Power Lawyers 2020: 7 of Hollywood's Legal Legends

6:30 AM 3/27/2020

by THR staff

These attorneys' accomplishments in the industry — from launching Pixar with Steve Jobs to shepherding Taylor Swift's career — have earned them lifetime status on The Hollywood Reporter's list of the industry's top lawyers.

Hollywood's Legal Legends - Illustration by Zohar Lazar - H 2020
Illustration by Zohar Lazar

In 2019 The Hollywood Reporter launched a new feature in Power Lawyers to honor attorneys whose whose career achievements and contributions to the entertainment industry are extraordinary. It's called Legal Legends, and those who are selected retain the title for life. Each year, a handful of attorneys will be inducted. Meet this year's seven new additions.

  • Skip Brittenham

    Two of Skip Brittenham's first actor clients were Harrison Ford and Henry Winkler, and his string of successes has hardly stopped since. The top dealmaker famously helped pioneer the "backend deal" with Winkler as well as early clients Ted Danson and Tom Selleck; he is less known for penning contracts that allowed executive clients — he now represents Kevin Feige, Jim Gianopulos, Toby Emmerich, Dana Walden, Bob Greenblatt and others — to make additional money based on their divisions' performances. (Now, with streaming revolutionizing deals, Brittenham has asked deep-pocketed platforms to buy out clients' backend.) Aside from his individual work with stars and execs, Brittenham helped launch Pixar, working on the company's strategy and deals before it sold to Disney in 1991 and after. "When I started out with Steve Jobs, in the beginning I was mentoring him, and by the end, he was mentoring me in business and various other things. It was a great run," Brittenham says. He helped split DreamWorks into two companies and take the animation side public as well as establish David Ellison's Skydance Media and Chris Meledandri's Illumination Entertainment. Now, outside of his law firm, he has a comic book company, Anomaly Productions, and has written three graphic novels and one YA novel.

  • Jay Cooper

    “My first major client when I was a young pup in this thing was Phil Spector,” says Cooper, a former musician and current all-around arts enthusiast whose legal repertoire includes many other spectacular firsts: His first movie deal was Easy Rider, representing Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, and his first TV show deal was Get Smart. Meanwhile, Cooper’s longstanding clients include Jerry Seinfeld, Katy Perry, John Williams and Mel Brooks, the latter of whom is “brilliant, quick-witted and a trip” according to the lawyer. He also represented the late Rod Temperton, the self-effacing Englishman who penned Michael Jackson hits “Thriller,” “Off the Wall” and “Rock with You.” Ruminating on his career, Cooper says, “I like the variety of things that my clients give me to do,” noting that deal-making today is “totally different” than it used to be. “You’re always learning.”

  • John Frankenheimer

    Frankenheimer has spent decades advising A-list music artists across all genres, from Quincy Jones to Carrie Underwood, as well as hitmaking corporations like Warner Music Group. For longtime client Diana Ross, he helped deliver “one of the best years of her career” in 2019. Frankenheimer represented the iconic singer on numerous deals, including an upcoming remix album of classic songs, an upcoming European tour and a featured artist slot at the 50th anniversary of the Glastonbury Festival in England this June — although that has since been canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. With streaming shaking up the industry, Frankenheimer draws on his decades of experience to look forward. "We’re back to the ’60s," he says. "Everything is hit-driven."

  • Neville Johnson

    Johnson's interest in the law was sparked by watching shows like Perry Mason and The Defenders while growing up. His break in the industry came representing Yoko Ono in the 1980s. The following decade, in a privacy intrusion case that is now taught widely in law schools, he scored a trial victory against ABC for using hidden cameras in a workplace. Almost always representing the underdog, he’s won hundreds of millions of dollars for writers, directors and actors challenging everything from foreign levies collected by guilds to accounting statements from studios. “I am not loved, but I am respected,” he says. “Make sense since I give a lot of work to the defense bar.”

  • Linda Lichter

    Lichter’s love of independent film has driven her career. “I’ve always gravitated toward writer-directors, filmmakers and people who have a particular point of view,” says the attorney, who is married with three children. When she was starting out her career in the '70s, she served as the Independent Film Project’s first lawyer. “I went to Sundance before it was Sundance,” says the rep, who has had clients who've won prizes at the film festival practically every year for a decade. She represented the Coen Brothers on Blood Simple, the producers of Desperately Seeking Susan and River's Edge and the filmmakers of Airplane. She also sold Robocop, worked on Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket and represented Kathryn Bigelow on her first five movies, starring with Near Dark. "I really believed that there was a place for artists in the business and for people who wanted to make movies to change the world," says the rep, who was a founding member of her firm and was one of the first female lawyers to be named partner at an entertainment law outfit. "That's what my focus was back then — and it still is." Today, Lichter works with newer Sundance breakouts Chloe Zhao, who is the first woman to direct a Marvel movie The Eternals, and Niki Caro, who helmed Disney’s live-action Mulan.

  • Don Passman

    A joke often made in reference to Passman is that he literally wrote the book on the music industry. “I wanted to write something that was an easy overview of the business for people who don’t like to read,” says the rep of publishing All You Need to Know About the Music Business, now in its 10th edition. The Texas native grew up with a disc jockey step-father, who instilled a love of music, while his father’s law practice made him recognize his own legal ambitions. Passman would play in bands throughout undergrad and law school, but, by his own admission, he did not think he “could make it as a professional musician. Didn’t have the talent.” But he has helped shepherd the careers of several of music’s biggest names, from Adele and Taylor Swift to Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon. “We get to rewrite all the rules,” says Passman of the mega-deals he has been able to broker over his decades-long career, which has seen the decline of music sales and the rise of streaming. “It’s when people say, ‘This is the way we have always done it and these things are cast in stone.’ [That] is our chance to be innovative.”

  • Marty Singer

    Singer wanted to be a doctor until his father got sick and he realized he couldn’t handle the emotional toll. He was on track to become an engineer until he realized that being good at math and science wasn’t everything. Instead, he eventually landed in law and became one of the most famous attorneys in the country by appearing on television (he represented Jean-Claude Van Damme in CourtTV’s first trial after O.J. Simpson) and aggressively representing celebrities including Tom Cruise, Charlie Sheen and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Still, one can hardly say Singer’s career amounted to a well-executed plan. “I still don’t consider myself to be an entertainment lawyer. I wanted to be a tax lawyer.”

  • Legends Honor Roll

    This year’s inductees join THR’s inaugural class of legendary lawyers: Jake Bloom, John Branca, John Burke, Melanie Cook, Bert Fields, Patricia Glaser, Allen Grubman, Tom Hansen, Barry Hirsch, Jim Jackoway, Ken Kleinberg, Sky Moore, Lee Phillips, Bruce Ramer, Larry Stein, Howard Weitzman and Ken Ziffren

    A version of this story first appeared in the March 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.