Variety’s Power of Law Honoree Clifford Gilbert-Lurie Cuts Deals for Hollywood’s Biggest Names

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By all measures, Ziffren Brittenham senior partner Clifford Gilbert-Lurie has had a storied run as an entertainment attorney. Over the course of his four-decade-plus career, he has made big deals for a long list of loyal clients that have generated pages upon pages of headlines in the show business trades. For those professional accomplishments, along with his philanthropic efforts, he’s being honored with Variety’s Power of Law Award at a breakfast April 18 at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills.

But if one had to point to a single metric that sums up how much he is valued, it would be a British luxury car topped by a large red bow.

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More specifically, a Bentley, gifted to him by producer Dick Wolf.

Sandra Bullock vividly remembers the night. The year was 2004. She had come to Gilbert-Lurie’s 50th birthday party armed with what she thought was the perfect gift, an 18th century silver wine sediment sifter.

“They’re hard to find intact,” explains Bullock, a Gilbert-Lurie client since 1996. “I was walking up to his house, so excited, holding it like it was the holy grail, and there was that gorgeous black Bentley with the big-ass bow. I was just… the rage.”

Clifford Laurie photograbed at his home in Bel Air for Variety in 2024
Clifford Laurie photograbed at his home in Bel Air for Variety in 2024

Wolf insists the Bentley was not a mere birthday gift for Gilbert-Lurie, but a thanks for closing the latest in an ongoing string of big overall deals. He says that over the last three and a half decades they have had the most successful lawyer-client relationship in the history of the television business, which is no idle boast coming from a man with nine network shows currently airing on broadcast TV, including the top two longest-running, live-action, scripted, U.S. primetime TV series of all time (“Law & Order: SVU” and “Law & Order”).

“I can say without hesitation I wouldn’t be where I am today without Cliff,” says Wolf. “We’ve never failed to make a deal with anybody who actually wanted to make a deal, which is in itself a miracle. That includes networks, writers, producers and actors. It’s never really been an issue, [whether it] requires the velvet Cliff or the steel Cliff.”

George Cheeks has observed Gilbert-Lurie’s skill as a negotiator from across the table for many years, first as a top exec at NBC and now as CEO of CBS, where he has a three-show block of Wolf shows on Tuesday night (“FBI,” “FBI: International” and “FBI: Most Wanted”), as well as two shows by another of the attorney’s mega-producer clients, Jerry Bruckheimer (“CSI: Vegas” and “The Amazing Race”).

“We’ve been in negotiations where I basically left feeling like I hadn’t won any of the points I really wanted to win, yet I was never angry with him, never felt taken advantage of, because he has this ability also to be very transparent about his approach and what he needs to get the deal done,” says Cheeks. “There’s no duplicity, no guile. He’s as straightforward as they come.”

Other current clients benefiting from Gilbert-Lurie’s dealmaking prowess include Tina Fey, Claire Danes, Michael J. Fox, Sarah Silverman, Drew Carey, Patrick Stewart and Microsoft.

“I’ve always said if I needed a lawyer, I’d hire Cliff,” says Sam Fischer, who has been working with Gilbert-Lurie at Ziffren Brittenham for 38 years and today serves alongside him as one of the firm’s two co-managing partners. “He does an incredible amount of preparation and research about the specifics of a deal and the industry in general, looking at not just the technicalities of a particular deal, but also always the bigger picture and future trends and how it might impact his clients. It’s a thoroughness that
is extraordinary.”

CAA agent Jeff Jacobs, who has known Gilbert-Lurie for more than three decades and in recent years worked with him on Bruckheimer’s television deals, says his career brings to mind the adage that greatness is defined as consistency over time at a high level.

“You don’t keep the clients that he has unless you do that in partnership with humanity, determination, style and grace,” says Jacobs. “I think he’s the personification of all that.”

As a child growing up in Los Angeles, Gilbert-Lurie first became enamored with the idea of being an attorney when he read outdated legal journals sent to him by an uncle who was a corporate lawyer in Detroit, with clients that included the Ford Motor Co.

“They would digest the cases in what we would term sound bites today,” says Gilbert-Lurie of the journals. “A lot of them were criminal cases and things like that that even a kid could understand.”

At the time, Gilbert-Lurie had no idea what an entertainment attorney was. He thought he’d be a trial lawyer like the ones he saw on TV shows like “Perry Mason” and “The Defenders.” But after his first year of law school at UC Berkeley, he took a summer clerkship at Rosenfeld, Meyer & Susman, a Beverly Hills firm whose principal client was entertainment giant MCA Universal. After earning his JD and passing the bar in 1979, he joined the firm as an associate, doing litigation involving contracts, copyrights, privacy and defamation.

When Universal licensed Kamar Intl. to manufacture dolls of the title character from its 1982 blockbuster “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” a conflict of interest prevented Rosenfeld from repping the Taiwanese toymaker in trademark infringement lawsuits that arose from the Chinese knockoffs that flooded the market. So Gilbert-Lurie and one of the firm’s partners left to launch a two-person practice handling the cases, which occupied them for the next 18 months.

“As that was winding down, it was clear to me I had to either decide to stay in the litigation practice or do something else,” says Gilbert-Lurie. “And I that’s where I decided to go in-house at Disney and in essence retrain myself to become a transactional lawyer.”

At Disney, Gilbert-Lurie was involved in negotiations with George Lucas to bring the Star Tours ride to Disneyland, as well as numerous actor, director and writer deals, and helped develop the studio’s profit participation templates.

Approximately a year and a half into his tenure, Gilbert-Lurie was informed that he was being promoted to general counsel for Walt Disney Pictures. He called Ziffren Brittenham attorney Tom Hoberman (now at Hansen, Jacobson) to ask him to negotiate his executive contract, and Hoberman surprised him by asking if he would be interested in coming to work for the firm instead.

“Cliff interviewed with us and we were very impressed,” recalls Ziffren Brittenham founding partner Ken Ziffren. “He knew a lot of the stuff that we were stressing in our practice, which is follow the money and know a lot about the business itself, and he was self-effacing and a good listener and pleasant to be with. I made calls to Helene Hahn, who was the head of business affairs and legal at Disney at that time, and I basically begged her to let him out of his contract.”

After Gilbert-Lurie joined Ziffren Brittenham in 1986, he was put on Wolf’s account in a support role, handling paperwork. When Wolf’s point person left to form his own firm in 1987, Wolf followed, but soon grew dissatisfied. He called Ziffren Brittenham founding partner Skip Brittenham and told him he’d be interested in returning to the firm if he could get a smart, focused, buttoned-down attorney to handle his affairs. Brittenham recommended Gilbert-Lurie, and Wolf gave him a trial-by-fire audition negotiating a renewal of his overall deal with Universal Television.

“The first time I met him in-person was at the conference table with four lawyers on the other side and the senior business affairs team from Universal,” recalls Gilbert-Lurie. “It was a very lengthy meeting, and we negotiated a very successful deal. At the end of it, Dick called up Skip and said, ‘That’s my guy.’ And everything took off from that point.”

At the time, Wolf was successful at the showrunner level, coming off a two-season stint as a writer and co-producer of “Miami Vice.” In 1990, his show “Law & Order” debuted on NBC, launching him on a path to become one of the most successful TV show creators-executive producers of all time, with more than 2,000 episodes of primetime TV to his credit.

“I’ve seen every possible facet of the television business by virtue of representing him,” says Gilbert-Lurie of Wolf. “He’s one of my most defining clients, and I speak with him virtually every day.”

Gilbert-Lurie has also had a major role in the convergence of entertainment and tech through his work with Microsoft. He helped the Seattle-based tech giant launch its short-lived film and TV production company Xbox Entertainment Studios in 2012 and more recently brokered deals for adaptations of a pair of its video games, the Amblin Television/Showtime Networks TV series “Halo,” which recently premiered its second season on Paramount+, and Warner Bros.’ “Minecraft” feature, set for release in 2025.

“Over that course of time, there’s been such big shifts in business and at the industry level and at the company level, and I think the agility with which Cliff was able to re-strategize and help us work through that has always been invaluable,” says Kiki Wolfkill, head of Xbox IP expansion and entertainment at Microsoft. “He understands the game side of the business, and the franchise and IP value, and how these adaptations fit into our ecosystem in a way that benefits both the film and TV partners we work with and ourselves on the game side.”

For Bullock, what stands out is the way Clifford-Lurie has been able to balance the needs of his clients and his family, with whom she is close. She recalls a moment years ago, when he was on his annual vacation with his wife, the attorney, author and philanthropist Leslie Gilbert-Lurie, and their three now-
adult children.

“I was dealing with so much drama and chaos, and I had no one to reach out to,” remembers Bullock. “He was somewhere that had absolutely no cell service, in a phone booth helping me navigate a situation, with a dust storm around him and a child on his hip, screaming its head off. He’s like Superman.”
Gilbert-Lurie will turn 70 in September, which means there will likely be another big party and an opportunity for Bullock to avenge her gift loss to Wolf. She could buy her attorney a special stamp for his collection or a locomotive for the model railroad layout he’s constructed in an upstairs room of his home in the Brentwood neighborhood of West Los Angeles. But Bullock doesn’t believe that material things are what he wants or needs.

“I think what Cliff would love the most is having every single human being that he adores and that adores him all under one roof, and just have a moment of connection, laughter, joy and music,” says Bullock. “And my sifter will be there. Maybe there’ll be another Bentley.”

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