Hollywood's Troubleshooters: Top 20 Lawyers for Divorces, Plea Deals and Death Plans

7:00 AM 12/6/2018

by Edited by Ashley Cullins

When stars call with a pressing problem, these unsung legal heroes on The Hollywood Reporter's second annual list answer.

THR-Illustration by Lars Leetaru-H-2018
Lars Leetaru

Talent lawyers behind blockbuster contracts often get the glory, but some of the most important negotiations in the industry are the ones no one ever hears about — the criminal charges that weren't filed, the custody battle that didn't make it to the courtroom or the estate plan that didn't leave heirs battling over their dead relative's cash. Thank the Troubleshooters, a group of lawyers tasked with solving Hollywood's problems and, more importantly, keeping its secrets. Using public records and private whispers, THR compiled its second annual list of these unsung heroes and got their insights on the work.

Profiles written by Ashley Cullins, Natalie Jarvey, Katie Kilkenny and Jonathan Gordon

  • Blair Berk


    "Privacy as we once understood it is certainly gone," says Berk, a go-to criminal attorney for high-profile clients like Sylvester Stallone, Ed Westwick and Heather Locklear. “But some of the most effective and important work we do is before any charges are ever filed, and often no one ever knows about it.” Further complicating matters for the Harvard Law grad is the rate at which information spreads online and the expectation from the public that stars will tweet a response when they’ve been accused of a crime. Says Berk, "The immediacy and direct-to-audience nature of social media have greatly increased both the pressure to say something quickly and the likelihood that what is said too quickly ends up being cringeworthy and awful."

    Biggest negotiation pet peeve "Extortion."

    Fictional character who would be your arch nemesis "Victor Hugo’s Inspector Javert [from Les Miserables.]"

    Least favorite part of the holiday season "Cleaning the little wax bits left from last year out of the menorah. Res ipsa loquitur."

  • Roy Black


    The Miami-based defense lawyer to the uberwealthy found himself in a situation befitting a John le Carre novel this year when he flew to London to depose ex-British intelligence officer Christopher Steele on behalf of BuzzFeed News, which was sued by a Russian entrepreneur following its decision to publish the infamous Donald Trump dossier. "It was a very unusual proceeding to say the least," says Black, who has represented reclusive Marvel chairman Ike Perlmutter and Justin Bieber. The biggest takeaway from his four decades as a criminal defense lawyer to the uberwealthy, he says, is that “it’s nice being rich.”

    Favorite part of the holiday season "I have a house in L.A., and we always go out there for the holidays. We just spent Thanksgiving there."

    I check my email ... "Three minutes after waking up and 60 minutes before going to sleep."

  • Samantha Bley DeJean


    Bley DeJean kept a relatively low profile in the media until August, when news broke that she was hired by Angelina Jolie in the star's custody battle with Brad Pitt. But while a Google search of Bley's name now predominantly associates her with the Mr. and Mrs. Smith stars, the San Francisco-based lawyer is a relative outsider to tabloid-magnet celebrity divorces. Her family's practice predominantly handles high-net-worth individuals in technology or financial services, giving her a unique view of the role hard-to-trace cryptocurrency is now playing in divorces. Says Bley DeJean, "It's the new Cayman Islands."

    Fictional character who would be your arch nemesis "Cruella de Vil."

    Go-to lunch order “The cowboy salad from Mixt Greens.”

    Least favorite part of the holiday season “That they continue to start playing Christmas music earlier and earlier. I think this year it actually started before Halloween.”

  • Benjamin Brafman


    "Everyone who's not in a coma is aware of the fact that I'm representing Harvey Weinstein," says Brafman, who already has persuaded the Manhattan District Attorney's Office to drop one charge against his client and end its investigation into financial crimes. "All I can say is, 'Stay tuned,' " he says. The New Yorker has been a defense attorney for four decades but shows no signs of slowing down. His days often start before 6 a.m. and end after midnight — and the high-profile cases involve managing smart, successful clients who aren’t used to not being in control of a situation. “It’s not easy because you have the whole world watching you and discussing every legal move you make,” says Brafman. “Unlike Law and Order, we don’t get to write the facts. We get handed the facts and we have to deal with them.”

    Favorite part of the holiday season "People are generally much nicer to each other."

    Biggest negotiation pet peeve "I’m always negotiating with the government. It’s not a normal adversary. They have unlimited resources and unlimited personnel to throw at the case. I’m always dealing with prosecutors who are younger than my children, and yet they have enormous power."

  • Bernard Clair & Dan Rottenstreich


    After the Weinstein scandal broke, inquiring minds wondered if Georgina Chapman would divorce him. She did, quickly and quietly, thanks to the work of Clair and Rottenstreich, who notes, "If we had a court appearance, it would have been a zoo." Their firm has long repped Manhattan's elite, including two of Trump's ex-wives, former NYC first lady Judith Giuliani and billionaire developer Harry Macklowe. Clair says his most gratifying moments come when a divorce is settled but “nobody knows the parties have even gone their separate ways until somebody on the red carpet notices they’re not wearing their ring.”

    I check my email …

    Clair: "Immediately upon waking up, and it's the last thing I do at night. I can’t help myself, but I really try. I like to escape in my mind to those times when the answering service was an invasion of your weekend."

    Rottenstreich: "Probably five minutes after waking up and five minutes before going to sleep — could be two."

    Go-to lunch order

    Clair: "Sitting at my desk with lentil soup."

    Rottenstreich: "Cavatelli at Crave Fish Bar."

  • Bradford Cohen & Burton Mitchell


    Cohen and Mitchell, who rep A-listers across TV, film and music, are making sure their clients cash in on the new Trump tax law — before it potentially changes again. "There are massive deductions built into this thing for corporations," says Cohen. "A client bought a jet and can deduct the whole jet." When it comes to planning for death, Mitchell says the key to dodging a fight is avoiding ambiguity. “People have to spend a lot of time on the unsexy part of this business, which is drafting efficient, clear documents,” he says. If you’re worth $10 million and want to give an heir 10 percent, for example, that could lead to a dispute over asset valuations. “Whereas if you just said ‘Give him $1 million,’ there’s nothing to talk about.”

    Fictional character who would be your arch nemesis

    Cohen: "Jesus. Perfection is not all that it is cracked up to be."

    Mitchell: "Voldemort."

    My go-to lunch order

    Cohen: “My adversary — tastes like chicken.”

    Mitchell: Something off the specials menu at Tuscanova in Century City. I get a table outside in the corner, where you can actually have lunch with someone and communicate.

  • Drew Findling


    After more than three decades working with Atlanta's biggest music artists, including Gucci Mane, Migos and Young Thug, Findling feels like he represents the city itself. "These folks don't want you to be fans," he says, adding that his clients don’t want a lawyer who’s “enamored with them because of what they do.” Findling has also repped Dennis Rodman, Shaquille O'Neal and comedian Katt Williams and serves as president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, a platform he's using to raise awareness of issues like racism in the justice system.

    Go-to lunch order "No lunch. At 3, I get two bags of SkinnyPop and water and later say, 'I can't believe I forgot to eat lunch!'

    Favorite part of the holiday season “When my wife and I have our entire family together. My least favorite part is everybody going back to school and leaving us.”

  • Mark Geragos


    "In the early days, I was strictly criminal defense," says Geragos, who's repped stars like Chris Brown and Michael Jackson. "Now that role has expanded dramatically." He's most recently been linked to Stormy Daniels' attorney and would-be politician Michael Avenatti, who was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence. While Geragos says talking to the press is part of a lawyer’s job now, he advises his clients to think carefully before sounding off on social media. “You can’t fight every battle,” he says. “Sometimes the best advice you can give your client is to keep your head down and wait until the next guy makes a bad move.” Geragos also is taking on the NFL on behalf of Colin Kaepernick, is involved with the investigation into actress Kim Porter's unexpected death and is suing the founders of the botched Fyre Festival.

  • Neal Hersh & Joseph Mannis


    The Beverly Hills-based lawyers, who have repped the likes of Halle Berry and Tim Burton, each recently added yet another celebrity split to their docket, with Hersh representing Avenatti's ex, Lisa Storie Avenatti, and Mannis being brought onto Jolie's team in her divorce from Pitt. Despite his experience, Mannis still finds it difficult to "get clients who have heard too much 'yes' in their life to understand a lawyer's job includes saying 'no.' " But Hersh says it’s not always the biggest names that bring the most challenging cases. “It [can be] more strenuous representing middle-income people because every penny counts.”

    Fictional character who would be your arch nemesis 

    Hersh: "Moriarty from Sherlock Holmes."

    Go-to lunch order

    Mannis: "Chopped salad, but I really wish it were a cheeseburger!"

  • Shawn Holley


    In May, Holley joined client Kim Kardashian West at the White House to petition Trump to pardon Alice Marie Johnson, a 63-year-old woman serving a life sentence for drug offenses. The Johnnie Cochran protege learned that Johnson would be released from prison while she was trying a case on behalf of another client, Reggie Bush, who sued the St. Louis Rams over a knee injury that he suffered in the team’s stadium. The NFL running back was awarded $12.5 million in damages. But the bulk of her year was spent back home in Los Angeles representing unnamed high-profile men accused of sexual misconduct. Notes Holley, "In every instance, I believe that my client didn't do what was being alleged."

    Go-to lunch order "A cheeseburger (with the works, add avocado), fries and a sparkling water with lemon."

    I check my email ... "One minute after waking up and one minute before checking my Instagram and going to sleep."

    Fictional character who would be your arch nemesis “Goliath. I like being David when Goliath is the government. I like to stand up for the little guy.”

  • Samantha Klein & Laura Wasser


    Wasser is one of the most respected divorce lawyers in the business, and Klein's star is on the rise. The two recently represented Mom star Anna Faris in her split from Chris Pratt and also have advised A-listers including Johnny Depp, Rob Kardashian and Jennifer Garner. Klein says she has seen an increase in couples who are collaborating in their divorces, but she's also seeing a troubling trend: more requests for domestic violence restraining orders. “It was never a big part of the practice in our firm, but it has become increasingly prevalent,” Klein says. Meanwhile, Wasser says another challenge is the backlogged court system. “If you have somebody on the other side who really is not interested in resolving things amicably, you run into a situation where you’re waiting downtown all day, charging your client large amounts per hour to just sit around,” she says. “And sometimes you get sent home because the judge doesn't have time for your case."

    Biggest negotiation pet peeve 

    Klein: "Bullies — physical bullies or verbal bullies. I just think it’s so unprofessional, frankly, and it doesn’t accomplish anything. I think it’s unfortunate, actually, that there are people practicing out there who still think that it’s a good negotiation tactic."

    Wasser: "Ultimatums."

    Favorite part of the holiday season

    Klein: "White lights everywhere — it’s beautiful and can make the ugliest tree on the planet look beautiful — and I love that it gives families time to be together and slow down."

    Wasser: "In my profession, things actually do calm down. Not that many people are raring to get divorced between Thanksgiving and New Year's. So I actually do get a little bit of downtime and travel with my kids, which is great."

  • Alfred Morici


    While many big-name celebrities like Aretha Franklin and Prince have made headlines for dying without a will, Smokey and the Bandit star Burt Reynolds left one that grabbed attention for another reason: It excludes his only son, Quentin. When the actor died of a heart attack in September, it was revealed he left his niece in charge of his estate, and it’s Palm Beach, Florida-based Morici who witnessed it. Reynolds’ will explains that he intentionally omitted his son because he provided for him in his declaration of trust. The trust document is much less likely to become public than a will, which can be priceless for a grieving Hollywood family. 

  • Martin Neumann & Robert Strauss


    When trust broke down between Stan Lee and several members of his inner circle, the comic book legend turned to Weinstock Manion to review his estate planning documents. Other than a mention in a legal dispute unrelated to their work, not much of what Neumann, Strauss and their colleagues do for the Hollywood set ends up public. Strauss describes their clients as wealthy people in front of and behind the camera, including Academy Award-winning actors and a number of “extremely successful producers and directors” for whom they spend a lot of time designing estate plans that minimize tax burdens. When discussing mortality, Neumann says it's important to be empathetic. "I try to approach it with humor to let them know I’m not a pencil pusher," he says. "I'm not going to overwhelm them with numbers and speak in a monotone about their death."

    Go-to lunch order 

    Neumann: "Really boring — Chinese chicken salad with dressing on the side."

    Strauss: "Grilled salmon with sauteed spinach on the side."

    Biggest negotiation pet peeve

    Neumann: "It’s absolutely amazing that nobody can be as logical or as reasonable as I am!"

    Strauss: "A client arguing that another attorney can do 'it' for less when I know for sure the other attorney does not even know how to do 'it.' No matter what 'it' might be."

  • Judith Poller


    New York-based Poller, whose star clients have included Scarlett Johansson and Drew Barrymore, says she decided to become a lawyer while volunteering with domestic violence victims in college. “I thought if I had a legal degree I might be able to do more to help them,” says Poller, who now serves as co-chair of Pryor Cashman’s Family Law Group. She says having the support of other advisors like therapists and business managers makes a divorce run more smoothly, but it’s still tough to get people who are going through an emotional time to make rational decisions. "It amazes me that people spend a lot of money for my time and yet they don't want to listen to what I say," she says, adding that it pays off when she runs into clients later and sees "how well they're doing and how happy they are."

    Fictional character who would be your arch nemesis "The Joker."

    Favorite part of the holiday season "I love cooking during it. Even though I was raised Jewish and brought my kids up Jewish, I now have an Italian mate and we prepare the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve for 28 people. And my children love the joys of Christmas morning and opening presents."

  • Kristina Royce


    After working in a Brentwood boutique firm for 20 years, Royce is moving her practice to national shop Blank Rome in January. Court dockets link the married mother of three to actors including Channing Tatum and Jeff Garlin as well as model Gabriel Aubry, but she stays mum about her clients — and she encourages them to do the same. "Less publicity is the best publicity," she notes, especially when there are children involved. "The kids are going to go on the internet at some point and see what is said." That attitude won’t change at her new firm, and neither will her laid-back style. “I’m meeting with one of my clients, and I’m wearing jeans, cowboy boots and a funky top,” she says. “I’m not the blue-suit kind of person.”

    Go-to lunch order "Coral Tree Cafe, kale salad."

    I check my email ... "Within minutes (more like seconds) of waking up and within minutes before going to sleep. Ugh!"

  • Samantha Spector


    Spector, whose notable clients include Jenna Dewan and Amber Heard, says the biggest challenge in her job in 2018 is helping stars navigate sites like Twitter and Instagram during their splits. “You have to stay true to who you are, but you have to be cautious about what message you’re broadcasting to everyone on social media,” she says. "I encourage them not to highlight their personal lives online and to use it instead as a vehicle for their brands." No matter how much technology changes our daily lives, Spector still gives age-old advice: "Treat everyone fairly, and you'll be treated fairly yourself."

    Biggest negotiation pet peeve "Piecemealing a deal together rather than looking at the big picture."

    Go-to lunch order "Anything from Nobu."

  • Lance Spiegel


    Most everyone knows that Spiegel is representing Brad Pitt in his divorce from Angelina Jolie, but that doesn't mean the Beverly Hills-based lawyer is going to talk about it — other than to say, “It’s been my focus over the past year.” Spiegel will talk about a trend he's seeing: an increase in couples, like Jolie and Pitt, who are turning to private judges to handle their splits. "A lot of times when I bring it up, a client will ask, 'How much is that going to cost me?'" he says. "That's the wrong question. It's, 'How much will it save me?'" The answer is a lot of time and money, Spiegel says, noting that a divorce In L.A. County court can take two years while a private judge can resolve the matter in six to nine months.

    Fictional character who would be your arch nemesis "Inspector Javert from Les Miserables."

    Go-to lunch order "Chopped salad from La Scala."

    Least favorite part of the holiday season "Being in a courtroom in December, because normally the most bitter of the bitter find themselves in front of a judge in December."

  • Gabrielle Vidal


    Vidal has been at the center of public estate battles — like the one she's fighting on behalf of 95-year-old Sumner Redstone — for nearly 20 years, earning her the nickname "The Calm the F— Down Fairy." Despite a client list that attracts attention and includes Buzz Aldrin's family and co-trustees of the Brad Grey estate, she says you won't find her "doing press conferences from the courthouse steps." After all, it wasn’t the glitz that drew her to trusts and estates litigation, it was the psychology involved with guiding families through deeply personal disputes over wealth. Says Vidal, “Whether the courtroom is empty or filled with reporters, my only focus is advocating for my clients.”

    Favorite part of the holiday season "Spending time with my family on a mountain with limited cell reception."

    Biggest negotiation pet peeve "Liars."

    Go-to lunch order "When I am in trial, my go-to lunch is a Green-tastic smoothie from Kreation. When I am not in trial, yuzu anything or a power PB&J."

  • William Zabel


    When Matt Lauer sought a rich exit package after he was fired by NBC in November 2017, he turned to Zabel, an expert in preserving wealth. The attorney to George Soros and Howard Stern has made headlines for securing the largest civil forfeiture in U.S. history on behalf of a former Bernie Madoff client and for advising Wendi Deng in her divorce from Rupert Murdoch. While he’s often associated with tax and estate planning for America’s elite, Zabel has a history of putting his professional skills to work in fighting for civil rights, too. He wrote the amicus brief on behalf of the ACLU for the landmark 1967 Loving v. Virginia, worked as a volunteer civil rights lawyer in Mississippi in the 1960s and currently serves as board co-chair to the nonprofit Human Rights First.

  • Laura Zwicker


    "Being a lawyer requires a psychology degree," says Zwicker of her work helping ultra-high-net-worth clients (who, others tell THR, include several Hollywood billionaires) navigate what will happen to their money after they die. Zwicker didn't heed her own advice and earned a degree in history before graduating from Indiana University School of Law, but she has spent much of the last year in the counseling chair anyway. She's been helping nonresident clients navigate issues like pre-immigration planning and international taxes.

    Least favorite part of the holiday season "When a client calls you and wants to update their estate plan because they're getting on a plane tomorrow."

    Biggest negotiation pet peeve “I don’t do a lot of contentious work but I don't like it when people hide the ball. I prefer when people are straightforward.” 

    A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.