The basic premise behind the 2011 movie, The Lincoln Lawyer, is that a busy criminal defense attorney works out of his car – a Lincoln Town Car – instead of an office; he is incessantly on the phone, as he is chauffeured between court appearances by a former client working off a legal-fee debt. The movie is based on a series of novels, about a fictional lawyer named Mickey Haller, by Michael Connelly.
But the character is based on a real person: David Ogden, a Los Angeles attorney.
I tracked Mr. Ogden down; he retired last year after a 40-year legal career and is now living in Montana. I wanted to ask him 20 questions, but he’s such an engaging gentleman to talk to, many more than 20 questions wound up being asked. But here are the highlights, as I asked him to separate fact from fiction in the career of the real Lincoln Lawyer:
1. Are you really a Lincoln man?
Yes. Or was. I’m still a Ford man. (He currently drives a late model Ford Five Hundred SEL – a car that he and I agree was a sleeper hit, prematurely discontinued by Ford.) I owned, or leased, Lincolns for about 15 years.
2. Why a Lincoln?
Well, I could be excused for not liking Fords at all, because my first car when I went into private practice was a Ford Pinto! When I got a little more successful, I leased a Cadillac – because I was originally a big Cadillac fan. I liked the first one I had, but the second one I leased happened to be a 1980 diesel model.
3. The 1980s diesel-powered cars from General Motors were among the worst cars of all time!
True! Fortunately, I opted for the extended warranty (so he didn’t have to pay for the all the repair bills associated with that unfortunate model.)
I finally got out of it with what was called a “lease surrender.”
4. Did that sour you on Cadillacs?
Yes, I went out and got a Ford Crown Victoria. But Lincoln back then had such an attractive lease deal that I switched, because leasing the Lincoln was cheaper than leasing the Ford.
5. Did you actually like Lincolns, or just like the lease deal?
For about eight to 12 years there, Lincoln made a wonderful car. (When the attractive leases were later cancelled, Mr. Ogden went back to Fords.) It was the nicest car I ever had.
6. Did Mr. Ogden actually possess a 1987 Cartier edition Town Car, like the one driven in the movie?
No, just a regular Town Car – a four-door sedan with leather seats and a moonroof.
7. Did you have a personalized California license plate, with “NTGUILTY” on it like the Lincoln in the movie?
No, I never had a personalized plate. I never wanted to call attention to myself in that way. I had a busy practice; I never had to advertise. By the way – California personalized plates only get seven letters. NTGUILTY is eight.
8. Did you really have an ex-client driving you, who was working off a legal bill?
Yes, I did. Lonnie. I spent 18-19 years with Lonnie driving me around. (Of course, the legal bill was paid off years earlier.) We became good friends, and had a special bond. We met, ironically, when I defended him in a case where he was accused of driving a limo from the airport without a chauffeur’s license. (Q: Was he innocent? A: “No.” Q: Was he convicted? A: “No.” Q: Did he ever get a limo license? “No – Didn’t need one because he went to work for me.”) I had some knowledge and experience with the limo trade, because I had worked my way through law school driving a limo. I also drove a hearse.
9. Was the Lincoln really your office?
I always had a physical office. And a secretary. But because I was so busy, and had so many appearances, at different courts and various offices around town, I worked mostly out of my car. It solved a lot of problems with wasted time sitting in traffic, and where to park when I arrived.
10. What did you do before cell phones?
When cell phones came in, that was a Godsend for me. Before that, it was a lot harder. That’s why you had to have a secretary, to call people for you, and let them know where you were going, when you would be there, and so forth. At first it was a real novelty; people would be really impressed you were calling them from a car phone. “You’re calling me from your car?” I developed a special feeling for the phone company.
11. Did you represent the types of characters depicted in the movie?
To a large extent, yes. I had some federal cases. Didn’t do a lot of murder cases, but I did a few. I don’t think I’d like to reveal which ones, because some of those people are still around.
12. Can defendants go “lawyer shopping” as the bad guy in the movie did?
Well, you build up a reputation for being able to handle certain matters. Most of my clients were referred to me. Your own reputation matters. Unlike Mickey, who went through several wives in the series of books, I’ve been married to the same woman since 1966.
13. Did you prefer to settle cases, or try them?
I tried to resolve them, the best way possible.
14. What ever happened to Lonnie?
Lonnie retired in 2005; he passed away about a year and a half ago. I feel badly that he didn’t get to attend the movie’s premiere. But he was around for the books when they came out, and occasionally he and I signed copies of Michael Connelly’s books together. He liked that.
15. Did you really meet Mr. Connelly by chance at a 2001 baseball game in Dodger Stadium?
It wasn’t by chance. A mutual friend set up a meeting. He thought I had an interesting career, and a story to tell. Michael agreed, and it went from there.
16. What part of it did you bring to the table?
I helped provide a germ of the idea, some characters, and some sense of how my practice worked. Michael Connelly fleshed the stories, driving motives, developed the characters, and made a great story. (Mr. Connelly also credits Florida lawyers Daniel Daly and Roger Mills as longtime legal advisors on his books.)
17. Have you seen the movie?
Yes, I was invited to the premiere.
18. What did you think?
I felt as if I had just finished working. The movie was true to the novel. I thought that the production did a great job, and great acting told a great story.
19. Had you been to a movie premiere before?
Yes, someone else asked me that. I said, “Only about 15 to 20 times before.” Back when I was in law school at UCLA. I was driving limousines to work my way through school.
20. So you really have gone from driving, to being driven.
I’m enjoying my 15 minutes of fame. Isn’t that what Andy Warhol said we’d all get? I’m in about my 13th minute of it. Nobody cares about much else I did.
April 7, 2011