Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger’s litigation department has spent years attempting to sever its dependence on the firm’s superstar rainmaker, Bertram Fields.
That effort is starting to pay off.
Two partners at the firm, Bonnie Eskenazi and Robert Chapman, scored significant victories in court for Greenberg Glusker during the past year. Eskenazi represented the heirs to the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, in a $150 million profit-participation action against New Line Cinema Corp., now owned by Time Warner Inc. Chapman obtained a nearly $105 million verdict for the city of New York in a trial against Exxon Mobil Corp.
The Tolkien heirs and the city of New York are among several clients who have come to the firm independently of Fields, who just turned 81.
"When the talents think of a law firm to call, they think of our firm," said Stephen Smith, a litigation partner. "They don’t think of just Bert. They think of the firm as a whole now."
Founded in 1959 as a real estate firm, Greenberg Glusker began handling entertainment litigation after Fields joined in 1982. Fields represents some of the entertainment industry’s top talent, including Tom Cruise, James Cameron and Jeffrey Katzenberg, as well as several studios. He has handled some of the industry’s biggest cases, including writer Art Buchwald’s 1990 dispute with Paramount Pictures Corp. over the film Coming to America — a case that changed the way studios calculate film profits.
But the 75-lawyer firm’s reliance on Fields, and his clients, is diminishing.
"The percentage of the firm’s business that is represented by Bert’s clients has dropped dramatically over 10 to 15 years," Smith said. "Sixteen years ago, it would’ve been a serious problem if he walked out the door."
Eskenazi and Smith pointed to new clients they have picked up, such as Marvel Entertainment Inc. and video game developer Ubisoft Entertainment S.A. Fields remains the highest-billing attorney at the firm, but many of his clients have transitioned to other lawyers there.
"Do I expect him to slow down eventually? Yes, but I don’t know when that’s going to be," Eskenazi said. Meanwhile, "there are younger people at the firm building up a client base in the entertainment industry separate and apart from Bert."
The entertainment industry still makes up 80% of the firm’s litigation work. In the Tolkien case, the heirs to his estate sought compensation for the The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, which made nearly $6 billion worldwide. The case, which had threatened to stall two films based on The Hobbit, settled confidentially one month before an October trial.
"When it comes to the Tolkiens, the studios didn’t have any moral or ethical problems with literally paying these people zero. Not a dime," said Eskenazi, who was referred by a British firm that represents Tolkien’s heirs.
Mark Helm, a partner at Munger, Tolles & Olson in Los Angeles who represents New Line Cinema, did not return a call for comment.
The environmental litigation in New York grew out of dozens of cases filed against Exxon Mobil over the contamination of water sources by MTBE, a gasoline additive.
The case, which was the first to go to trial, involved about a dozen defendants accused of polluting the groundwater in Queens, N.Y. Most of the other defendants settled. On Oct. 19, a jury found for New York City, which had asked for $250 million in damages. Under New York law, the jury found Exxon Mobil 40% liable, which lowered the damages to about $105 million.
The case was unusual for Chapman, who represents many of Fields’ clients, including Jerry Bruckheimer, producer of TV’s CSI franchise, and Joel Silver, producer of The Matrix. He acknowledged that he had to familiarize himself with environmental law, but said he was hired for his trial expertise. "I’ve probably tried 100 cases. So it was somewhat unusual, but a jury trial is a jury trial."
The lawyer who brought him into the case, Victor Sher, a principal at Sher Leff, a San Francisco firm that specializes in water contamination litigation, agreed. "I knew the environmental law aspects of this and the liability case that we were trying. And Bob knows federal jury trials," Sher said.
Exxon Mobil has since filed post-trial motions seeking to reverse the damages award. In an e-mailed statement, a lawyer for Exxon Mobil, Anthony Bongiorno, a partner in the Boston office of McDermott Will & Emery, said the jury did not reach a finding of a design defect or failure to warn against his client. "We have great confidence in the merits of our case as it moves forward," he said.
Greenberg Glusker still relies on Fields for one of its biggest cases. Fields and partner Elisabeth Moriarty represent author Clive Cussler in a case alleging that billionaire Philip Anschutz reneged on his contract for the 2005 movie Sahara, based on his novel. Anschutz countersued, claiming that Cussler inflated book sales to lure him into paying for the film.
In 2007, a jury in Los Angeles awarded a split verdict that included $5 million to Anschutz’s company, Crusader Entertainment LLC, now called Bristol Bay Productions LLC. In March, California’s 2d District Court of Appeal reversed the $5 million award. Both sides have appealed the decision to the California Supreme Court.
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