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Lawyers surround Britney Spears

March 24, 2009|Harriet Ryan
  • Britney Spears appears onstage. She may call the shots during her show, but she?s not making key decisions about her life.
Britney Spears appears onstage. She may call the shots during her show,… (Jeremy Cowart, Getty Images )

Onstage at her "Circus" tour, Britney Spears is the boss. She wears a sexy ringmaster outfit and snaps a leather whip.

"This mama is in control," she shouts at the audience.

When the house lights come up, it's a different story. The 27-year-old singer's life is controlled by her father and her affairs handled by a cadre of attorneys seemingly as numerous and indispensable as the backup dancers who surround Spears onstage.

At least 17 lawyers and firms have had a hand in Spears' personal or business matters in the 14 months since a judge determined she was not competent to manage her life and multimillion-dollar music empire herself.

The legal work has not come cheap, according to court papers, including an accounting filed in Superior Court in Los Angeles on Monday. The singer's estate or the trust that holds most of her assets paid at least $2.7 million in lawyers' fees and costs, and probably much more, during the initial 11 months of the court-ordered conservatorship, the filings show. Many attorneys continue to work on the case, accruing additional fees that will be submitted for approval at a later date.

Attorneys contacted about their fees did not return calls or declined to comment.

The number of attorneys has been a source of amusement and criticism. At a recent court hearing, half a dozen attorneys representing the singer, her father and her estate formed a wall of gray flannel and banker's boxes that obscured the audience's view of the judge and prompted a puzzled opposing attorney to wonder aloud, "Which one of you am I supposed to talk to?"

Another opponent sniped then that "Miss Britney Spears is being bled dry by these proceedings."

Retired probate judge Arnold Gold, who has not reviewed Spears' case, said that although legal fees may sound large, many bills -- such as those from divorce or entertainment attorneys -- would be incurred whether the conservatorship was in place or not.

"The mere dollar amount doesn't automatically mean it is inappropriate," said Gold, who presided over the settling of Tupac Shakur's estate. "It's quite appropriate, particularly in the entertainment field, to incur and have to pay very, very, very sizable attorneys' fees."

In Monday's filing, attorneys representing Spears' father, Jamie, presented the bills -- including theirs for more than $1 million -- in the context of what they described as enormous personal and career strides by the singer, who was hospitalized twice for psychological problems before her father assumed oversight.

"Since the initiation of the conservatorship, as a result of the concerted efforts of Mr. Spears as well as all the professionals involved, all aspects of Ms. Spears' life have been stabilized and continue to improve," lawyer Geraldine Wyle wrote. She wrote that the singer's mental health continued "to mend," that she had regained "substantial visitation" with her children and that her career "has been revitalized."

Wyle wrote that Britney Spears faces "complex and challenging issues" necessitating outside attorneys, including Spears' divorce and custody proceedings with Kevin Federline ($460,000 in total fees and costs), a Florida civil suit brought by a former manager ($113,000), a driving-without-a-license trial ($26,000) and a dispute over mold in a Malibu property leased by Spears ($7,000). The accounting does not take into account the $375,000 Spears paid to cover her ex-husband's legal expenses, nor does it disclose how much her entertainment attorney, who is charged with rebuilding her career and writing contracts for her, was paid.

Among the legal bills were costs associated with fighting what the conservatorship attorneys have described as a conspiracy to disturb her father's control.

In the first six months of the conservatorship, Jamie Spears' attorneys billed $102,000 fighting alleged attempts to end the conservatorship by outsiders. The efforts included getting a restraining order against one of the alleged conspirators, Britney Spears' former confidant Osama "Sam" Lutfi, and beating back an attempt by lawyer Jon Eardley to intervene in the case.

Some of the costs were necessary because of Spears' celebrity, according to court documents. In a September filing, for example, a lawyer for Jamie Spears billed nearly $4,600 for a messenger service to ensure confidentiality of legal documents and plunked down $25 for private courthouse rooms to prevent reporters eavesdropping in hallways.

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harriet.ryan@latimes.com

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