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Hirsch’s Hornet’s Nest 

Éminence grise of Hollywood lawyers provokes pain in parting

Thursday, Aug 26 2004
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Illustration by Ryan Ward

It’s not often that entertainment attorneys start aiming their stingers at one another, much less inside the same law practice. Heck, the whole point of their chummy world is to keep the Hollywood machinery humming so everyone makes gobs of money and buys in Malibu. But that changed on August 13 when Barry Hirsch, infamous for giving Hollywood many Maalox moments, filed a surprise lawsuit against his firm on a Friday, quietly cleaned out his office on Saturday, stealthily spirited away his clients on Sunday, and then publicly portrayed his partners as backstabbing weasels guilty of ageism on Monday. Astonishingly, both Variety and the Los Angeles Times wrote stories that seemed sympathetic to poor, poor 70-year-old Hirsch’s supposed plight.

Hirsch as victim? Oh, puh-leeze. Believe that and next you people will be taking up a collection for the West Nile Mosquito Defamation League.

Though both sides now are generating partisan blather through dueling publicists (Hirsch hired Baker Winokur Ryder while the law firm went with Bragman Nyman Caffarelli), the untold story here looks like one of betrayal . . . but by whom? Talk with Hollywood players and a history emerges of Hirsch, while undeniably a brilliant attorney, treating his law partners like bugs under his shoe, going all the way back to the start of his legal career. And, like so much in Hollywood, this is also a tale about money and ego.

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Sure, there’s now the usual “they said, he said” blustering. Partners in what is now known as Jackoway Tyerman Wertheimer Austen Mandelbaum & Morris (Hirsch’s name was quickly tossed) talked to L.A. Weekly only on condition they would not be identified individually. Hirsch, whose new practice is called Hirsch Wallerstein Matlof & Fishman, declined to give an interview to L.A. Weekly even though he overcame his usual reluctance to talk to the media and gabbed freely just before suing his ex-firm.

That this was a scorched-earth pitched battle by two show-biz powerhouses was made clear immediately when Hirsch issued Press Statement No. 1 to deny a published report suggesting he’d retired. Then he and his new partners issued Press Statement No. 2 to explain, “We filed a lawsuit for the benefit of all shareholders to ensure that they would equally share in the company’s assets since it was dissolved.”

For their part, Hirsch’s former partners first heard the buzz from a client that Hirsch was bolting. So Jim Jackoway rushed into work that Sunday only to find empty offices for Hirsch and three colleagues. The firm didn’t even discover until Tuesday that Hirsch had sued them five days earlier. “I don’t know if his medication wore off,” an ex-partner joked to L.A. Weekly. “It just wasn’t anything that anybody expected. But litigation is war. So I’m happy no one can accuse us now of going after an old man.”

Unanswered and off-the-record accusations began to pour out of the Jackoway Tyerman firm that Hirsch had made a habit of biting the hands that fed him — gripes about resisting his partners’ attempts to promote people or grant name-on-the-door status, about rarely giving any of his colleagues credit, about declining to refer business to other attorneys in the practice. “It hadn’t been a particularly pleasant working relationship with him for the last couple of years. He was nasty and causing stress and aggravation,” an abandoned partner explained. “It was the product of Barry’s resentment and paranoia and inability to root for the people around here who were now the foundation of a law firm that could have borne his name forever.”

That things had to get this extreme is kinda mind-boggling, especially considering Hirsch is a legal éminence grise who’s also a licensed marriage, family and child counselor. When he wasn’t presiding over the serial wedding ceremonies of clients Julia Roberts and J.Lo, he spent years treating celebrity and civilian patients and conducting group therapy sessions.

“What therapist would advise a patient in a 25-year marriage to leave his wife in the middle of the night while she was out doing the grocery shopping?” noted an ex-partner. Agreed one top talent agent who has worked with Hirsch for decades: “To be suing your law partners when you portray yourself as Mr. Human Psychology, Mr. Transactional Wizard, is just a total loser thing to do.”

Hirsch and his new partners’ press statement, however, portrayed themselves as winners. “We are able to launch this firm because of the loyalty of our clients, who have wholeheartedly embraced this change. We are excited about the future, both as partners and as friends, and look forward to continuing our practice with all of our clients.”

But was Hirsch’s midnight exodus also a midnight raid on his old firm? Despite Hirsch’s boasting, it’s unclear who will, and won’t, join him besides Jennifer Lopez and Sofia Coppola and her can’t-get-arrested dinosaur of a daddy, who was Hirsch’s first big celebrity client back in Hollywood’s Jurassic Era. As for Julia Roberts, right now, unless and until Hirsch’s old firm receives a notice to transfer files, she is still very much a client of Jackoway Tyerman.

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