From Poland to the Court Room to the Movies: A Family Legacy of Law, Entertainment, and Philanthropy


I love the law, and I love the movies. And I come by those passions genuinely. 

Not everyone knows this, but my paternal grandfather was a prominent attorney. My father followed in his footsteps but later added successful United Artists (UA) studio executive to his portfolio of jobs. I, of course, followed my grandfather and father into the legal profession, albeit becoming a family law attorney. 

My family's rich and exciting legacy dates back to my grandfather, Louis Phillips, who emigrated to the United States from Poland via London when he was a young man. Not long after becoming a lawyer, he founded a prestigious law firm, which eventually became Phillips, Nizer, Benjamin, Krim & Ballon. Today, that firm is known as Phillips Nizer. My grandfather’s partner, Louis Nizer, is considered by many in the profession to be one of the most outstanding trial lawyers ever. 

From Law to the Silver Screen  

My grandfather inspired a number of members of our extended family to become lawyers. My uncle, father, and several cousins became lawyers; my dad and one cousin even worked at my grandfather’s law firm. My uncle and father also earned business degrees, eventually leading to an exciting twist in the family legacy. 

In the early days of the entertainment industry, D. W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks started their own movie studio, United Artists (UA), to control their interests and projects. By the 1950s, UA struggled, and Pickford and Chaplin needed help. Enter my grandfather’s law partners, Arthur Krim, and my father’s cousin, Robert Benjamin, affectionately known to us as “Uncle Bobby.” In 1951, these lawyers-turned-producers approached UA with a bold proposal – let us run UA for ten years. If UA was profitable in one of the first three years, the new management group would have the option to purchase 50% of the company by the end of the ten years and ultimately take full control. The offer was accepted, and they eventually took full control.

My father, Gerald (Gerry) Frederick Phillips, joined his cousin as an executive at UA. My father had a strong business background, which enabled him to hit the ground running on the business side of “the business.” UA also included other family members from my father’s side of the family. 

During my family’s tenure at UA, the studio produced the major box office hit, The African Queen (1952), as well as produced and/or distributed Moulin Rouge (1952), High Noon (1952), Marty (1955), which won both the Palme d'Or and an Oscar, 12 Angry Men (1957), and West Side Story (1961) and Tom Jones (1963), also Oscar winners – just to name a few of the better-known films. They also were the studio to release the first two Beatles movies, A Hard Days Night (1964) and Help! (1965). Also of note, my father negotiated the very first cable TV deal for UA, which was groundbreaking at the time and helped to transform the fledgling cable industry. By the late 1950s, UA made $3 million in profit yearly and would also go public.

While my father and his UA colleagues undoubtedly had their hands full running a major Hollywood studio, they still maintained their partnership responsibilities with my grandfather’s law firm. I remember hearing a story about my father and grandfather being at odds in a dispute among the various film studios. My father was representing UA, while my grandfather represented Paramount. Keep in mind they were law partners for the same firm. In the end, Uncle Bobby and Arthur Krim sat the two down together and ultimately agreed that Lou was correct for Paramount and Gerry was correct for UA. Talk about keeping it in the family! 

Carrying the Torch 

Given our family's history, becoming a lawyer was a bit of a no-brainer. And quite honestly, at the time, there weren’t a lot of other great career options for women. I suppose I could have been a doctor, but I hate the sight of needles, so I ruled that out quickly. Other career options for women included being a travel agent, social worker, teacher, secretary, or retail buyer, like my mother, who was also a travel agent. Nothing was wrong with those professions, but they simply didn’t appeal to me. I had seen first-hand what lawyers do, and as luck would have it, my father had several very high-powered, well-known women partners, one of whom wrote the equitable distribution statute for the State of New York, which is their matrimonial statute. I saw that women could make a difference in this profession and become very successful in a financial sense. Becoming a lawyer had its appeal, but some part of me did not want to do it because it was expected of me.  

To test the profession’s waters and prove to myself that I genuinely wanted to be a lawyer (as opposed to it being expected of me to become a lawyer), I worked at Phillips, Nizer over two summers. Eventually, I succumbed to the “family business” and even worked at my grandfather’s and Uncle Bobby’s firm for a time. I also worked for the federal government under Donna Shalala when she was Secretary of HUD. I worked for Senator Jacob Javits. I worked for Tony Gliedman when he was Commissioner of New York City's Department of Housing Preservation and Development. All of these legal experiences – including working at another law firm called Sargoy, Stein, and Hanft, a firm focused on the movie business – proved in my mind that I wanted to be a lawyer and that I wasn’t just doing it because I was supposed to.

By the way, my younger brother, Lou (named after my grandfather), eschewed the law and instead went into the entertainment business as a producer. Today, he is the most senior executive at Focus Features, carrying on our family’s entertainment industry legacy. 

Isht Pascht Nicht! 

Isht Pascht Nicht! That’s Yiddish for “it wouldn’t be right; it wouldn’t be fitting.” I’m told it was something my grandfather would say quite regularly. He believed we should do things because they’re right and because they’re fitting. Those are guiding words that both my father and I have embraced. They were probably the foundation of my father’s passion for being relentlessly ethical. And he passed this passion down to me. 

It also inspired my father and me in 1990 to set up an endowment at Dartmouth College, our alma mater. We created the Helen and Louis Phillips Memorial Fund – now called the Phillips Samuels Victor Fund – which supports undergraduate student research grants and internships. Additionally, every year, Dartmouth’s Ethics Institute sponsors an annual competition for undergraduates and awards a worthy student the Phillips Family Award in Ethics. I am incredibly proud of our philanthropy promoting vital medical, legal, business, and public sector ethics scholarship. 

I consider myself fortunate to have had amazing role models in my life. My grandfather and my parents believed in hard work, helping others, and doing what was right. Similarly, my Uncle Bobby was exemplary, even serving as under-Secretary of the United Nations under U Thant’s term. My family – my inspiration – set the bar high for success and work ethic, which I believe is the key to achieving anything meaningful in life. In the Jewish faith, there is a strong focus on education. In my family, we were always expected to do well in school. Because of this experience, I, too, believe in the power of education. I have passed that passion for learning down to my children, Andrew and Ali, who have both gone on to be very independently successful in their own pursuits. 

When my grandfather arrived on the shores of this nation more than a century ago, he believed in himself and pursued his dream with unwavering vigor. I feel confident he would be proud of our family today and how we have carried on his amazing legacy.

This article was published by Stacy D. Phillips on LinkedIn on June 28, 2023.