‘I was born to do this,” Geoffrey Fieger says. “I know it sounds conceited, but I’m positive Muhammad Ali felt the same way. And I’m positive Wayne Gretsky, at some point, knew that he was as good or better than any other hockey player, ever.”
Much of what Fieger says is conceited or self-aggrandising. Not that he needs to talk himself up. His record speaks for itself.
With a string of multi-million dollar civil verdicts under his belt, he is one of America’s most visible lawyers. Once the ardent courtroom defender of assisted suicide practitioner, Dr Jack Kevorkian, and fresh from his victory against US TV’s The Jenny Jones Show, Fieger is now representing the family of Isaiah Shoels, a victim of the Columbine High School massacre.
Fieger, a suntanned 48-year-old, is as famous for his bombastic style as his impressive results. He held the nation captive during the televised Jenny Jones trial; they were transfixed by his in-your-face style, rhetoric and shouting.
The network’s ratings more than doubled during his performance, with more than 400,000 viewers.
The trial was a $25m (£15.6m) triumph for his client, the family of Scott Amedure, a gay man who revealed on the TV talk show that he had a crush on his neighbour Jonathan Schmitz. Schmitz, who was surprised by the revelation, later shot and killed Amedure.
TV audiences tuned in daily to watch the lawyer interrupt witnesses, insult the defence attorneys and, on one occasion, ask the poised talk show host a particularly inappropriate question about whipped cream. He does not give a fig for courtroom etiquette, or consistency. “Audience ratings drive everything they do,” he ranted. This from the lawyer who pinned a clown nose on a blown-up photograph of a prosecutor in the Kevorkian case and called him a “certified, raving loon”.
The lawyer-turned-celebrity is still a very American concept. Maybe because TV cameras are not allowed in courtrooms in England, such characters, who see playing up to the camera as part of their role, have yet to rear their head over here.
Fieger’s brash approach is a winner with jurors as well as TV viewers. He has a legendary ability to manipulate people’s emotions and has a cult following outside the courtroom.
The tall, limp-haired lawyer, who is said to fuss over his appearance and has a penchant for blue pinstripe suits, recently signed on to be a celebrity guest host on Court TV. He also has his own controversial drive-time radio show in Detroit, called Fieger Time.
He secured his slot on the airwaves after losing a bid last year to become governor of Michigan. He now uses it to spout his views to the nation, and in the first installment of the show, announced that the local archdiocese was “out getting training in Spain on the rack”.
A rich man, Fieger spent $6m (u3.75m) of his own money on Michigan’s gubernatorial race. (pictured above with his wife Keenie) Observers say it will not be long before he is back in the political ring. He is toying with running for US Senate next year, or entering the race for governor again.
“I don’t particularly like running for office,” he says, wearily. “That was kinda distasteful. Despite the common misconceptions and the characterisations made of lawyers, it is an exceedingly honourable profession and it’s an intellectual profession, whereas politics is filled with sociopaths.”
His goal is “to lead”. He wants “to be in a position where I can do good things for people”. Fieger’s self-righteous, evangelical style terrifies critics. For them, the Jerry Springer-style lawyer sunk to a new low when he announced he was suing the parents of the Columbine High School gunmen for $250m (£156.25m). The complaint alleges they were negligent in their “duties and responsibilities of parental supervision by omission and inaction”. Never one to miss an opportunity for hyperbole, Fieger warns the teenage mass shooting is a “harbinger of worse things to come”.
Critics have accused Fieger of using a devastated family as a prop to score political and moral points. They say his pronouncements make him sound more like a prophet, or an aspiring politician, than a lawyer filing a lawsuit. Fieger defends his style by saying that suing and making changes to society through court cases is a US tradition: “This is the American way,” he says.
Some say Fieger is on a path of self-destruction. Thomas Kienbaum, former president of the state bar of Michigan, sought to have him sanctioned by the state bar. “He engages in the kind of behaviour that’s way over the line,” he says.
“He’s gone out of his way to humiliate his opponents. He’s been slapped by the bar for judge-shopping, and he accused a state appeals judge of getting his law degree in the mail when he upheld a decision against Kevorkian.”
For nine years, he defended Kevorkian, managing to get his client acquitted three times by parading the sympathetic relatives of his patients before the juries and probing them for emotional details.
Kevorkian was sent to prison after a tape of him giving lethal drugs to a terminally ill man was shown on primetime TV. Observers say his fate could have been avoided if he had allowed Fieger to defend him again, rather than defending himself. The pair became very close, but Fieger broke contact.
“One of the great untold stories is that he was a man with personal demons,” he says.
“There was something within his psychological make-up that didn’t want to succeed, or perhaps made him want to become a martyr.”
The role of saviour is one that appeals to Fieger. “The highest calling of the law is to effect change in our society,” he says. That is what persuaded him to represent an assisted suicide practitioner when no other lawyer would.
“I galvanised the world,” he says. “I changed things. All that Kevorkian was ever saying was that free adults should have the autonomy to decide how much they have to suffer without the government having a role in that decision.”
Of all his triumphs, Fieger says he is most proud of his work in the Kevorkian case. But he talks about his handling of the Jenny Jones trial with the same missionary zeal. And to think, he might have given it all up to become governor of Michigan. “What if I’d won?” he asks, horrified. “Somebody else would’ve done that trial, and they wouldn’t have done it as well.”
The dilemma he faces is whether to switch law for politics. “It’s the biggest problem I have,” he sighs. “It’s like telling John Lennon that he can’t play the guitar anymore. It’s kind of a waste.”
Self-promotion is something Fieger does well. “It’s a combination of steak and sizzle,” says Henry Baskin, a US lawyer with a celebrity client list. He is one of many lawyers who holds Fieger in high regard.
Beneath the bluster, they say, is a generous human being. “Fieger’s unsurpassed at getting publicity,” says Yale Kamisar, a criminal law professor at the University of Michigan. “He’ll pull out all the stops to represent his clients.”
“Don’t be misled by the media performances,” says Mayer Morganroth, a Michigan lawyer who co-defended Kevorkian and is an old friend of Fieger’s. “He is a well-prepared and excellent lawyer.”
Some say Fieger’s drive springs from his desire to add to the legacy of his father, Bernard, a fiery civil rights lawyer who represented black Americans in the 1950s South. When they practised law together, if Fieger won a million dollar case in the morning, his father would demand to know what he did in the afternoon. His mother, June, was a teacher and union organiser, who always carried a picket sign in the back of her car. His brother, Doug, was a musician and a member of The Knack, who had the 1970s hit My Sharona.
As a teenager, Fieger played in a band with his brother. “I liked girls, I liked school and I didn’t want to go to work,” he says, adding he became a lawyer by default. “I didn’t want to be my dad.”
But after a few days at law school, Fieger was hooked. He was a natural at getting people to side with him, and making those who did not look foolish. “The money never drove me, never,” he insists. “I love my job. It’s not work to me. Anybody who thinks they can go into a courtroom and lie to a jury is nuts.”
Fieger has turned himself into a celebrity in the US, a term which he does not shy from. “The skills I have as a lawyer don’t translate into the skills I have in terms of interaction with the media,” he says.
“I just happen to have an ability to use and to function in the media.”
He prefers to think of his courtroom skills as an art form. “It feels like an artist must feel when they render a painting, or a sculpture, or when they write a great play. That’s the way I feel when I approach a case.”
But there is a downside to being a celebrity. “The part that is most discomforting is the loss of privacy,” he says. He resents people staring in restaurants, or when he wanders unshaven into a local coffee shop, he says. His wife of 16 years does not enjoy it much either. “It detracts from my relationship,” he says.
But with fame has come fortune, and the couple own four houses, including one in Anguilla. Finding time to visit them is what Fieger finds hard. He has been so busy clocking up courtroom victories in the past year, that “I haven’t had a chance to catch my breath”, he says.
He has no time for those who resent his celebrity status and abhor his courtroom circus act. “I can’t conform to what other people want me to be,” he says. “I recognise that I step on people’s toes, I recognise that some people find it offensive. But my reaction is, tough luck. Firstly, it’s obviously been successful. And secondly, I’ve got to live in my skin.”