When you’re Teresa and Joe Giudice’s real lawyer, things can get a little weird.
For instance, you walk out of the Atlantic County Jail after getting a double murderer to sign a plea deal for killing her mother and grandmother in Ventnor, and your phone will be blowing up with TMZ calling about Joe’s imminent deportation to Italy.
Or you’re juggling urgent texts from national morning news show producers, or gossip reporters, eager for any news, literally anything, about the star of Bravo’s Real Housewives of New Jersey, even as you must power down and appear in court.
And Teresa Giudice herself is blowing up your phone every day, sometimes late into the night. She has needs. Tremendous ones. And for the last five years, Atlantic City attorney James J. Leonard Jr. has been there to put out the reality fires.
She calls him her “protector,” but that’s only the beginning of Leonard’s Teresa portfolio.
During filming, as he lies in bed next to his wife, lawyer Rebecca Leonard, his phone buzzes. It is time for nightly haggling, with Leonard refereeing among producers, other Housewives, and Teresa, the self-described “O.G.” original Housewife herself, who has risen to such elite obsessive celebrity status that Leonard is basically on call for her all the time.
“Her needs have expanded tremendously,” says Leonard, 45, of Washington Township, known for defending some of South Jersey’s most notorious criminals (and arranging for South Jersey ex-mobster restaurateur Angelo Lutz to appear on RHONJ). “I speak the language.”
"Nobody is cheating, nobody is getting divorced,” Leonard tells People Magazine.
“This is a man who loves his family and is not done fighting, by any means,” he tells TMZ.
“His name is Tony. She kissed him more than 30 years ago when they were in high school together,” Leonard tells the New York Post’s Page 6, tamping down rumors that have upset the Giudices’ daughter Gia, a freshman at Rutgers.
Leonard’s day job is nothing to sneeze at, defending accused killers, drug dealers, prescription fraudsters, the occasional mobster like Nicodemo Scarfo Jr., in a busy Atlantic City practice.
But let’s face it, Leonard’s real contribution to society is the care and feeding of the Giudices, and a national gossip media’s insatiable appetite for news about them, especially now, with Joe out of ICE custody and the debut of Season 10. (Outside the show, “the diva moments are nonexistent,” he insists.)
Leonard stepped into these messy on- and off-camera lives after other attorneys let her down, Teresa said in a phone interview. She pleaded guilty to wire fraud and was sentenced to 15 months, which she served in the women’s federal prison in Danbury, Conn.
Leonard dropped her off in January 2015, hiding her in the backseat at 3 a.m., but making a rookie RHONJ mistake by stopping at a diner and assuming the non-English speakers at the back table weren’t snapping photos.
He visited Teresa one weekend a month for the year she was at Danbury, six to eight hours a day.
“She’s a unique client,” Leonard says. “The interest in her is very intense.”
He is an anti-publicist of sorts, as more publicity is the last thing she needs.
“So before there’s a reality show, she’s a real person,” Leonard said. “I work with the real person. And I work with the reality show. Sometimes, they are not necessarily in sync.”
Sometimes, his worlds overlap. Leonard recalled visiting a client in jail and the client recognized him from the show.
“We watch a lot of that in here,” the accused killer told him.
He’s still amazed at the time he met Mike Tyson, and Tyson looked at him and said, “How’s my girl Teresa?”
“That’s when I realized, this was a business,” Leonard said.
Teresa wishes he had represented her during her criminal case.
“My other attorneys were non buono,” she said, from Leonard’s car, as she plugged in WAZE and they made their way toward the Lincoln Tunnel in New York City, where they had visited the Italian Consulate. “He understands me really. He got to know me.”
Despite their bond, she notes Leonard’s not entirely in her league.
All you have to do is go to an Italian restaurant with Jim, she jokes, cutting down the cred of the half-Irish, half-Italian baby-faced lawyer. “He’s not even all-Italian."
Leonard admits to spending serious time prepping Teresa for all-important Bravo reunion shows, as if she’s a candidate prepping for a debate.
“If you want to be a top-tier Housewife, you better prepare for it,” Leonard says. He’s not kidding.
How did he get here? How did this Villanova-trained and top criminal lawyer end up sitting in front of his television taking notes during RHONJ to better anticipate media calls?
He’s landed in an enormous, not-unwelcome fishbowl for an attorney, interacting with national media and television personalities. He’s become part of the show, appearing on the “Teresa Checks In” episode, where her family visits her in Danbury. (Joe later served 36 months for his role.)
In his pin-striped suit, Leonard is filmed ordering a tomato and mozzarella salad with Joe at the restaurant where Teresa iconically flipped a table. He’s also briefly seen during the iconic “Joey’s Christening” episode, which his family attended, and where a brawl broke out.
It all started with Sammi Sweetheart, from MTV’s Jersey Shore, the original hard-partying, Jersey drama and reality phenomenon.
Sammi is his wife’s cousin. He helped her and other cast members with their contracts. That led to work for Melissa Gorga, Teresa’s sister-in-law, as she joined RHONJ. He also represents Love & Hip Hop’s Juliet “Juju” Castaneda.
He got assault charges against Angelina Pivarnick of Jersey Shore dismissed. Now, he’s in her wedding. .
The father of two was introduced to Teresa by a friend of Joe’s.
The bond clicked, deepened over time. He, not Bravo, was there the night she left for prison, watching as a stoic Teresa wiped down the kitchen counters one last time in her Montville mansion.
He’s not immune to the ironies of representing Giudice while defending another Jersey mother, Heather Barbera, who pleaded guilty to killing her mother and grandmother during a fight.
“I think about that all the time,” Leonard said. “The only difference between them as clients is one of them is famous, the other is not. They both have needs."
Last week, after leaving the Italian Consulate, Leonard’s phone rang as he and Teresa emerged from the Tunnel back in Jersey. It was Harvey Levin, founder of TMZ.
“Literally calling me himself,” Leonard said. “I had to explain what she was doing."
In typical Teresa Giudice nano-time, she posted on her Instagram story from inside, and TMZ was waiting.
The resulting photo cut Leonard off at the head.
Turns out, Teresa can be easier to reach than Leonard, her unlikely gatekeeper.
“Want me to tell him to call you?” she offers, after an hour of questions and selfies at the Women’s Expo, home of the fancy bra strap booth, an event teeming with real New Jersey housewives in Edison.
It’s a few days before she and her four daughters will leave to visit Joe in Italy, a trip timed not for TV but for “teachers’ convention,” she told Bravo’s Andy Cohen, as the New Jersey school vacation is known.
For all the media juggling, statements on behalf, anonymous quotes, paparazzi — here, every Toni from Sayreville or Jackie from Marlborough can ask any question of Teresa, their patron saint.
No, she doesn’t approve of teenagers getting plastic surgery. Yes, she wonders if this whole Housewives thing was worth it.
It all trickles out in the gossip media.
“To be Teresa Giudice, it’s totally exhausting,” Leonard says. “I do my best to make it bearable.”