Doug Emhoff went from being Hollywood’s go-to lawyer to America’s second gentleman

From “Real Housewives” to the White House.
From “Real Housewives” to the White House.
Image: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Earlier this year, Doug Emhoff was defending movie studios in court. Now he’s America’s first “second gentleman,” thanks to his wife, US vice president-elect Kamala Harris.

For years, Emhoff litigated high-profile Hollywood cases, ranging from copyright disputes to antitrust issues. He successfully prevented an upstart wine company from infringing on the trademark of The Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola’s brand of vino. He defended the husband of a Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star when he was caught up in a real estate quarrel with the vice president of Equatorial Guinea. And he represented the production company Legendary Pictures in a long legal battle with a group of writers it hired to develop the 2014 Godzilla reboot.

It’s an unusual career for a second spouse—or anyone involved in a presidential ticket, for that matter. There have been plenty of lawyers in the White House and US Naval Observatory (where the vice president and her family traditionally live), but never one specializing in media and entertainment.

Emhoff took a leave of absence from his firm, DLA Piper, in August, and revealed he now plans to permanently sever ties with the practice, Bloomberg Law reported. DLA Piper has lobbied on behalf of Walmart, Comcast, Merck, and a host of other companies that could at some point have business before the Biden-Harris administration.

If his legal days are indeed over, Emhoff leaves behind a resume of interesting cases—many of which have made headlines. Here’s a sampling:

He beat Taco Bell in court

In 1996, marketers Joseph Shields and Thomas Rinks met with the popular Mexican-inspired chain to license a “psycho chihuahua” character they created for commercials. Taco Bell then took the idea to an advertising agency, TBWA, and it eventually turned into the infamous Taco Bell chihuahua, whose catchphrase “Yo quiero Taco Bell!” served as the company’s slogan throughout the late 1990s. (Taco Bell retired the character in 2000 after it was accused of being a cultural stereotype, and failed to help improve sales.)

Shields and Rinks then sued the chain and were awarded $30 million (plus $12 million more in interest), arguing they were never compensated for the idea. Taco Bell tried to pin the $42 million bill on TBWA, and that’s where Emhoff came in. He represented the ad agency and made the fast-food chain losers twice over. A US federal appeals court ruled Taco Bell—not TBWA—was responsible for the ads, and thus the $42 million payout.

He defended the producers of a Tom Cruise movie after a fatal plane crash during filming

In American Made, Tom Cruise stars as Barry Seal, a real-life pilot and drug smuggler recruited by the CIA to surveil communist groups in Central America. During filming in 2015, two stunt pilots were killed and a third man was paralyzed when a plane crashed in the Colombian mountains on its return flight to Medellin, where the production was based.

The families of the deceased pilots sued the producers of the movie, saying they rushed production schedules and flouted safety guidelines. They also blamed Cruise—who’s known for his death-defying stunts—for contributing to the high-risk environment in which the accident occurred. Emhoff represented the producers, who claimed one of the pilots exaggerated his credentials to get the gig and bought a faulty plane, Variety reported. The case settled last year for an undisclosed sum.

He litigated disputes over memes

Emhoff and his firm represented Jukin Media, a company that identifies potential viral videos and licenses their rights for distribution. Jukin’s portfolio includes Pizza Rat and Chewbacca Mask Lady, among other internet phenomena. On several occasions, the company has sued websites and media groups for unauthorized use of its videos.

One such example came in 2016 when Jukin sued Worldstar, a popular content aggregator. Some of the videos Jukin alleged Worldstar published without permission were the timeless “Physics Teacher gets hit in the nuts,” and the classic “Gorilla Teaches Toddler How To Use Her Middle Finger.” The case settled.