Bert Fields was, as The New York Times put it, the “lawyer to the stars” — from Dustin Hoffman to Warren Beatty to Tom Cruise to John Travolta, not to mention industry heavyweights like Jeffrey Katzenberg.
In Hollywood, he was almost as famous as his clients.
He was also my lawyer.
And as much as any lawyer I’ve known, he taught me what it means to be a lawyer.
Everyone hates lawyers until you need one, and then you want the best; you want a tiger on your side, someone who will fight for you tenaciously, in the courtroom and in the court of public opinion, someone who will be forever loyal to you, who will make you feel protected.
You want Bert. I surely did.
I have my own “Bert Fields letter.” A letter from the biggest lawyer in town, telling folks who had gotten hold of a private email (back in the day, when we thought such things might be private) to back off.
Another time, someone threatened to sue me for writing a true story.
“Which part of it is untrue?” Bert asked me calmly, and if he was calm, eventually so was I.
“The life of the law,” Oliver Wendell Holmes brilliantly recognized, “has not been logic: it has been experience. The felt necessities of the time, the prevalent moral and political theories, intuitions of public policy, avowed or unconscious, even the prejudices which judges share with their fellow men, have had a good deal more to do than the syllogism in determining the rules by which men should be governed. … In order to know what (the law) is, we must know what it has been, and what it tends to become.”
Old lawyers and young doctors, as my mother would say. Bert went to the office every day, even at age 93. He negotiated my last deal when he was 91. He was a Renaissance man, a student of Shakespeare, of history, a novelist, a teacher, a friend.
Watching Bert in action was a thing to marvel. Unlike many entertainment lawyers, he was also a trial lawyer. And an appellate lawyer. A consummate litigator, as well as a deal maker. There was a reason that men and women who could literally hire any lawyer in the world they wanted hired him.
There are some lawyers who shy away from publicly putting themselves on the line for their clients. “I don’t try my cases in the press,” they will tell you, which might make sense unless the other side is trying the case in the press and winning.
Newspapers don’t stop publishing because you say “no comment.” Bert understood that.
The reason some of the most famous people in the world came to him for help was because they knew that when Bert was on your side, he was there in every arena, in the court of public opinion as well as in the court of law.
He was masterful at dealing with the news media, and he never shied away. I remember him defending the religious freedom of Scientologists at a time when few outsiders were willing to stand up for the First Amendment rights of an unpopular group.
He lived for some years under the shadow of an investigation into unlawful wiretapping that had been done without his knowledge. I knew from the outset that Bert would come out clean. Integrity was the first word that comes to mind. That and dignity.
I loved to talk about law with Bert, about our cases, about how the rules would apply, about how to manage clients, how to deal with the other side. He loved the law, and he shared that love with the students he taught and the young lawyers he mentored. And with clients and friends like me.
The thing is, and how selfish of me, but with Bert on my side, I always felt safe.
What would Bert do, I shall forever be asking. Bert Fields died Aug. 7.
Rest in peace, my friend. I can only hope to live up to your legacy of what our profession at its finest ought to be.
— Susan Estrich is a best-selling author, the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.