When news surfaced late last week that President Bush is considering a special tax on huge legal fees, you could almost hear the cries of despair echoing through the Los Angeles Basin.

And with good reason. L.A. lawyers make mountains of money. When times are good, they're raking it in on IPOs, acquisitions and contract negotiations. When times are bad, their meters are running on liquidations and restructurings. And in all economic climes, they're making a bundle on divorces and class-action suits. In short, they have their fingers in virtually every pie. According to the most recent count, there are 43,608 lawyers practicing in Los Angeles.

But who are the 50 highest paid?

They're a low-profile bunch. Sure, Johnnie Cochran is among them. But many of the rest are virtual unknowns outside legal circles. Yet they're representing Tom in his split with Nicole, and chromium 6-tainted water drinkers in their "Erin Brockovich" sequel battle against PG & E.; They're representing alleged mob soldiers and brilliant scientists, infants and invalids. And for their efforts, they're getting serious money.

"Serious," of course, is a relative term when it comes to money especially in Los Angeles. A million bucks a year isn't serious money, at least not for these 50 top-paid L.A. lawyers who are featured in this week's special report beginning on page 29.

Unlike a decade ago, when the highest paid lawyers were scattered among several disparate fields and rarely made more than $1 million a year, today's top-paid lawyers are reaping their fortunes almost exclusively from two lucrative fields high-stakes personal injury litigation and entertainment transaction law. More than half the lawyers on the list made the grade by either obtaining staggering settlements and verdicts, or by representing coteries of ultra-rich Hollywood moguls and movie stars.

Why the dramatic change? A lot of it has to do with the fact that more juries as opposed to judges are deciding cases these days. That has turned the legal marketplace on its ear."Ten years ago, when more cases were being heard by judges, all that clients were looking for were very cerebral lawyers who understood the legal complexities of a case," said Larry Feldman, a top personal injury lawyer. "Today, clients need cerebral lawyers, but also ones who are great communicators and persuaders."

In cases where tens or hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake, clients are willing to pay extra for attorneys who possess those skills, he said.

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