SAN FRANCISCO -- Unable to pay her lawyers in an Arizona fraud lawsuit, Elizabeth Holmes is defending herself by ... phone.
The former chief executive of Theranos Inc., who lives in California, appears regularly in San Jose federal court with a team of high-caliber lawyers as her criminal case over the blood-testing startup's implosion moves toward a trial this year.
In a less closely watched civil suit in Phoenix, Holmes dialed into an audio feed for an important hearing Thursday without a lawyer, telling the judge she wouldn't make any arguments, according to an attorney at the proceeding who declined to be identified discussing sensitive matters.
Her lawyers in the Arizona case quit in September, saying she hasn't paid them, and it's highly unusual for a defendant of Holmes's stature in such a suit to not be represented by an attorney, prompting some speculation on her financial situation.
Following the spectacular collapse of her company, she agreed to a $500,000 fine to resolve a civil case brought by federal securities regulators and also settled an investor suit for an undisclosed sum, on top of whatever legal fees she had to pay that weren't covered by Theranos' corporate insurance.
Holmes is probably marshaling her resources for the criminal case, said Bill Portanova, a former prosecutor turned defense lawyer who isn't involved in any Theranos litigation.
"If there's only so much money to go around, staying out of prison is always priority number one, period," Portanova said. "Lawsuits seek only money, not imprisonment."
Holmes, whose net worth was estimated at $4.5 billion before Theranos cratered, hasn't publicly disclosed any financial hardship. But lawyer John C. Dwyer, a partner at Cooley in Palo Alto, California, said he was concerned about her finances when he gave notice to the Arizona court that his firm was withdrawing after representing her for almost three years.
"Ms. Holmes has not paid Cooley for any of its work as her counsel of record in this action for more than a year," Dwyer wrote in the court filing. "Given Ms. Holmes's current financial situation, Cooley has no expectation that Ms. Holmes will ever pay it for its services as her counsel."
Dwyer and lawyers at Williams & Connolly, which is representing Holmes in the criminal case, didn't respond to emails and phone calls seeking comment.