventually I took on a case for “grandparents’ rights” as their son was on a trajectory to lose custody as a result of a criminal matter. The case was the Michael Jackson child molestation trial in Santa Maria, and the grandparents were his parents, Joe and Katharine Jackson. My client, James Brown, “The Godfather of Soul,” referred them to me telling them, ‘she has the heart to feel for you, the mouth to argue for you, and she looks good on television.’

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

The frustration of being fully prepared, giving it your all fighting in the courtroom for what’s right and just, and then being told “come back in 6 months” (due to Covid-19 limitations this year) is what is truly disruptive. The court system is broken in so many ways, and with the COVID, it’s just been heightened. The hurry up-and-wait mentality is disruptive to my and colleagues’ ability to help our clients.

There is also the disruptive scenario of clients living thru the hell of a divorce and/or a custody fight topped by financial concerns. My job is to bring them calm. Divorce is not cheap, and the savvy attorney who represents the ‘in funds’ client [i.e. the spouse or parent with funds], will fight and delay at every instance, because the first line of attack will be to dry the client out financially. Then there’s the disruption to the family law courts. There are only so many times a hearing can get continued or delayed before the system becomes overwhelmed with the blending of the old and the new cases. At some point, it is overburdened, and the time a judge would otherwise wish to spend on a case will be altered. When a courtroom has 20+ matters on the morning calendar and the court time is maybe 3 hours at most, considering the time the judge takes the bench and takes its mid calendar break, one just divides the 20 matters into 3 hours [or 180 mins] and well, we all get “the math”!

Can you tell us what lesson you learned when you were just starting out?

Of the mistakes that any attorney makes when first starting out, it would usually be to be more insightful into the thought processes of the judge, the adversary, and the client. But one lesson I can tell you that I’ve learned over the years, came from my father. He said, you will learn that the older you get, the less smart you think you are. Then you will be blessed by wisdom forevermore . That’s the lesson all young people need to hear and believe. We all need a little help along the journey!

Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

My first mentor was Katharine Hepburn. I met her quite by accident. She stepped on my foot. Stopped. Turned around, bent over, and tapped the shoe she had stepped on. She then stood back up, and patted my elbow and said in her historically famous voice, “there you are, no harm, all is good. Sorry.” She smiled and continued on her way. What I learned from her was, that her being so down to earth, and friendly, and owning the moment, really worked. The second mentor was the quite legendary Lee Solters, a publicist to many famous icons, including Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, and also Katharine Hepburn, and the list goes on. I gave a talk once that is now online where I tell the story of how I met Lee. It’s a fun story that I will summarize by saying I got to know him on a daily elevator ride and his love of life and music mesmerized me. I will always remember him singing and smiling. He gave me my first celebrity client, James Brown. There are many other mentors, too many to name but from whom I learned so much from in moments. Just things that happened that you don’t forget. Finally, there were my parents, both gone now, but from whom I can still remember a quote or a message in times when you would need that guidance. Mostly, I learned from all my mentors that to live life is to enjoy life; to love your work is to do your work as best you can. There is pride in accomplishment, and joy in the simple things in life. This has been the greatest impact in how I have lived my own life. So far, so good.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

I don’t like the word ‘disruptive.’ Frankly, if one tries hard enough one can find disruption in everything. So why focus on the negative? Why not focus on the motivational angle? Why not look at any incident and experience as ‘how did this help me?’ ‘What did I learn?’ ‘Where do I go from here?’ An example is, I had a brutal media attack by a former client which I interpreted to be merely an effort to avoid paying a legal bill. It motivated me to move forward identifying those potential clients early on who would be a problem. The experience most would think would destroy you , can in actuality, made you stronger and better. This one in particular gave me a broader sense of the potholes in life. All of this brouhaha, I thought, just because someone did not want to pay? And, again, I remembered my father’s words…’this too shall pass.’ And it did.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

This too shall pass. Nothing more than that.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

Life is ever changing. I have spent well over 30 years trying to help others as a lawyer. If I continue to focus on trying to help others going forward, who knows where that road will take me? But I will say this…the time I spent caring for my mother when she was dying from Covid complications this past summer, taught me that I truly love the healthcare worker. They have a golden heart of compassion and sympathy and they are trained to help not only the sick but the grieving family. I spent 24 hours a day at my mom’s bedside in the last few weeks of her life. I saw her slip away and then die. If that doesn’t shake things up and change a person, nothing can. The entire experience instilled in me the priority of from this point on continuing to move forward one step at a time with compassion and kindness as well as seek to help others in ways I best can.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

The fight is real with more women running for elected office and heading major corporations than ever before. And although we are winning and making great strides, time will solve this. My words will not.

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

I am working on putting together my own right now. Stay tuned!

You are a person of great 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.

Be compassionate, be kind, be there for yourself and for others. That is the movement we must all be a part of. That is all the movement we need right now.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My dad said it best, ‘This too shall pass.’ It’s relevance? I remember my dad quoting the “Desiderata” every time there was a problem or conflict. At its end, he would smile and say, ‘Debra, and this too shall pass.’

And here it is…my life lesson quote, courtesy of my father’s life lesson to me:

Desiderata

Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time. Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism. Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass. Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.[3]

Max Ehrmann, 1948

Renowned divorce attorney Debra Opri is accessible to everyday people who need a legal expert to consult with about divorce, child custody and family law. She is best known as the high-profile attorney for Michael Jackson, James Brown, Robert Picardo, Kevin Hart, Anna Nicole Smith and many more. OPRI, one of Hollywood’s leading Family Law/Divorce attorneys, is reachable at https://debraopri.com/

I am available at [email protected] and 310–858–8230.

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