NYC’s Most Ruthless Defense Lawyer

Priya Chaudhry’s grilling of Jonathan Majors’s accuser shocked some watching his assault trial. She doesn’t care.

Photo: Mary Altaffer/AP
Photo: Mary Altaffer/AP
Photo: Mary Altaffer/AP

One of the first things that greets you upon entering Priya Chaudhry’s law firm is a toddler-size stuffed sloth. “We call him our comfort sloth,” the defense attorney says, before lifting the plushie off a couch and wrapping it around my neck tightly enough that, for a moment, it’s hard to breathe. “Go ahead and give him a hug.” The sloth — and the Star Wars figurines on Chaudhry’s desk and the gold peacock-printed wallpaper — are supposed to help clients relax. “The people who come up that elevator are incredibly stressed,” she explains. “A bomb has gone off in their life and they’re desperate.”

A few desperate celebrities have come through Chaudhry’s door in recent years: the Real Housewives star Jen Shah, the filmmaker Paul Haggis, and, most recently, the actor Jonathan Majors. Chaudhry started representing him last March, when Majors was charged with assault after allegedly hitting his ex-girlfriend’s head and fracturing her finger in the back of a chauffeured car. At five feet tall, Chaudhry cut a striking figure, wearing bright dresses and a gold backpack throughout the two-week trial. She hammered Grace Jabbari, Majors’s ex, with questions until Jabbari became visibly flustered and burst into tears. Chaudhry betrayed no emotion herself until closing arguments, letting out a sob as she told jurors to “end this nightmare for Jonathan Majors.” They found the actor guilty of misdemeanor assault and harassment, which carries up to a year of jail time, and acquitted him on two other charges. Majors was expected to be sentenced on February 6, but Chaudhry filed a last-minute motion to throw out the verdict that pushed his hearing until April.

In late January, I visited Chaudhry’s office to talk about the Majors case and how she’s developing a reputation as one of the go-to lawyers for men accused of misconduct. She defended Haggis, the Academy Award–winning Crash filmmaker, in his 2022 civil rape trial. She lost that case, but notched a win in November when a former prosecutor turned criminal-justice-reform advocate she represented was cleared of rape and sexual-abuse charges. Chaudhry, wearing a ruby-red-and-gold dress, tells me she was drawn to defense work by the inequality she witnessed growing up. “I could do anything,” she says. “And I chose this when I was child because I hate bullies.” We’re sitting in a glass-walled room with Chaudhry’s Baby Yoda water bottle on a table in front of us. Her husband, a crisis-communications expert named Andrew Bourke, is beside her, scribbling on a yellow notepad.

When she was one year old, Chaudhry’s family moved from Delhi to an apartment complex in Cleveland. Seeing how her neighbors, who she describes as mostly poor people of color, were treated by the police later inspired her to become a defense lawyer. “I’ve watched how race matters in this country, how the criminal-justice system picked up where slavery left off,” she says. “I do this job because I hate the government. I’ve seen prosecutors asking to set a $20 bail for a homeless person knowing that they don’t have $20. And now this person is just going to sit and rot in jail.”

There are generations of lawyers in her family — all of them men, she points out. Chaudhry studied premed as an undergrad before earning a law degree from Northwestern University. She worked for two years as a public defender in Seattle, where she learned how to handle sexual-assault cases. She moved to New York City and was hired at a boutique firm focused on white-collar crimes, then ran her own practice for six years before becoming a partner at Harris, St. Laurent & Chaudhry. There, she worked on cases involving money laundering, fraud, and violent crimes, and developed a reputation for welcoming controversy. “She seemed to take the cases that everyone else was saying, ‘I don’t think I can handle that,’” says Anjula Prasad, a lawyer who worked with her at that firm.

Chaudhry is known for her intense work ethic and exacting standards. “For every ten minutes of cross-examination, I probably spend ten hours preparing,” she says. “No one in that courtroom knows the facts better than I do.” Prasad describes Chaudhry’s process as “going into battle,” and says the attorney immerses herself in a case as if “Method acting.” Younger colleagues say she’s a brilliant mentor who expects that same level of perfection from others. “You do not want to see Priya when she catches a mistake,” says Jared Foley, a lawyer who worked with her at Harris, St. Laurent & Chaudhry. She once spotted a typo in a document he was working on and told him it had to be flawless, given “how much we’re getting paid.” He looks back at that now as a valuable lesson: Clients notice every mistake. At the time, it just felt nitpicky, though he knew not to snap back. “God help you if you ever try to interrupt her or speak down to her,” he says, laughing. “She will cut you.”

And she’ll do it wearing a peacock-printed coat and gold sneakers. Since she can’t cosplay as “an old white man,” Chaudhry tells me, “I might as well wear things that are awesome and bold.” Even after practicing law for nearly 25 years, she says, “I get stopped by security and asked if I’m the interloper. No one ever thinks I’m a lawyer.”

In 2019, the attorney left to open Chaudhry Law with a focus on criminal cases. One of her first celebrity clients there was Jen Shah, the fiery Real Housewives of Salt Like City star charged in a telemarketing fraud case (Shah’s famously unbothered tagline after her arrest: “The only thing I’m guilty of is being Shah-mazing.”) Chaudhry told the press that her client was “innocent” right up until Shah struck a plea deal with prosecutors to spend six-and-a-half years in prison in 2022. “Ms. Shah is a good woman who crossed a line,” Chauhdry said in a statement at the time. “She accepts full responsibility for her actions and deeply apologizes to all who have been harmed.” A few months after Shah was sentenced, the attorney asked the judge to release her from the case, saying Shah owes more than $124,000 in legal fees. When I ask Chaudhry if Shah has ponied up yet, she pauses and smiles before saying something off the record that I wish I could publish. “As you saw from my filings,” she says, “she has not.”

Later that year, Chaudhry worked her first celebrity trial. Movie publicist Haleigh Breest had sued Haggis in 2017 for sexual assault, alleging that he brought her to his Soho apartment a few years earlier after they met at an event, forced her to perform oral sex, and raped her. (Four other women would later take the stand to allege Haggis sexually assaulted or harassed them.) The director’s lawyers wanted someone with experience in criminal sexual-assault cases to do the cross-examination and recruited Chaudhry. This was the attorney’s first high-profile Me Too case. She is not shy about her criticisms of the movement — “I represent women also. I’m aware that women can lie” — and complains that district attorneys are bringing sexual-assault charges forward just to score political points. “They’re saying if a woman says something, evidence be damned, a defendant’s rights be damned, and let a jury decide.”

Her cross-examination of Breest took three days. She gave microscopic attention to every detail, dwelling on the size and contents of the tote bag Breest carried the night of the incident and fixating on where the publicist was standing when Haggis allegedly pushed her onto the bed. Breest’s lawyer, Zoe Salzman, tells me she was shocked by one moment in particular: While her client was describing how she tried to squirm away from Haggis, Chaudhry asked Breest, “Can you show us what it looked like?” Breest stood to reenact the moment but was startled when a photographer snapped her photo. The judge called for a break. “I could not believe what I was seeing,” Salzman says. “It caused her to break down. It was just gut-wrenchingly awful.” Chaudhry feels her request was warranted. She asks accusers to act out their testimony all the time and felt Breest’s account of the assault “wasn’t actually possible.” “So I just said, ‘Can you show me?’” The jury ultimately found Haggis liable and ordered him to pay Breest $10 million.

Chaudhry’s cross-examination in the Majors case was similarly tense. The attorney asked Jabbari more than a dozen times to admit that, when police first arrived on the scene, she didn’t tell them she had been assaulted by Majors. To jog Jabbari’s memory, Chaudhry played surveillance footage of the moment when cops found her unconscious in Majors’s apartment. Jabbari cried each time the video played, pleaded not to see it again, and, at one point, asked to leave the courtroom for a break. But Chaudhry’s approach backfired. The next day, the judge ruled that because of this line of questioning, jurors could see previously sealed text messages that might explain why Jabbari withheld information from police and doctors. In the exchange, Majors appears to dissuade Jabbari from seeking treatment at a hospital after a previous incident. “They will ask you questions,” he wrote, “and as I don’t think you actually protect us, it could lead to an investigation even if you do lie, and they suspect something.” One lawyer told The Hollywood Reporter that, after this setback, Majors’s “fate was sealed.”

Other critics tell me they feel the way Chaudhry treats witnesses on the stand is out of touch. Salzman thinks her “aggressive lawyering” is an ineffective strategy with New York’s young, progressive jury pool. “Honestly, I don’t give a shit,” Chaudhry says of her haters. “The idea that I should coddle” Jabbari, she continues, feels like suggesting “I should coddle the woman who accused Emmett Till.”

“You don’t want someone to be polite to the person lying about you,” she says. “It’s a war. It’s boxing, not tickling.” Chaudhry isn’t afraid to take the fight outside of the courtroom, either. Months before the trial began, the attorney escorted Majors to an NYPD precinct to file an assault complaint against Jabbari. Prosecutors later dismissed the charges, and the judge in Majors’s case called her brief arrest “very unusual.”

While Chaudhry was filing pre-trial documents that claimed Jabbari was the aggressor who slapped and scratched Majors in a booze-fueled, “savage rage,” journalists were digging into the actor’s past. Rolling Stone published an article that alleged he had physically or emotionally abused two other ex-girlfriends, accusations that he denied. The journalists reached out to Majors’s legal team for comment and reported they received six character witness statements from other women Majors knew or had dated. But when the magazine contacted these sources, four claimed they hadn’t given his attorneys permission to send anything. A woman I’ll call Anna tells me she spoke to Rolling Stone about her relationship with Majors, which she alleges was abusive, as part of that same article. But before it was published, she received a strange email that claimed she was being investigated by a law office as part of an “ongoing criminal investigation.” The sender, who identified themselves as a legal assistant and used a Gmail account, left a number for Anna to call. Anna couldn’t find the sender on Google, but when she searched the phone number, the publicly listed number for Chaudhry’s law firm popped up. She says the email rattled her so much that she told Rolling Stone she could no longer be part of the story. She also abandoned plans to reach out to the DA’s office, which she heard was speaking to other alleged victims. “It felt like a threat,” Anna says. “I pulled back 100 percent from participating in supporting Grace, speaking to the DA, communicating with journalists, all of it.”

Chaudhry says neither she nor anyone from her firm sent that email. When I read it aloud, her husband interjects. “I’d love to see a copy of that email,” he says. “That’s not from us. That’s fucking creepy.” Chaudhry doesn’t seem shaken. “I think that’s like — I hate to use this phrase — but everybody knows the Nigerian prince scam.” After I leave her office, she sends a follow-up email asserting that the message is a fraud aiming to damage her firm, then says she plans to file a criminal complaint against whoever sent it.

The attorney is still fighting hard to clear Majors’s name. She helped arrange his recent appearance on Good Morning America in early January, where he teared up while talking about his conviction and his daughter. The actor also doubled down on a recording played during the trial in which he demands Jabbari be more like Coretta Scott King; the next day, Bernice King appeared to respond by tweeting, “My mother wasn’t a prop.” Chaudhry thought this appearance was a success. It gave viewers a look at the Jonathan she knows: the soft-spoken intellectual and poet who is nothing like the violent characters he portrays onscreen — though Chaudhry acknowledges she’s never watched one of Majors’s movies. “I joke that he’s Meryl Streep’s talent in Muhammad Ali’s body and has Edward Scissorhands’s soul,” she says. “I don’t think anyone had ever seen him like that.”

Majors’s career may now be in tatters, but Chaudhry thinks her defense strategy will attract more clients. “I get these calls because the rest of the world watches and goes, ‘I want my lawyer going out and saying he’s innocent,’” she says. She fixes her gaze on me. If I were ever falsely accused of a crime, she says, “I bet you’d call me.” What makes her so sure? She smirks. “Because you know I would fight for you.”

New York’s Most Ruthless Defense Lawyer