Entertainment law needs constant toil and trial

When new-media litigator Steve Smith interviewed at different law firms back in the early 1990s, he was looking for two things: a firm with an excellent legal reputation and one where he would want to stay and build a career.

“The only way I could figure that out was to meet the people, get a feel for them and think to myself, ‘Are these the type of intelligent, progressive-thinking, nice people I could (work with) every day for my career?'” Smith says.

Of all the firms Smith met with, only Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger met both of his requirements. “It was the favorite place (at which) I interviewed, and I met at least (twice as many) people there as I met at any other firm,” Smith says. “(Partner) Elisabeth Moriarty introduced me not just to the lawyers but the secretaries, paralegals, runners, kitchen staff, everybody.”

Smith’s sentiments toward Greenberg Glusker reflect the goals of founding partner Arthur Greenberg when he established the firm with Phil Glusker and Irving Hill 50 years ago this week. “I had been in practice a few years and felt it was important to practice law with extraordinarily able lawyers and extraordinarily fine human beings,” Greenberg says.

“It’s been an amazing ride, and it’s exceeded my expectations and dreams by many times,” he continues. “We have assembled some very good lawyers and very fine human beings.”

Greenberg’s appraisal seems accurate, albeit modest. His 85-attorney firm, which offers civil law services in real estate, taxation, and a host of other practices in addition to its entertainment-related ones, is as much a Hollywood icon as the people it represents.

Managing partner Norm Levine says Greenberg Glusker first became recognized as a leading entertainment law firm when legendary litigator Bert Fields joined it in 1982.

Since Fields’ arrival, the firm has built what Levine describes as a three-generation practice. It includes attorneys like partner Bob Chapman, who obtained a record $80 million jury verdict for Francis Ford Coppola; transactional whiz Bob Marshall, who represented Tom Cruise in his quest to rebuild United Artists; and younger partners like Bonnie Eskenazi, who partnered with Fields in Katzenberg v. Disney and now is the lead attorney representing the Tolkien Trust in its profit-participation lawsuit against New Line Cinema.

“We’ve always tried to create a full-service environment for our entertainment clients … to provide not just litigation support but almost anything else they need, whether it’s help in acquiring real property, estate planning, employment issues and intellectual property,” Levine says.

At the same time, Greenberg Glusker’s relatively small size and close-knit culture make it a more nimble adversary than the Goliath-sized firms that are overtaking so much of the legal landscape. Eskenazi says Greenberg Glusker’s ability to put forth a united front gave her team an advantage over Disney’s legal team during the Katzenberg case.

“We had seven people working full-time on that case, and we knew everything everybody else was doing,” Eskenazi says. In contrast, the other team “had somewhere between 15 to 20 attorneys. It’s nearly impossible to run a cohesive case when you have that many people.”

Advances in production and distribution technologies, plus the evolution of content, are reshaping the entertainment landscape. Smith has experienced these changes with clients like vidgame publisher Ubisoft.

Recently Smith negotiated Ubisoft’s acquisition of the rights to author Tom Clancy’s name and likeness for motion pictures, related books and other ancillary rights along with their use in future vidgame titles.

“There have been other situations where a videogame property gets licensed to a motion picture company, but this is the first time where the videogame company itself is acquiring the rights from the original (intellectual property) creator for the purpose of creating videogames, motion pictures — everything, especially of this size,” says Smith. “My belief is that Ubisoft will be making motion pictures someday.”

But the key to topnotch legal services remains the same, whether it’s 1959, 2009 or 2059, says managing partner Levine. “It’s being responsive, creative and on the cutting edge — and that’s where we intend to stay.”

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