Pull a Fast One on David Chase’s Lawyer? Fuhge ddaboudit!

Nothing in entertainment law is likely to get past Peter Skolnik

Published in 2005 New Jersey Super Lawyers — May 2005

Every lawyer has a defining moment in his career. For Peter L. Skolnik, that moment came in 1987 when he was taking his first deposition as an associate with Cravath, Swaine & Moore.

“After nine months with the firm,” Skolnik recalls, “I was sent off to take a deposition of the chairman of the board of the 3M Corporation. It was a merger and acquisition takeover, big-stakes litigation. Because it was raging in 20 different jurisdictions, the legal team was stretched thin enough that [firm leaders], taking a deep breath, probably said, ‘Okay, we can send Skolnik off.’ So, I go into my first deposition.

“It was held in 3M’s office in the conference room adjoining the chairman of the board’s office. There was a local lawyer from Minneapolis, who I had never met before, but had spoken to on the phone. He was the local representative on the case. I was representing Grand Metropolitan, the British company that was trying to take over Pillsbury. The chairman of the board of 3M was a member of the board of directors at Pillsbury, so I was deposing him.

“We get to the first break, an hour and a half in. The chairman’s secretary comes into the conference room and asks if anyone would like some coffee and cookies. My corresponding lawyer says, ‘Yeah, and bring some red meat for Skolnik here.’ I immediately knew I was doing it right. It was one of those life-affirming moments. I said to myself, ‘Yeah, you’re a litigator.’”

It’s a scene that would be memorable for any firstyear associate, but perhaps even more so for Skolnik. Unlike most new lawyers at the firm, he was in his 40s, 44 to be exact. And he wasn’t completely sure about his decision to alter his career track until that very moment.

Today, Skolnik is one of New Jersey’s top intellectual property, entertainment and media law attorneys, as a partner at Lowenstein Sandler in Roseland. Among his clients are David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, whom he defended against a suit brought by a New Jersey prosecutor claiming ownership of the concept of the hit HBO show and demanding half of the proceeds (the suit was dismissed, appealed and one final issue is still currently being debated). He has also represented Jamie Johnson, an heir to the Johnson & Johnson family fortune and a documentary filmmaker, and has done work for the estate of Vladimir Nabokov. Yet his path to law was not a straight line. Rather, it bears a resemblance to the maze in Stephen King’s The Shining — large and circuitous.

It began at a seemingly predictable starting point for a top legal mind: Harvard University. But Skolnik’s degree was in English literature, not law. Seemingly a mover and shaker in everything he does, Skolnik rose from a freshman role as the lead in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Yeoman of the Guard and The Sorcerer to directing productions, including The Fantasticks, to putting on Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge, the first American play ever presented on Harvard’s main stage.

His next move was to Columbia University to pursue an MFA in stage direction. He spent most of his time as assistant director to Alan Schneider on the Broadway presentations of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party and Robert Anderson’s I Never Sang for My Father, among other productions.

He then spent a decade working in theater, television and film while driving a cab on the side. Those were interesting times, he says. “One of my favorite juxtapositions was when, while I was driving the cab, I was hired to be the assistant to the producer on this film To Find a Man (its twin whammy themes of teen pregnancy and abortion caused it, as Skolnik paraphrases Mel Brooks, to ‘close in Egypt’). As a result, one night, at 5, I turned in my cab. The next morning at 9, I was picked up by a chauffeured limousine to be driven around Manhattan, scouting locations for this film. I went from the front seat of a cab to the back seat of a limo. It sort of epitomized what those days were like.”

With a family at home — Skolnik has three daughters — he decided to pursue a more stable career. His now-former wife was in publishing and so were many of his friends, so he decided to give that a shot. He knew nothing about the field but his knowledge of TV and film made him valuable as a literary agent. In that role, he could learn the business while helping to sell the performance rights to his clients’ properties.

Skolnik soon became an expert in publishing contracts and copyright law and eventually served as the president of the Independent Literary Agents Association. When the agency he worked with moved into the same building as Cardozo Law School, it seemed like kismet. In his 40s, he split his time between law school and the literary agency. He graduated magna cum laude from Cardozo, and the dean, appalled that Skolnik wasn’t taking those honors into the “real” legal world, set him up for a lunch with an attorney from Cravath, Swain & Moore. Skolnik became so intrigued by the firm that, at the age of 43, “older than about half of the partners at the firm,” he became an associate.

After three and a half years of general litigation with Cravath, he moved back to where his heart lay: publishing and entertainment law. He partnered with two friends in the law firm of Norwick & Schad. Yet moving from a huge law firm that never sleeps to a three-lawyer practice with “a secretary who couldn’t type” was too big a change and he began to look for some middle ground.

He found what he was looking for at Lowenstein Sandler, where he was able “to develop precisely the kind of practice that I really wanted to develop, which is intellectual property, particularly copyright and trademark, First Amendment work, defamation work and entertainment law,” the now 61-year-old counselor says.

For instance, when Court TV needs an attorney in New Jersey, Skolnik gets the call. He also does defamation counseling for ABC, A&E and HBO. It was partly through the latter connection that he became involved in the Sopranos litigation. “David [Chase] was sued in New Jersey federal court,” Skolnik relates. “When the lawsuit hit, David’s transaction lawyer had gotten a couple of names and asked HBO who they recommended, and HBO recommended me. I suppose it was because having grown up in the theater, I knew how to talk the talk and walk the walk.”

He has also been able to tap his contacts from his days as a literary agent. One such client is the guardians of the Nabokov estate. He recently handled a case for them involving the book Lo’s Diary, a reworking of the Russian master’s controversial classic Lolita, told from the girl’s point of view. Skolnik was able to negotiate a deal that satisfied the estate’s rights to the copyright while allowing the book to be published. Currently, he is involved in defending Nabokov’s son, Dmitri, in a defamation case in Russia.

And his work with Johnson & Johnson heir Jamie Johnson has allowed him to keep involved in the world of cinema. When Johnson was sued for invasion of privacy by one of the subjects of his 2003 documentary Born Rich (which assesses the lives of children of the obscenely rich — it features interviews with Ivanka Trump, Georgina Bloomberg and S.I. Newhouse, among others), Skolnik was able to get the case thrown out of court. Johnson decided that this legal drama would make a fascinating addition to the film.

“As an attorney who works with several vastly wealthy families, Peter has a unique understanding of the secrecy that surrounds great wealth,” Johnson notes. “As a result of estate planning, rich people often share secrets with their lawyers that they wouldn’t even feel comfortable telling their own families. When I initially spoke to him about my film project, he seemed to support the idea, but he expressed concern that I might have difficulty getting wealthy people to talk on camera. He clearly speaks from a position of a great authority on the subject, and I felt it was important to document his opinion.”

This brought Peter Skolnik full circle, back to the movies. He made his on-screen debut in Johnson’s documentary as himself. The film aired on HBO in the fall of 2004.

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