Many sunday mornings, a certain L.A. lawyer and his wife set forth on their ritual four-hour walk across the city. The walk takes them from Hollywood Hills to Chinatown, along posh streets and poor ones, from blocks where Spanish is the prevalent tongue to those where Cantonese presides. Bertram Fields '52 savors these leisurely Sunday views of his native city, because the rest of the week he puts in 14-hour days at his Century City law offices.
There's no attorney better known in the entertainment industry than Bert Fields, a litigator and partner of Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger LLP. In fact, Fields has frequently appeared in the national media over the years, including a flattering profile in Vanity Fair, an unusual venue for a Harvard-trained lawyer.
Fields's fame is partly due to his celebrity clients: actors Tom Cruise, Dustin Hoffman, and John Travolta, directors James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, and actor-director Warren Beatty among them. But his reputation as a legendary litigator is based on stellar performances in the courtroom and at the negotiating table, in high-profile cases often involving huge sums of Hollywood money. He is also famous as the lawyer able to argue any side of the issue, for any industry party, and win-representing a studio in one case, suing a studio in another case, representing a director's right to "final cut" of a film in one case, representing the studio determined to wrest control of this right from the director in another.
And Fields's clients aren't confined to entertainment. During his "checkered career," as he calls it, he has also represented cotton farmers in Arizona, a big Nevada hotel, a Japanese bank in Nicaragua before the revolution, and a Latin American satellite communications conglomerate.
The native Californian's L.A. once is paneled in dark wood, full of antiques and leather furnishings suggesting a quiet corner in a British club or a Harvard reading room back east. The occupant's character is reflected in personal treasures, such as the statue of the famous bullfighter Manolete, who was egged on by the crowd to get closer and closer to the bull, till he was gored and killed. To Fields, who has been to a few bullfights himself, the image of closing in on "the horns of the bull" has become a personal metaphor for legal daring.
Recently, Fields was embroiled in a tough case that intrigued moviegoers and non-moviegoers alike. He represented director Steven Spielberg and the studio DreamWorks SKG in a $10 million lawsuit filed by an author who claimed the screenplay for Amistad, Spielberg's 1997 film about an 1839 African slave revolt, plagiarized from her historical novel Echo of Lions. In December, the author lost her bid to block the film's release. Defending Spielberg and his film, Fields contended that the author was trying to "own" a piece of American history. "It has been a very hard-fought case," he acknowledged, praising his legal opponent Pierce O'Donnell, the author's attorney. (As the Bulletin went to press, the author withdrew her suit.)
In fact, Fields hopes that he and O'Donnell will have the opportunity to come to Harvard Law School in the future, to argue for the benefit of students another famous case they faced o› on, Buchwald v. Paramount Pictures Corp., in which humorist Art Buchwald sued Paramount over the movie Coming to America, starring Eddie Murphy, which Buchwald claimed plagiarized a treatment he had submitted to the studio. Fields did not try the case; but when Buchwald won, Paramount appealed and hired Fields. After the briefs were filed, the case was settled.
Fields is also representing Jeffrey Katzenberg, a partner of DreamWorks studio, in his $250 million lawsuit against The Walt Disney Co. Katzenberg, a former Disney executive, claims he is owed profits from movies he helped develop before leaving Disney. That case is pending. And Fields recently faced o› against Disney and its legal team in another case. He represented MGM, which sued Disney to gain back theme park rights in Europe, claiming Disney had not fulfilled contract obligations in their joint venture, resulting in loss of profits for MGM. Fields won a unanimous jury verdict in that case.
When a case goes to trial, Fields likens the courtroom experience to theater. "You have a captive audience. The high drama of waiting to hear the jury foreman read the verdict. It's win or lose every time, and the thrill of winning is tremendous." The flip side, defeat, is unfamiliar to him. Fields can recall only one time early in his career, in 1957, when he aided a more senior attorney in a losing effort, and a tax case in the early 60s, when he was unable to turn over an administrative ruling. Except for those, "I have not lost a trial."
Fields also works on transactions and finds deal-making refreshing after a hard-hitting trial. At present he is negotiating contracts for actor Tom Cruise and directors James Cameron and Mike Nichols. He spends about one-third of his time in New York City, noting that as his clients have risen in their careers, "they have more connections to New York because they're moving increasingly in the financial world."
Yet the consummate lawyer was once a young UCLA undergraduate, uncertain of his future, with a surgeon father urging him to pursue a medical career. Then Fields took some college aptitude tests, which indicated "that under no circumstances should I consider becoming a doctor." The tests pointed instead to law. "I didn't know a single lawyer," says Fields, "and I had no idea what they do. I went ahead and applied to law school anyway." He was thrilled when Harvard Law School accepted him. At first, he struggled with his studies. "I didn't understand the process. I didn't know why we were reading all these dumb cases." His tenacity paid o›, though, and he surprised himself by winning a spot on the Harvard Law Review and graduating magna cum laude.
After graduation, Fields considered practicing in Washington, D.C. During the Korean War he joined the Air Force Judge Advocate General's Corps and tried "hundreds of courts-martial, two or three a day. I thought I was a red-hot litigator." He found JAG service excellent training and fiercely competitive.
In the end, Fields chose to return to California. He started out in a small L.A. firm, taking any case anyone would entrust to him. Although he had little knowledge of the entertainment industry, he began to do some trial work for young actors and writers, who eventually had him negotiating their contracts. His first big-name client was actor Jack Webb, of "Dragnet" fame.
Over the years, the small firm in which Fields started out has changed names a few times, merging in 1982 to become Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger, one of the premier entertainment law firms. The industry in which Fields practices has also grown and changed. For one thing, he says, the cost of making movies has become staggering, such as $200 million for Titanic, directed by his client James Cameron. And during the last decade, profits from international distribution of American films have exceeded domestic, a fact Fields says the industry itself hasn't fully absorbed.
Fields recalls an important lesson he learned from HLS Professor W. Barton Leach '24. "Leach devoted the first week to teaching us the doctrine of adverse possession." He then asked the class whether anyone took issue with what they had heard. "When nobody disagreed, he said, 'None of you will succeed as lawyers. I will now present the argument I would make for the other side.' He proceeded to demolish everything we'd learned so far." Leach's student went on to use this lesson in his career. When Paramount told director Warren Beatty to cut four minutes from his movie Reds, so the film could be sold to ABC, Beatty refused. "I argued that the director's right of final cut is inviolate," says Fields, who represented Beatty. He won the case, establishing a legal standard.
But Fields soon found himself arguing the opposite position. When director Michael Cimino's film The Sicilian ran long and the studio ordered him to cut it, Cimino retaliated. "He took out every action scene in the picture," marvels Fields, who represented the studio and producer in this case. "Cimino's lawyer argued that I had established the inviolate right of final cut, in Beatty v. Paramount. This rather embarrassed me, but I argued that Cimino's second cut was not a bona fide final cut. The first one, which he spent five months making, was the final cut, not the one he did overnight, in anger." Fields won that case too.
In his scarce spare time, Fields has written two best-selling novels starring a hotshot Hollywood lawyer, Harry Cain, which he penned under the pseudonym D. Kincaid. After his 92-year-old father read his son's latest "sex trash novel," says Fields, "he said to me, 'Well, son, this is fine, but when are you going to do something serious with your life?'" This challenged Fields to undertake a nonfiction work, Royal Blood: Richard III and the Mystery of the Princes, which HarperCollins will publish in the fall.
Fields has lived for 40 years in the same home in West Hollywood, overlooking the city. While he loves California, he credits Harvard Law School "with changing me from a surfer kid to a person interested in many pursuits. It's hard to imagine what my life would have been like if I'd stayed west, and gone to Stanford Law or Boalt Hall instead. After 14-hour days of studying and working on the Harvard Law Review, no challenge has ever seemed too diffcult." -- Julia Collins