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Veteran Lawyer to the Stars Stealthily Sets Up Own Shop

August 17, 2004|Claudia Eller | Times Staff Writer

Throughout his long career as one of Hollywood's top power brokers, lawyer Barry Hirsch has operated stealthily. Known for an obsessive aversion to media exposure, Hirsch leaves the spotlight to such A-list clients as Julia Roberts and Jennifer Lopez.

So when the 70-year-old Hirsch -- who in addition to being an attorney also is a marriage, family and child therapist -- abruptly left the Century City law firm where he'd worked for 24 years last weekend, he did it so quietly that even his partners didn't know.

They first learned of Hirsch's plans Saturday when they heard he was having discussions with clients about starting his own firm half a block away. Joining Hirsch would be three other lawyers at the firm, Robert Wallerstein, David Matlof and Howard Fishman.

On Sunday, several of the partners went to their Century City firm only to discover Hirsch had cleared out his office. So had the three other attorneys.

Though Hirsch had given his partners no warning of his plans, for months there had been talks about pre-negotiating financial terms of an eventual retirement deal that would buy out his stake, sources there said.

"We had had ongoing discussions about Barry's role in the firm going forward," said Jim Jackoway, a partner in the firm, now called, with the removal of Hirsch's name, Jackoway Tyerman Wertheimer Austen Mandelbaum & Morris. "We valued Barry's contribution and had hoped and expected that he would be with the firm for as long as he wanted to practice law.... We were surprised and disappointed to learn of his decision to leave."

In an uncharacteristic move, Hirsch hired a publicist and issued a news release Monday. He announced the formation of his new firm -- Hirsch Wallerstein Matlof & Fishman -- tacking on a statement making light of a suggestion in Daily Variety that he might retire.

"Rumors of my retirement have been greatly exaggerated," Hirsch said, paraphrasing Mark Twain.

In a phone interview Monday, one of only a handful he has done, Hirsch acknowledged that he had grown uncomfortable with the continued growth of the firm.

"The reason I chose to do this is when I joined the firm 24 years ago, I had a vision we'd be a boutique law firm, handling the professional issues of very special talent," Hirsch said. "As we began to be successful and grow, the bigness derailed that vision."

He declined to discuss details surrounding his departure other than to confirm that he did clean out his office Saturday.

Hirsch also would not name which clients would be joining him at his new firm but said: "We all expect to represent the clients that we represented at the other firm both individually and mutually."

Sources said Hirsch became increasingly uneasy in recent years as his power base and prominence within the firm began declining, with other partners emerging as influential figures in their own right. When the internal dynamic at the firm began changing, the sources said, that didn't sit well with Hirsch.

In February the firm dropped the name of retired partner Art Armstrong and promoted three lawyers -- Marcy Morris, Jamie Mandelbaum and Karl Austen -- as name partners.

In addition to Roberts and Lopez, Hirsch also represents Michelle Pfeiffer, Goldie Hawn and Francis Ford Coppola and his daughter Sofia, as well as filmmakers Barry Levinson and Richard Donner.

At his zenith in the 1980s and early 1990s, Hirsch was considered one of the most feared and influential entertainment lawyers.

Much of that reputation came from his close ties to former super-agent Michael Ovitz and his powerful Creative Artists Agency, with which Hirsch shared a number of prominent clients -- including Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford. Hirsch was one of the elite deal maker-lawyers who emerged in that era, along with the likes of Jake Bloom, Bruce Ramer and Ken Ziffren.

When Hirsch joined the firm in 1980, four years after its founding, he was one of only three name partners. By the end of the decade it was one of Hollywood's most powerful law practices.

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