Meet the attorneys caught in the firing line of the Depp v. Heard culture war
Johnny Depp's and Amber Heard's lawyers have entered the spotlight over the former couple's trial.
- Depp fans have rallied behind his lawyer Benjamin Chew and vilified the lawyer Benjamin Rottenborn.
On December 21, 2020, the attorney Benjamin Chew saw the funnier side of life as he compiled evidence for his highest-profile client.
The actor Johnny Depp had recently instructed Chew to file a $50 million defamation claim against his ex-wife, Amber Heard. Driving the case was a 2018 op-ed by Heard in which she discussed being a victim of domestic abuse, which Depp's team says implicates him despite not naming him.
In an email that day, Chew joked to Heard's attorney, Ben Rottenborn, that he would get "coal in the stocking" if he didn't submit documents to the judge on time. In another, he lamented that Coco, his dog, was furious with the arrival of his newest canine, Chewbacca. The innocuous emails were disclosed as part of Depp's legal case against the UK's Sun newspaper over an article calling him a "wife-beater."
Two years on, the setting of their exchanges changed dramatically. Chew and Rottenborn are pitted against one of the ugliest celebrity trials in recent memory.
The Depp v. Heard trial began on May 2 and is set to culminate on May 27. Every moment of it has been streamed live.
The case has sparked a social media frenzy. Rottenborn and Chew were caught up in the drama, alongside Depp's other attorney,
Vasquez has gained fandom for her cross-examination of Heard and her chummy relationship with Depp, which his cheerleaders speculated could be more than professional. (A spokesperson for the actor said their relationship is strictly professional.)
Chew and Rottenborn's firms — Brown Rudnick and Woods Rogers, respectively — declined to comment, saying its staff would not talk to the media until the case concludes. Representatives for Heard and Depp also declined to comment.
Depp's fans rally behind his lawyer
From the outset of the trial, Depp's devoted fanbase rushed to his defense and mobilized against Heard and Rottenborn. Chew's opening statement garnered more than half a million views on YouTube, and compilation videos showing an apparent bromance with Depp have proliferated on social media.
A TikTok of the lawyer, posted by the account @inlovewithbenjaminchew, racked up more than four million likes in days. Similarly, a YouTube video titled "Johnny Depp's Lawyer SHOCKED Over Actor's Impressive Doodle" fast exceeded five million views.
But Chew appears unfazed by his new status.
The Washington, DC-based attorney sat next to Depp throughout the trial and seemed relaxed and comfortable. He's hugged and shared laughs with the actor while nibbling on gummy bears neatly stacked in a pile on his desk.
But when he has stood to speak, Chew's jovial demeanor vanished to be replaced by ruthless professionalism, and his experience in Big Law shines through.
"The thing that throws people off about him is that he looks happy, but he's actually a cutthroat lawyer," said Kristen Johnson, an attorney who worked with Chew for nine years at his previous firm, Squire Patton Boggs.
As a seasoned litigator with more than 25 years of experience, his appointment by Depp was no surprise, Johnson said.
"He's not intimidated by anyone, so it doesn't matter who's on the other side," she said. "It would probably give him a boost to have a formidable opponent."
Trial by internet
His adversary, Rottenborn, has struggled to win the popularity battle online. Early in the trial, Depp fans blamed Rottenborn for an embarrassing slipup from another of Heard's lawyers, Adam Nadelhaft, that has since become the defining soundbite of the case: Nadelhaft objecting to his own question while grilling Depp.
The fallout has been brutal for Rottenborn. A Twitter account named "Ben Rottenborn Parody" has started commenting "objection" underscores of tweets about the case. A YouTube video titled "Johnny Depp dealing with Amber Heard's lawyer" has been viewed more than 11 million times, and another titled "The entire court LAUGHS AT Amber Heard's Lawyer" has been viewed 2 million times.
"He became a meme," Neama Rahmani, a former federal prosecutor commentating on the case for Court TV, told Insider.
"That's not what you're supposed to do. You're supposed to move to strike. You saw he was a little bit frazzled, and I think Depp rattled him."
But just as Chew won't be shaken by his newfound fame, the criticism won't faze Rottenborn.
"He'd handle it just about better than anyone else I know," said Jay O'Keeffe, a Virginia lawyer who has worked with and against Rottenborn. "He's extraordinarily level-headed."
" I suspect that nobody around here or at his firm would have been ready for the level of backlash this case is getting."
But Rottornborn may not even be aware. "He's not even a social-media person. I don't even know if he knows what's going on," Michael Fox, a Virginia-based neuroscientist and Rottenborn's friend told Insider.
Their toughest test yet
Chew is no stranger to being in the spotlight, having previously represented high-profile figures, including Cher and two Olympic gold medalists.
But Chew is a DC man through and through.
A graduate from the nearby University of Virginia School of Law, he cut his teeth on complex litigation cases for the giant multinational law firm Squire Patton before moving to Manatt, Phelps & Phillips in DC. He joined Brown Rudnick as a partner in its DC office in 2018.
Chew, who speaks Spanish fluently, has worked for the governments of Guatemala, Ecuador, and Honduras and has argued cases before the European Court of Human Rights and the International Criminal Court.
Before becoming his lawyer, Chew had been introduced to Depp by a mutual friend, according to a person with knowledge of the relationship, whom Insider granted anonymity to speak candidly.
Chew defended the actor in two fiduciary-breach cases in Los Angeles, the latest of which concluded in 2019. Depp sued his former business managers, alleging they misspent his funds.
They countersued him, saying Depp was responsible for his poor money management. Ultimately, the parties agreed on an out-of-court settlement.
Rottenborn's résumé is similarly intriguing.
A 2006 graduate of Stanford Law School, Rottenborn started clerking for an Arizona district judge but was soon hired by Kirkland & Ellis, the world's largest law firm by revenue, in Chicago. He made partner in 2012.
That same year, Rottenborn ditched the city for the unassuming Virginia town of Roanoke in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Rottenborn's wife, a Stanford classmate, had a career opportunity there.
In Roanoke, Rottenborn joined Woods Rogers, a local law firm that, while respected, was a far cry from big-hitters at Kirkland & Ellis. Nevertheless, Rottenborn continued to pull in prestige clients like Warner Bros, New Line Cinema, Wells Fargo — and now, Heard. Last November, Rottenborn helped nine Charlottesville Unite the Right rally victims win $26 million in damages.
"It's not usual that you would see someone from Roanoke representing Warner Bros or Amber Heard," O'Keeffe told Insider. "That alone tells you something about his skill."
"He's the sort of lawyer you'd run into in Chicago, DC, or New York. So when he showed up, you noticed."
Two private men in a very public case
Outside court, Chew loves cracking jokes and doesn't take himself too seriously, former colleagues said.
"He was just really thoughtful about the people he worked with," Johnson said, adding that he gave her a carved block inscribed with her son's name and weight after she gave birth.
A friend and former colleague told Insider that Chew is also a family man. The person was also granted anonymity to speak candidly.
Chew loves candy and often brings gummy bears and M&Ms with him to snack on during the long hours in court, Johnson said. A YouTube video titled "Johnny Depp and his Lawyer are Continuously Chewing Candy During Court" has amassed more than 1.4 million views.
He also has a love for flashy suits and all things on wheels. Colleagues fondly remember him arriving at the office either on a Vespa or in a teal Ford Thunderbird with the top down, singing show tunes.
"Ben has got his place in the world, and he's very comfortable there," another person, who also spoke on condition of anonymity to speak candidly, told Insider.
"He's found a way not to just be a corporate shill," the person said. "He's still just Ben."
Like Chew, Rottenborn is considered a gentle soul. Both Fox and O'Keeffe praised him and said he was undeserving of the attacks. "He's one of the kindest, most generous people. A reserved, quiet guy," Fox said.
O'Keeffe added: "Thoughtful, intelligent, soft-spoken. Very, very reasonable. As a lawyer, his style is much the same. There's not a lot of bluster."
Rottenborn is also active and adventurous: He and Fox traveled to Ecuador several years ago to climb volcanoes, and in Roanoke, he's a keen runner and Little League coach. "He is usually the first to volunteer to coach kids' athletic events and is just generous with his time," Fox said.
It is evident that Rottenborn and Chew are respected and well-liked by their peers, but in the courtroom, the high-stakes nature of their clients has left them at the mercy of the internet.
The popularity contest has swung in Depp's — and Chew's — direction, but the case hangs in the balance, with several days of questioning and witnesses to come. Perhaps to Rottenborn's advantage, the jury cannot see social media.
"The case should be about evidence, but it's about likeability and credibility," Rahmani said.
"You want to control the witness, but Johnny Depp did such a good job controlling Rottenborn."
Editor's note: This story was updated May 23 to clarify that the attorney working for Amber Heard who objected to his own question was Adam Nadelhaft, not Ben Rottenborn.
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