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.

Feldman knows this first-hand.

Master of persuasion

He has persuaded hundreds of juries to find for his clients in recent years. In the past 12 months alone, he successfully defended Exxon in a $760 million lawsuit; Fox TV and "Murphy Brown" producer Diane English in separate breach-of-contract cases, and is currently representing Pegasus in a multimillion-dollar telecommunications case against DirecTV.

Tom Girardi and Walter Lack also know a thing or two about persuading juries in high-stakes cases.

Of all the lawyers on our list, Girardi's name was mentioned most frequently by senior-level L.A. legal veterans, when asked to name the highest paid lawyers in town. That's hardly surprising given Girardi's many staggering legal triumphs in recent years, including the $333 million settlement he and Lack helped obtain in a class-action lawsuit against Pacific Gas & Electric.

That case, of course, has gained global notoriety since being depicted in the hit movie "Erin Brockovich," which garnered a Best Picture nomination last week from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. Girardi and Lack's work on the case was conflated into the character portrayed by Peter Coyote.

What was Girardi and Lack's take in that case? "I'd prefer not to discuss it," Lack said. "Let's just say it was an eight-figure fee. At the end of the day, it was a great fee, but Girardi and I had more than $10 million invested in that case, and if we lost, that investment would have been gone forever and we would've been out of business." High stakes indeed. The two partners are now involved in another case against PG & E;, slated to begin this summer in Los Angeles Superior Court, which includes twice as many plaintiffs as the original "Erin Brockovich" case, and has the potential for an award exceeding the $333 million won in the 1996 case.

Hollywood connections

If that case spawns a sequel to "Erin Brockovich," Julia Roberts will need high-powered attorneys to represent her in contract talks, just as other celebrities do every day of the week.

That's where top entertainment attorneys like Bruce Ramer, Jake Bloom, Barry Hirsch, Kenneth Ziffren, Bertram Fields and Pierce O' Donnell come in.

Ramer (who represents Steven Spielberg, George Clooney, Clint Eastwood and Robert Zemeckis) and Bloom (whose clients include Jerry Bruckheimer, Nicolas Cage, Brian Grazer and Arnold Schwarzenegger) proved to be as adept at dodging our reporters' calls as they are in court, but Fields and O'Donnell were more accessible.

Fields, who cheerfully returned this reporter's call from New York, represents such Hollywood heavyweights as Tom Cruise, Warren Beatty, James Cameron and Dustin Hoffman.

Despite the large cast of wealthy actors in Hollywood these day, Fields said that entertainment law is a difficult field for attorneys to make a killing in because almost all the big money is concentrated at the top.

So how does a wannabe entertainment attorney get to the top? "You gotta be smart, have balls and be persuasive so you can convince major studios to go your way," Fields said. "And it helps to have powerful clients like Tom Cruise and Jim Cameron."

Cameron and Cruise, of course, are merely the tip of the iceberg for Fields, who represented Jeffrey Katzenberg in his nasty lawsuit against the Walt Disney Co., Oscar de la Hoya in his contract dispute with former manager Bob Arum, and the Beatles in several copyright cases over the years.

Movie stars and toxic torts aside, the economic boom of the late 1990s paved the way for some pretty major profits for lawyers who represent giant corporations.

Under the chairmanship of Martha Jordan, for example, Latham & Watkins topped $1 million in profits per partner last year.

And Pierce O'Donnell who bills out at $650 an hour has made major bucks litigating high-stakes personal injury, entertainment and corporate cases.

Rich spectrum

"L.A. is the greatest city in the country to practice law, in terms of the variety of cases you can take," O'Donnell said. "One day I'm defending MGM and the owners of the James Bond franchise against an attack by Sony, the next day I'm representing Lockheed Martin in a multimillion-dollar water pollution case, and the day after that I'm representing two former "Cheers" stars George Wendt and John Ratzenberger in a civil case against several bar owners who used their likenesses without their consent."

Not one to rest on his laurels, the hard-working, fast-talking O'Donnell was hired earlier this month by a major actuarial company in a case where $2 billion is at stake and by a client in a $1 billion entertainment-related case.

But O'Donnell is quick to caution that there are often high costs associated with this kind of success.

"I could easily work 18 hours a day, but I have five kids three of whom are under the age of six and all five who are under 18 so I have to be careful to make time to enjoy the fruits of my success," he said. "But at the same time, I don't know any attorney on your list who would push away a great case. You always want to say, 'Yeah, I can do it.'"

In summation, as a lawyer might say, the big bucks in L.A. law are highly concentrated in high-stakes contingency, entertainment and corporate law.

But where will the big bucks be in the future? It's hard to say, but Lack and O'Donnell expect the big money to flow toward complex patent and copyright infringement cases and intellectual property law, in general.

If law school curricula are accurate indicators of future trends, Lack and O'Donnell may be right. Registrars at UCLA, USC, Stanford, Loyola and UC Berkeley the legal breeding grounds for nearly half the attorneys on our list say that enrollment in elective intellectual property courses has risen dramatically in recent years.

Ka-ching, ka-ching.

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