The Art of the Entertainment Lawyer

We were sitting in a restaurant in downtown Los Angeles when news broke that Michael Jackson had been taken to the hospital. A waiter at Engine Company 28 quickly told us that he was actually dead – something CNN would not announce for nearly two hours. (TMZ would, but it wasn’t on the television.) The waiter knew because a member of the evening waitstaff knew the family and had called in to say she wouldn’t be in because Michael Jackson had died.

L.A. is that kind of town. Particularly its legal community, and really especially those very very few lawyers who represent Hollywood. By small, we mean there are really 20 power players in Hollywood, max, and five or six is really probably more honest. They all know one another, have for years. And unlike what you believe when you move to LA to represent ‘Hollywood’, they don’t go ga-ga over the stars and aren’t sucked in by the glamour. The business of Hollywood is business. They know how to represent entertainers without getting captivated with outsize personalities who play to an audience of untold millions.

John Branca is a perfect case in point. He is a sensational lawyer and business person. The Ziffren Brittenham partner is a legend in Los Angeles, where he has reigned for 30 years as the go-to music lawyer. Among other things he has represented 29 acts admitted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. and While he started out with a love of music, starting a band at 13-years-old, he went on to get trained at dusty L.A. firm Kindel & Anderson as an estate planner/corporate lawyer. The passion for music and skills in business combined to make him a legend, recently as co-executor of Michael Jackson’s estate.

Branca’s clients include The Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, The Beach Boys, The Doors, Berry Gordy, Dick Clark, Vivendi, Matushita and Richard Branson.

No surprise and probably a stroke of luck that Branca was re-hired by Jackson three weeks ago and as executor will  turn a hard eye to capturing maximum value for the Jackson estate with co-executor John McClain.

And then there’s Howard Weitzman of Kinsella Weitzman, the lawyer for Michael Jackson’s co-executors (including Branca). You know the Kevin Bacon game, in which he’s appeared with literally everyone in a film? For lawyers here, that’s Howard.

If you do not know Howard or know someone who’s been represented by Howard, you don’t know anyone. He has represented John DeLorean, Marlon Brando, Magic Johnson, Michael Jackson, OJ Simpson, Courtney Love and Arnold Schwarzenegger. So when he showed up at the courthouse with Branca, it was a charming whiff of old Hollywood. These guys know each other, trust each other and if you’re not in, you’re out.

(I learned this lesson early on as a journalist when I went to lunch with Weitzman at a chic restaurant on Melrose owned by the ex-wife of Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s songwriting partner. The food was great, the service divine. I went back with a friend a month later and grew old waiting for a table. We met again a few years back at The Grill and he again demonstrated that he quite literally knows everyone. A criminal defense lawyer by training, he pointed out a guy who had been accused of drug dealing whom he had helped out in the day. Weitzman was, after all, the lawyer who invented the courthouse-steps interview when he successfully defended John DeLorean against charges of drug dealing. A good trick given that he was shown on tape with a briefcase of coke.)

L. Londell McMillan is representing Katherine Jackson, Michael’s mother, in the estate contest. He is the head of Dewey & LeBoeuf’s entertainment, media and sports group, based in New York. He also has an all-star cast of clients, including Prince, Stevie Wonder, Kanye West, Spike Lee, The Discovery Channel and the New York Times. 

Joel Katz of Greenberg Traurig in Atlanta, is Weitzman’s co-counsel to the executors;

L.A.’s Hoffman, Sabban & Watenmaker are probate counsel for the estate, specifically probate specialists Gordon Hoffman, Alan Watenmaker and Jeryll Cohen. 

We’ll post more about legal developments as they transpire. However, as Weitzman said yesterday, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the Jackson family this week in remembering Michael as a beloved father, son and brother, and as the world honors his remarkable legacy as an artist.”

We thought about that this morning as we looked out over Staples Center. Fans surrounded the stadium, those with the lucky golden tickets were let through massive security, and the cortege arrived with at least eight helicopters overhead.  

Only in L.A. Plenty of time for estate battles later.


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