There is no one in Hollywood—indeed, throughout the entire entertainment industry—who doesn’t know the name Bert Fields.
A self-described “kid from the beach in California” when he matriculated at Harvard Law School in 1949, Fields has established himself over the past six decades as one of the nation’s most renowned and successful entertainment lawyers. His star-studded roster of clients includes the Beatles, Tom Cruise, Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman, and James Cameron, as well as DreamWorks, MGM, United Artists, and the Weinstein Company. He’s represented such major authors as Mario Puzo, James Clavell, Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, and Richard Bach, as well as Arizona cotton farmers, Las Vegas hotels and casinos, clothing designers, boxing promoters, and a Japanese bank.
A former editor of the Harvard Law Review, Fields speaks each year to HLS students in entertainment law classes, and he teaches entertainment law at Stanford Law School. He is the author, under a pseudonym, of two novels, and has written two nonfiction books under his name, a work on Richard III and an analysis of the Shakespeare authorship question, both published by ReganBooks/HarperCollins. He has been profiled in The New Yorker, The New York Times, London’s Sunday Times and Vanity Fair.
In March, Harvard Law School announced that Fields, a partner with Greenberg Glusker in Los Angeles, had made a gift of $5 million to the school to endow the Bertram Fields Professorship of Law.
Why did you choose to endow the Bertram Fields Professorship of Law at HLS?
Harvard changed my life dramatically and had a really fundamental impact on me and my career. It exposed me to all kinds of things I’d never been exposed to before. It is an institution that over the centuries has contributed enormously to American thought, especially judicial thought. I was in a position to help out, and so I did.
What did you find most inspiring at HLS?
The student body was amazing—it was people at the top of their class from all over the country and world—and the faculty was beyond my imagination. It taught me to think, and, basically through the experience on the Law Review, it taught me to be a writer.
Do you have a particular memory of HLS that comes to mind?
I have so many good memories. I remember [Professor] Paul Freund [’31 S.J.D. ’32] with great fondness. Professor [W. Barton] Leach [’24] gave me my highest grade and wrote me a letter congratulating me on my final exam. It was such a lovely thing to do. The letter arrived before my grades. I had no idea whether I’d flunked out or done well. It’s one of my prized possessions.
Is Hollywood scarier than HLS?
After that first year of law school, nothing was scary.
Do you think your Harvard credential carries weight among your Hollywood clients?
I think it does, in two ways: I think it offers a kind of aura that many practitioners do not have, and it gave me the skills I think others may not have, so the combination of aura and the skills is a good thing.
Why did you choose to go into entertainment law?
I didn’t! After I got out of law school, I was in the Korean War, in the Air Force for two years, and tried innumerable courts-martial. I began to think I was a star litigator, and when I got out I wanted to try cases, so that’s what I started doing, for young actors and young writers. As they became successful, they’d ask me to represent them in contract and other matters. It just gradually developed.
So many law students today want to go into entertainment law. What exactly is it?
In one sense, there really isn’t anything called entertainment law—it’s really just torts, contracts, applied to a particular industry. We have the same arguments one would have about any contract and how to construe it.
People say Hollywood is a very tough place to make it. What is your advice to young lawyers who want to follow in your footsteps?
I speak at both HLS and Stanford Law School, and I tell the students it’s extremely tough. Most young people want to get into entertainment law because it’s fun—the people you meet and deal with are fun, the issues are interesting—but it’s very, very hard. There are far fewer jobs than people who want them. One thing I say, if you want to go into a particular law firm, and you can’t be in the entertainment department: Be a litigator because it will teach you to think, to speak and write with clarity, and those are skills you’ll be able to use when you get into entertainment, if you ultimately do—so don’t give up.
You also manage to find time to write books.
I write them primarily on weekends and vacation, so it takes me about nine years to write a book, so I will never have a huge body of work. But I get a great kick out of it, and, again, I attribute that, at least at its inception, to the work I did on the Law Review, and those marvelous people who helped me hone those skills. Years ago, I had a case for Mario Puzo, who wrote “The Godfather,” and I wrote a brief in his case. He said, “Hey, you write well. You really ought to write books.” So I went home and wrote a novel. It’s written under a pseudonym because it’s really a sex novel.
Do you have favorite clients?
I can talk about cases I liked better than others. I represented the Beatles and that was marvelous. They sued over “Beatlemania” [a musical revue]. The Beatles felt it was a rip-off of their concerts, and [the defendants] claimed it was free speech protected by the First Amendment. I won. I was a huge fan and that case was great fun. I have had a lot of them like that.
An Entertaining Life in the Law: When Mario Puzo says you should be a writer, it’s like an offer you can’t refuse
Can you share a story about a celebrity client?
I think probably the most difficult situation I ever had was a case I tried for the greatest Broadway impresario, David Merrick, who produced “42nd Street” and many, many other shows. David was not the best witness in the world, but I felt I had to put him on the stand. My opponent asked him a couple of questions, like, “What is your name, sir?” and then, “What is your occupation?” Merrick, who had a temper problem, turned bright red, stood up and said, “I don’t have to take this s**t!” and walked out of the courtroom. What could I say? I said, “Your honor, he feels so deeply about this matter, he couldn’t restrain himself. I apologize.” Actually, we had a very strong case and the other side had a terribly weak case, and that night the lawyer for the other side called me and said, “Look, if you’ll waive costs, we’ll drop the lawsuit.” I called David and said, “Great news, great news! They’ve decided to call the case off if we waive costs.” He said, “Bert, I told you I know how to deal with these people.”
Was he right?
Of course not! It damn near cost him the case. I have lots of stories like that. When one spends all of these years doing this, there is an accumulation of stories.