On a recent vacation, local attorney Ken White had to assure his wife that celebrity attorney Michael Avenatti was not mad at him this time.
Evidently, White — a La Cañada Flintridge native and legend in Twitter’s political and legal circles — made the calming remark while bearing the trademark grin that usually follows his acerbic, often deadpan snipes directed at social media personalities, typically for misguided interpretations of the law that match their outsized online personas. (He recently sparred with “Dilbert” creator Scott Adams on defamation, for example.)
On this occasion, White said he in fact had not prodded Avenatti, the bombastic attorney whose representation of adult movie actress Stormy Daniels paved the way for his public confrontations with President Donald Trump.
“Technically, Kid Rock,” White chuckled, recalling the answer to his wife’s query about whom he had just antagonized.
White — a founding partner of the Los Angeles-based firm Brown, White & Osborne — is a prolific communicator outside the courtroom. Since 2004, he has maintained the blog Popehat, a name that has become synonymous with his own, where he and other contributors discuss free speech, the criminal justice system and, well, whatever else they want.
The Twitter account @popehat, run mostly by White, is functionally his and has nearly 213,000 followers. His internet persona and cadence attracted attention to the point where more established outlets sought his input, through columns and analyses published in the Los Angeles Times, Reason, National Review and Salon.
The name Popehat arises from an inside joke, White explained, in which a colleague adept at origami would fashion and wear a miter and declare he couldn’t be defeated.
“People generally assume that it’s some sort of religious reference, but it’s not, notwithstanding that I grew up in St. Bede’s up here,” White added.
Last year opened a lot of doors for White. Since January 2018, he has hosted the First Amendment-themed podcast “Make No Law” on the Legal Talk Network. In May of that year, White joined Josh Barro, host of “Left, Right and Center” on the Santa Monica-based NPR affiliate KCRW, to co-host the spinoff program “All the President’s Lawyers” to discuss Trump’s myriad legal issues. (The show is released in podcast form after airing.) By September 2018, the Atlantic brought White on as a contributing writer.
White had some experience writing — from 1985-87, he covered Flintridge Prep football games for the La Cañada Valley Sun on a freelance basis while attending the school — but the rapid expansion of the internet in the ’90s pointed him toward his current journalistic contributions.
“For years, that was sort of the outlet for writing for a lot of people in our era. It was just writing on internet forums and comments and things like that,” he explained in a recent interview. “Eventually I had a blog and did that for years and years. I did it enough that occasionally people would ask me to write a post on one of the areas that I know, and that just sort of grew into getting a few columns at the L.A. Times.”
Having relevant expertise helped. After attending Oak Grove — now closed — and Paradise Canyon elementary schools and graduating from Prep, White earned his bachelor’s degree and received departmental honors from Stanford University in 1991. He then graduated cum laude in 1994 from Harvard Law School, where he was editor-in-chief of the Harvard Journal on Legislation.
White clerked for Richard Gadbois, a federal judge for the Central District of California, before joining the U.S. attorney’s office in that district in 1995. (“In retrospect, not for any really good, reflective reason,” he added.) There, White served in the government fraud and public corruption section until 2001, when he left and started private practice.
Serving as an assistant U.S. attorney, White said, actually bolstered his calling to be a defense attorney and advocate for the defendants and convicts of the criminal justice system. When the Los Angeles Police Department’s Rampart corruption scandal dropped in 1997, White was assigned to the “dirty team,” which reviewed evidence that potentially could lead to violations of attorney-client privilege so that the “clean team” running the prosecution wouldn’t encounter those issues.
“By the end of my five years, I was definitely starting to think more like a defense attorney and sort of question the system and the way things work,” explained White, who in the Rampart scandal reviewed statements that might have been obtained by LAPD officers under coercion. “I just got the sense that — I know they’re not all like that — but I just thought, ‘I’m not on the right team.’”
WRITING AS A SECOND CAREER
White joined L.A. mega-firm Paul Hastings LLP as an associate in 2001, departing in 2003 to join Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton as a special counsel. He moved on in 2005 to form his present firm. Throughout, he and his family have lived nearby — mostly La Crescenta — and he often finds himself back in his hometown of LCF for one reason or another.
“It’s nice to kind of come back to the same neighborhood. Our church is here. Our kids’ schools are here. It’s a good place for family,” he said. “My mom taught in Glendale schools her whole career, so I kind of feel connected to the area. My dad’s practice was in Glendale his whole career. He had a law practice on Brand [Boulevard] and my mom was a teacher and a principal at various Glendale schools.”
White’s interest in being a litigator traces back to his father’s being an attorney. However, he added, he’d kept in contact with one of his favorite teachers from Prep throughout the years, and she didn’t always seem enamored with his legal achievements.
“She was always ‘Well, that’s nice, but are you writing?’ because she knew that I loved to write and she thought I should write,” White said. “It kind of showed me how important it is to have really good teachers like that and what an impact they can make. I was grateful to her and other teachers like that.
“I was always, as a lawyer, kind of a frustrated writer,” he admitted. “I always wanted to be a writer or a journalist or something like that.”
Working at his own small firm has allowed him both the time and freedom of conscience to explore that aspect of himself, “as I hope for forgiveness for my mistakes,” White said. Being at the U.S. attorney’s office was “fantastic writing training,” just as it was for arguing at trial, he said.
“It’s much easier to develop the type of work you want to do, like First Amendment work. You certainly have a greater level of freedom to speak than you do working for someone more worried about PR,” he added. “I love that I can write now pretty freely. I see it as my second or third act. I just turned 50, and the idea that you can start up a second career of something you always wanted to do later on in your life is pretty cool.”
TAKING ON THE SYSTEM
Though they’re often depicted as caricatures in dramas like the durable “Law & Order” franchise or the acclaimed ’90s police procedural “Homicide: Life on the Street,” defense attorneys are, White said, often the lone protection anyone has against the government, whether it is overzealously enforcing a law or enforcing an overzealous law.
As often as partisans like to tout it, White contends that mainstream Democrats and Republicans have a largely unearned reputation of defending citizens from onerous government. On one hand, he observed, Joe Biden — a former public defender and one of the Democrats’ front-runners for president — wrote the controversial ’90s crime bill, and on the other, Republican Sen. Josh Hawley is pushing an internet and social media regulation bill. (Hawley’s bill was the most recent subject of White’s “Make No Law” podcast.)
“The ‘tough on crime’ thing is such a default,” White said. “There really is no ‘civil rights party,’ or ‘constitutional rights party’ or ‘fairness to defense party’ or ‘prisoners’ rights party.’ There’s only different flavors of the ‘tough on crime party,’ which is what’s very frustrating to someone who’s a defense lawyer and a libertarian.”
This instinct is normally reflected on Twitter whenever there’s breaking news about a high-profile arrest or when the subject of a headline-worthy investigation seems to run his or her mouth in an interview — White normally advises “shut up” at least twice in these tweets. Humorously, he tweeted a link to the Fifth Amendment to Rudy Giuliani after the president’s counsel mused about the ongoing Trump-Ukraine saga.
Similarly, the news stories detailing police or prosecutorial misconduct that tend to spark outrage on social media don’t surprise White as much, but at the same time, he is far more interested in using these examples as teachable moments.
“Tons of cops and prosecutors — no doubt the majority — are decent, good people, but the system grinds people down,” White said. “I don’t know if it’s always conscious or malicious; it’s just the way the system operates. I think people in the system, they’re only human beings, and as you process however many people in a courtroom you’re sending to jail, how many families you’re breaking up in a given day — really process that and engage those people on a human level and acknowledge their humanity — you’d probably go crazy. I don’t think you could do it. The only way to get through it is to treat it like a machine, like you’re serving McDonald’s hamburgers. ‘We’ve got this many billion served.’
“I think a lot of the time, it’s not deliberate maliciousness, like ‘I hate these people and I’m going to destroy them,’” he reiterated. “I think it’s a cruel indifference that the system enforces. And so people think, ‘Well, no one was being deliberately cruel here. If no one was intentionally violating anyone’s rights, it can’t be that bad.’ Well, it can.”
MARRYING TWO PASSIONS
White knows that criminal justice reform doesn’t have a lot of political pizazz and that it’s difficult to convince a lot of people to think seriously about the well-being of prisoners, or even those jailed on the mere suspicion of crime.
This is a large part of the reason he has adopted a strategy of “slowly, gradually convincing people that it’s worthwhile and not radical to look skeptically at the system and ask whether this is decent, whether this is fair, whether we should treat people like this.” Making these attempts more effective is White’s knack for presenting the issue in a simple, straightforward way that propels readers (or listeners) to reach the conclusion instead of berating them for not getting it in the first place.
Take, for example, the suicide of Jeffrey Epstein while he was in custody. Considering the nature of Epstein’s recent arrest and his prior plea deal, you’ll find few who were sad to see him go. Still, seeing the bigger picture, White dedicated a column at the Atlantic to 32 other inmates whose in-custody deaths under cruel circumstances prompted little to no public attention.
“One of the things I like about writing at the Atlantic is that they give me a lot of freedom to write about law enforcement issues,” White said. “I don’t think you can drag [readers] there kicking and screaming all at once. I think it’s a project of a lifetime to change minds and get people to see things like that. And it seems to make people very angry. I got tons of hate mail after the Epstein piece, basically saying, ‘You’re part of the conspiracy. You’re covering things up for the Clintons or Trump or whoever. Obviously, this is a murder because this would never happen.’
“There’s a level of brutality and sheer horror in the system that I think people don’t conceive and can’t conceive,” he added. “I think that even when people get signs of it, the sort of things that go on, they don’t fully grasp it and their mind turns away from it. If you look at stuff like in that story about the 32 deaths, it’s too horrifying. If you think that’s happening all the time, it seems like you have to confront that and act accordingly. How do you act accordingly? What do you do? It’s a lot easier for people to look away.”
White’s topics aren’t always the brutal consequence of America’s criminal justice machine. Another Atlantic column dived into the variety of laws that allow leniency to high-profile white-collar criminals like Paul Manafort. The premise of “All the President’s Lawyers” is to lift the shroud of legal vernacular from the discussion and state plainly why certain legal arguments and maneuvers involving Trump and his people will or won’t work.
STILL HAPPY TO BE HERE
In September — hallmarked as Suicide Prevention Month — White always links his readers and followers to a 2015 post on Popehat titled “Happy to Be Here,” chronicling his stay in a psychiatric facility the prior year, an event precipitated by what he described as the difference between fighting depression and successfully fighting depression. (“It turns out the difference matters,” he wrote.)
“I fought depression for 15 years and there’s still this ridiculous social stigma,” White said in this interview. “Too many people don’t get help. One of the things I try to do is — by writing about it, talking about it, black humor about it — try to reach out to the many people out there who haven’t gotten help yet or are afraid to or need the nudge.
“Every time I write about it — my experiences — openly, I half feel like it’s the naked-at-school dream,” he continued, “and I half feel like it’s self-indulgent and it’s just for me and it’s not really helping people. But every time I write about depression and dealing with it and the ups and downs, I get like a dozen emails from people saying, ‘This means something to me,’ ‘OK, I went and got help,’ ‘It means something to me when people say things publicly,’ ‘I don’t feel as alone.’ That’s why I keep doing it. If I can make one person feel that way, then it’s worthwhile. And it’s not just one person. It’s untold numbers of people out there.”
Finding the time and energy to be so productive is all about waking up early and having the right job, White explained.
“I’m generally at work by 6:30, and that gives a lot of extra time,” he said. “I’m lucky enough to have the type of job where I can be more flexible in my hours. It’s a matter of finding your hobbies. Writing is a hobby — maybe my main hobby — so I find time for it. I find that, in the long run, at least in my area, that doing that is good for the career in general.”
Writing and developing the social media persona has served as an effective networking tool, White added.
“Some lawyers develop business by going to bar association events and dinners and things like that, and that’s not so much me, so I like it this way,” he said. “What I tell people if they’re into writing is that writing something every day is the way to get so comfortable with writing that it doesn’t take you a long time. An 800- or 1,000-word column is much quicker for me than it was 10 or 15 years ago because I’m so used now to producing content like that. A lot of the time I kind of write it in my head and think about it ahead of time.”
When he isn’t writing, White finds other ways to stay busy. He and his wife are active at La Cañada Presbyterian Church, where she is an elder and involved in Parent Ed. The two have three adopted children — a son and daughter from Korea and a daughter from China. Their son just started at Northeastern University after graduating from Prep (White humorously chronicled the trip to Boston on Twitter); one daughter is in 11th grade at Crescenta Valley High School and their youngest is in 7th grade at Prep.
“One of the things I’m happy with about here is that we’ve got a very robust community with a lot of people who are Korean or Chinese and a lot of cultural opportunities,” White said on raising his family in this area. “It’s not like they’re going to school some place where no one looks like them. We know a bunch of other adoptive families in the area and that’s been an important part of the community, too. It’s much more diverse than it was when I was growing up here, which I think is good.”
White, of course, can always rattle the cage on Twitter, where he has amassed a dedicated following fond of his self-deprecation, legal wisecracks and rhetorical takedowns of politicos who have unorthodox interpretations of jurisprudence. As White discussed on Twitter and on an “All the President’s Lawyers” episode, Avenatti once left him a ranting voicemail in response to an online disagreement.
“My wife is like ‘OK, who’s mad at you today?’” he said, “and I’m like ‘I don’t know what you mean. Why are you asking me that?’ And then it’s ‘I recognize the smile. You’ve just pissed somebody off and you’re smug about it.’”
In addition to what has become known as “lawsplaining,” White will dive into threaded anecdotes of his legal career — a popular story involved himself, in his prosecutor days, surreptitiously competing with the defense attorney to get the judge to yell at him more, a tactic he says can make juries sympathetic. Another thread targeted then-Labor Secretary Alex Acosta — a classmate at Harvard Law — regarding the plea deal he gave Epstein in Florida.
When he opens Twitter, White’s mentions are likely bombarded with fans asking whether something “is the RICO,” referring to the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, as it relates to a civil proceeding. (Hint: It never is.) RICO, explained White, often serves as “an exclamation point or an emoji” on a case.
“If something is important or something is bad, it must be a RICO case,” White said. “It drives me absolutely crazy, because it’s just not. If you’ve ever practiced civil litigation, you’ve run into crazy people filing RICO suits because that’s basically their way of signaling ‘This is a really important case.’ Ninety-nine percent of the time, it isn’t [RICO]. To me, it’s kind of like the way doctors must feel when someone tells them something they got off of WebMD.”