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The Road To Becoming The Lincoln Lawyer
Montana Senior News, June/July 2014
It is probably safe to say that few criminal defense attorneys invite their clients home for Thanksgiving dinner. Grabbing a cup of coffee while conferring—that you might expect. But asking a convicted felon to pass the candied yams to your wife and kids may be a bit much for even the most liberal-minded counselor—unless that counselor happens to be David Ogden, a.k.a., The Lincoln Lawyer.

If you’ve read Michael Connelly’s book of that name or seen the Matthew McConaughey film version, you’re already acquainted with Ogden. Granted, Connelly’s book is a work of fiction. But he did partially base his lawyer-protagonist, Mickey Haller, on Ogden, whom he met through a mutual friend at a Dodgers game.

Ogden’s driver joined the men at the stadium and while the foursome sat behind home plate, Connelly quizzed Ogden about his law practice. Half-jokingly, Ogden said his office was in L.A. but he spent more time working out of his Lincoln than at his desk.

“Four days later, Michael called and said he was thinking of doing a story about a lawyer. He wanted to use me as a model for the type of practice he envisioned—someone who ran from courthouse to courthouse with a black driver. But he was concerned it might be too close to reality for me,” recollects Ogden. “I assured him I was fine with the idea and afterwards we had several extensive chats about my approach to the legal profession.”

Connelly’s book soon became a New York Times bestseller; the film became a commercial success; and Ogden became almost famous for a brief time taking the celebrity hoopla about as seriously as a hangnail.

Although Ogden bears no resemblance to McConaughey, he has been mistaken for William Conrad, star of the 1970’s tv series Cannon. As police detective Frank Cannon, Conrad, like Ogden, drove a Lincoln, sported a dark moustache, and was considered big by any standard.

At 6 feet 2 inches and hovering around 290 pounds on one of his leaner days, Ogden has been called a fat boy by a fellow lawyer and a fat *!*! by a thug. But he remains as unimpressed with those monikers as he is with most individuals he meets at whatever end of the social stratum they inhabit.

The backstory behind how Ogden came to be one of L.A.’s busiest criminal defense attorneys and the inspiration for a popular crime novelist, is as intriguing as a Connelly plot. The son of a St. Louis mortician, Ogden grew up in the funeral business where he developed a taste for piloting vehicles commensurate with his size. At 16 he sat behind the wheel of ambulances and hearses. Limos followed soon after.

In addition, it was through the mortuary business that Ogden developed a blasé attitude towards death, which should amaze no one since his father was an embalmer and one of Ogden’s first jobs entailed going on emergency ambulance calls.

“Hauling bodies on a stretcher or in caskets never bothered me, never made me queasy. You get used to accidents,” he explains. “They desensitize you to death.”

To help cover tuition costs during his undergraduate and graduate years at Cal State L.A., Ogden worked as a pick-up/delivery man for a funeral home. One drawback, though, of juggling school with ferrying bodies, was the limited time it left for courting his girlfriend, Patti. Consequently, she would accompany him perched in the roomy front seat of a hearse.

 “If Patti or my other friends wanted to see me, they had no choice but to go with me,” says Ogden. “After awhile, they got used to having a body in the back of the car.”

That was certainly the case with Patti, who recalls one date that turned into a 28-hour, 1,000-mile odyssey with virtually non-stop driving. It involved their dropping off one occupied casket at a cemetery for a graveside service and collecting another one to bring to a train station. Patti not only remained unfazed, she took the hearse wheel at times and can still hear the screech of tires as she pulled into Los Angeles Union Station in time to meet their designated train.

It was while driving hearses during college that Ogden inadvertently changed his future by collecting 16 moving-violation tickets.

“I paid the first four then decided to defend myself for the remaining 12. They were jury trials and I won every time; it was fun. Afterwards, several judges said they thought I had a flair for this,” recollects Ogden, who was then a speech and English major. “They encouraged me to pursue a law career.”

Thinking that sounded more promising than teaching Hamlet and ever one to recognize shrewd advice when he heard it, Ogden enrolled at UCLA School of Law. With that decision made, he never doubted his ability to succeed and went on to earn his J.D.

Ogden attributes his confident approach, in part, to the example of his father, who as a youngster had been counseled by an uncle “Look around. You are as capable as anyone so you can do anything you need to or want to do. There are no limitations unless you set them on yourself.”

By the time Ogden was studying legal briefs, he was living with Patti, then his bride, over the Santa Monica funeral home that had hired him. One of his duties was to go on “first-calls” to retrieve the “found dead” wherever they happened to be—nursing homes, crime scenes, office buildings, or anyplace else someone could inhale a last breath. Additional routine tasks also included vacuuming, casketing, and playing “Amazing Grace” along with other old hymns on the organ. For Ogden, it was all part of a normal day or night’s work, though some first-calls remain more vivid than others to him.

“Once I had to get the body of a guy who died in a pickup. The body had been there three weeks in the summer and was about to explode,” he remembers. “About the time I saw the five parking tickets on the windshield, I heard some passerby comment, ‘Oh, man, I been smelling that for a week’ before moving on.”

At the opposite end of the mortality spectrum were the very-much-alive celebrities—think Ira Gershwin, Hoagy Carmichael, and Charlton Heston—that Ogden occasionally chauffeured as part of the limousine services he also performed. While he found many of these individuals affable, he formed different opinions of some others. 

“I’ve never been in awe of many people. You get to learn their peculiarities and see they’re like everyone else,” says Ogden, who felt Steve McQueen’s insistence on being served breakfast toast on a silver tray before he’d step into the limo was a tad self-indulgent.

“I think many of the problems in the world occur because people take themselves too seriously. It’s best if you don’t let your ego get too involved with anything,” remarks Ogden, whose courtroom career began in 1970 with his prosecuting drunk driving, petty theft, and lewd conduct cases for the city of Los Angeles.

Over the next seven years, he snagged as many “ride-alongs” as possible in patrol cars and fire engines. The former to better understand police procedures; the latter to assess situations when the firemen were under assault in various communities. 

“It was a chance to learn what was going on on the street and to experience the differences in people from the valley to downtown,” remembers Ogden, who read court dockets and rap sheets expecting them to teach him something as well. 

By 1977, he felt he had journeyed as far as he could as a prosecutor. So he jumped the legal fence to open his own private law practice. Since then, Ogden has defended hundreds of individuals indicted for crimes ranging from misdemeanors to premeditated murders.

Now semi-retired and living in Montana, he still takes the occasional case if it can be disposed of quickly. In his spare moments, he has taught a driver-safety course and transformed Flathead cherries into juicy tortes.

Though he could have ventured into civil rather than criminal law, Ogden preferred—what was to him—a more stimulating path.

“Cross-examinations and closing arguments in criminal cases force you to be alert, creative, and spontaneous. You have to be able to listen, organize, and form questions from what you hear,” he explains. “Civil lawyers are paper crazy and civil law is boring. Personal injury rewards the least injured and is hardest on the most injured. I don’t enjoy being part of it. But I do enjoy being able to help people, to right a wrong.”

Having said that, it should be added that Ogden won’t help just anyone.

“I’ve represented prostitutes but I won’t defend a rapist, a crime of violence involving humiliation. And I won’t defend pedophiles anymore,” states Ogden. “I tell them to thank their lucky stars some other attorney will take their case.”

Once a pedophile is convicted and sentenced, Ogden hopes justice has been—and will continue to be—served. Not only by the court system but by fellow prisoners whom he notes, “have their own peculiar ethic about these things.”

Ogden estimates the majority of people he represents are guilty. However, he tells them up front he doesn’t want to know if they committed the crime.

“The scariest client you can have is one that is innocent,” he admits. “There is so much pressure on you to see justice is done.”

Oddly enough, Ogden’s experience as a limo chauffeur played a role in his hiring an exonerated client to be his driver. The day that Ogden cleared him of his most recent charge, Lonnie Henderson asked him if he could use a driver. Considering why Henderson had been arrested, the question actually made sense.

“He would drive around in an empty limo looking for passengers at airports and big hotels. It’s illegal to do that,” explains Ogden. “You have to call a limo company and reserve one to pick you up. But the crime is not having a Public Utilities Commission Permit and being properly licensed as a commercial operator.”

During this phase of his law practice, Ogden was covering 30,000 miles annually racing between courthouses with the trunk of his Lincoln loaded with files and evidence. The prospect of having someone else find parking spaces and run his errands was irresistible—even if that someone was an ex-con. Ogden needed a driver; Henderson needed a job; a deal was struck that lasted 17 years.

 “Because he had extensive burglary and dope records, Lonnie was unemployable. But he had experience as a driver and was willing to work for cheap. He also knew the criminal justice system as well as I did, but from a different vantage,” adds Ogden. “I figured he could help with lightweight investigations and take photos. We both enjoyed the arrangement.”

In background and appearance, this duo could not have been more different. 

“Lonnie was a black child of the street and resembled a balding Gregory Hines—dapper, thin, and wiry. His slacks were always pressed and his shoes shined. He looked like my black cousin,” deadpans Ogden, a size 50 long with obvious Anglo-Saxon heritage and equally obvious unconcern about creases in his slacks or polish on his shoes.

Since many the destinations the two men drove to were places you’d avoid taking your grandmother, unless she possessed Annie Oakley’s marksmanship skills, Ogden carried a Walther 380 semi-automatic in his jacket. Not being an exhilaration junkie, though, he wisely chose when to expose that piece of information.

Henderson, however, couldn’t carry a gun because he was an ex-felon. But being a hood-savvy black man, he still found ways to protect his boss, as he demonstrated at one crime scene Ogden was inspecting.

As a gang threateningly surrounded Ogden, who kept his Walther pocketed to avoid escalating the problem, Henderson strode over from the Lincoln. Mindful of neither alarming nor challenging the gang, Henderson, with just a few words, defused the potential bomb. “Hey, man, back off. He’s a good guy; he’s defending one of us.”

 “Lonnie was intuitive, sharp. He was also an addict but I never felt endangered by his dope history. I felt more unsafe with his driving,” remarks Ogden. “He would collect money for me and I never questioned his honesty. But I wouldn’t give him the keys to my office. It was too easy for him to fall back into dope. I’m willing to risk my car and my wallet but not my clients’ information.”

While not a central character in the book or film, Henderson was portrayed in both as Earl, Mickey Haller’s driver. That distinction brought him his own moments of fame autographing copies of the bestseller for his friends.

“The movie caught the relationship well, though we were more open than Mickey and Earl. I never rode in the back seat like Mickey, I think that’s a little pretentious,” states Ogden. “Aside from that, it was easier to sit in front and use the console telephone. And Lonnie never wore earphones. He heard it all and kept it to himself.”

Lest you think Ogden’s penchant for riding in big vehicles has been limited to Lincolns, ambulances, hearses, and Cadillac limos, please note he now owns a retired red fire engine. It might reside in a garage 364 days of the year but Ogden does bring it out of seclusion to drive in Fourth of July parades. In the distant past, he even owned a caboose. And while that rail car can no longer claim to be part of the counselor’s life, one offbeat memory related to it lingers.

“Lonnie stole a railroad-crossing sign and presented it to me as a gift after I got the caboose,” recounts Ogden. Dismayed but also touched by Henderson’s act, Ogden told him, “I appreciate the sign, Lonnie, but you can go to jail for stealing it and I can go to jail for receiving stolen property. No more gifts!”

Henderson’s desire to do something special for Ogden stemmed from the unexpected friendship that developed between these two men who partook of many a turkey-day dinner together. Yet if you peek below the surface of Ogden’s persona, you realize his befriending a former client wasn’t so surprising. He has always discerned his own measure of a person and acted accordingly even if his m.o. seems indecipherable to others.

Ogden considers religion as important as winning his cases. Yet he is the first to agree that irreverent aptly describes him. He is irreverent towards death, societal expectations of him, and people who deem themselves important—be they judges, politicians, or gun-wielding thieves. On the other hand, he is empathetic towards people he feels deserve a break and indifferent to their social status—be it glamorous or grungy. 

“I’ve watched the world unfold and worked with a bunch of reprobates and loved every minute. It’s been a fun and interesting life. And I’ve been fortunate, too, for the opportunity my parents gave me to go to college,” says Ogden in a rare moment of seriousness. “I’ve been lucky.”

Should David Ogden ever decide to write his own epitaph, it might read something like this: He loved a good meal, a good laugh, his family and friends, and his Lincoln Continentals—not necessarily in that order.