- Career Counsel
Entertainment Law - Glamor By Association?
by Erica Winter
Even after law students start to peel off into tax law or DA work or environmental law, there are still plenty of lawyers and law students left over who really, really want to be entertainment lawyers. Or at least they think they do.
Actually getting to be an entertainment lawyer and actually doing that work may be very different from what you may imagine. And then, getting the job may be a tough prospect.
Just remember: if you want something that a lot of other highly qualified and capable people also want, then achieving it depends on one essential factor: Luck.
But luckily for you, that's not the end of the story. Some say you make your own luck. But before you start searching for your old rabbit's foot, consider what a career in entertainment law really is and then think about if this is what you really want. After we look at the true nature of this job, we'll share some tips on how to acquire it.
"You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." (The Princess Bride)
Some names just don't look good in lights.
Just like Frances Gumm became Judy Garland, and Thomas Mapother III became Tom Cruise, "entertainment law" is actually a more glamorized, fabricated name for contract law, copyright law, intellectual property law, licensing law, litigation, and working really hard just like every other lawyer out there.
For the sake of brevity, in this article we're going to talk about "entertainment law" and "entertainment lawyers," but make no mistake, there are no such things. Entertainment lawyers are merely copyright, contract, or IP lawyers who have clients in the entertainment business, just like sports lawyers have clients in the sports business (see our article on sports law on LawCrossing.com now).
Plus, being an entertainment lawyer not only has a shiny and misleading name, it can also have a slightly misleading image masking a pretty basic reality.
"Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain."(The Wizard of Oz)
Image isn't everything.
There is no question that, if you get the gig, entertainment law can bring you some really talented, interesting, and cool clients. The thing you should never forget, however, is that the key word in the phrase "entertainment lawyer" is not "entertainment."
"It's being a lawyer," says Jodi Sax, a solo attorney based in Los Angeles. For entertainment law, there is a "huge misconception of what it is," says Sax, an alumna of Loyola Law School in L.A. who has been practicing for 12 years. Through her website (www.lawgirl.com), Sax has received "thousands of emails" from high-school and college kids asking for advice on how to get into the entertainment legal field. Sax ended up posting a list of tips on her site for the aspiring attorneys and shared some advice with us as well, which we'll get to a bit later.
"Being a music fan is not a reason to be a music lawyer," says Sax. This job is not all about going to the premieres and hanging out with the band after the show. Yes, you do get tickets sometimes, but that is not the job itself.
Another scratch on the sequins: dealing with artists can be very frustrating at times, Sax says. Not all artists are "divas," of course, but many of them can be very demanding. They often do not have the same boundaries as other business clients (such as calling during business hours), and they do not always have a good sense of what's appropriate.
On the other hand, there is a difference between being a fan and loving art. Joseph E. Porter III loves being an entertainment lawyer because, he says, "I love music, and I respect people who have that ability." He did not pursue this field because he was starry-eyed over musicians; he pursued it because of his respect for the art they create.
To be an entertainment lawyer, you do need to draw a line between appreciating and respecting the work of an artist and becoming that artist's pal, says Porter. As exciting as it may seem, at first, to be in the recording studio and have an artist ask you whether that track sounds right, do not get involved with the creative process, he recommends. If you start doing that, you either end up as a friend or as a producer - a boss. And you are neither.
What you are is the counselor. You need to be the person the artist calls when he is in trouble or needs some wise advice, says Porter. "If you become a 'hang-out guy,' then you lose that professional separation."
Wallace Collins concurs. Not hanging out with the band is actually good, he says. If you're running around backstage with them, they might forget you are their lawyer.
As for the artists themselves, "creative people live in a different world; their reality is a bit different," says Porter. As the lawyer, you need to be the one to keep a level head and not get swept up in the creative process, because you are the one who guards that process.
Overall, entertainment law is "the most colorful area of law," says Marty O'Toole. You need devotion to the art so that you can have devotion to your field.
"Hollywood! Big-time show biz! That's always been my dream." (The Muppet Movie)
No matter where you start out on your journey, there's more than one door onto this stage.
The lawyers we talked with all took varied paths to where they are now. Each has had experience in two or more practice models - proving that there is more than one place to practice entertainment law, as well as more than one way to get there. Plus, you are not restricted to staying in one model if you feel the need to move on.
Sax, for example, has worked in-house, at a firm, and in solo practice. She got her start interning in the legal department of NBC Studios in the summer after her first year of law school. This gave her the practical experience she needed to land her first job out of law school with the firm Arter & Hadden (now dissolved). There, she worked in the IP department and worked with a partner who gave junior associates a lot of responsibility.
"I had to learn quickly," says Sax, since the partner gave her cases to run on her own pretty early on. That partner was a copyright expert doing film work, and when he moved to another firm - Manatt, Phelps & Phillips - Sax went with him. She was with Manatt for three years before hanging out her own shingle.
While it may seem early to go solo only four years out of law school, Sax says that she had such an immense workload that she felt she built "eight years' worth of experience in four years." She found this intense training invaluable to her future career, remarking that she would not recommend trying to fly solo right after law school.
While she does have an arts background herself with an undergraduate degree in design, Sax says that it's not necessary to have. She is in touch with pop culture, she says, so that may help her find clients and relate to the ones she has. And the award-winning design of her website may have upped her profile. But, while that experience helped her personally, it's not the only way to get in the door.
Porter started his career 33 years ago after graduating from the University of Southern California Law School, alternating between film and music work until opening his own shop. Porter started with a job at a law firm that was one of the first to represent films produced outside of the studio contract system.
Then Porter worked in the legal department of Motown Records, rising to become the assistant to the chairman. He moved from Motown to American International Pictures film production company to be their director of business affairs. Now his firm handles a fusion of music and film matters, focusing primarily on putting together deals to put music in movies, representing the recording artists, music writers, and producers.
Collins found his music knowledge from the other side of the desk. He started out as a recording artist with Epic Records in a band called The Dynamites. They had a song called "We Want a Rock-n-Roll President" that was not a hit, so he went to law school.
Thinking his music life was behind him, he started practicing 12 years ago with a large corporate firm and then moved to a smaller firm doing copyright and trademark work. While there, he started to moonlight, doing legal work for his friends who were still in the music business. Gradually, he says, he realized that he was enjoying his side gig more than his day job.
Collins launched his own firm when the economy was booming with tech money in the early 90s, and some who started out at the same time as he did fizzled out. "There's always a handful trying to get in it at the same time," he says, claiming that it worked out for him because he was persistent and lucky. Even in the boom economy, Collins went without profits from his solo venture for one year.
Now he is with a firm once again (Serling, Rooks & Ferrara, N.Y.), although he is able to work independently within the firm's structure, says Collins. He thrived in a solo practice because he could act as the "wildcard" in negotiations and threaten to sue - and actually sue - if it came down to it.
Collins does like being in a firm once again, however. "A firm has more clout than an individual," he says, "and there are big clients that come in, such as Sony Records." With 15 other lawyers around, he feels he is no longer "working in a vacuum," and there is more information available to him because of his colleagues' expertise.
Never believe that you can't change your mind.
O'Toole went from working on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, with dreams of a political career to the Cook County (Chicago) Public Defender's Office to a solo Los Angeles entertainment law firm - and he's only been practicing for seven years.
An alumnus of Catholic University Law School, Washington, DC, O'Toole got his start in entertainment law by taking referrals from the California Lawyers for the Arts, a nonprofit organization that aids new or struggling artists who need legal help. Some of those clients returned to him again, and others referred new clients to him.
Gary Watson is with the entertainment firm Huron, Maki & Johnson in Century City, CA, right near 20th Century Fox. An alumnus of Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California at Berkeley, Watson has been practicing entertainment law for 20 years. He knew he wanted to do this work when he was in high school. "It's always been my passion to be an entertainment lawyer," he says.
For his first two years after law school, Watson was doing half entertainment and half corporate work at a large firm. Then he was recruited by another firm that brought him in to do entertainment law full time.
Afterwards, Watson moved on to be a lawyer with the motion picture group of Universal Pictures, working on deals for a wide variety of films, including Mo' Better Blues, Jungle Fever, Scent of a Woman, and The People Under the Stairs.
At Universal, the head of the legal department assigned deals to lawyers on staff. If a lawyer expressed interest in working on a particular project, then he or she would get assigned to it if that fit into the larger schedule, says Watson.
Watson found the job at Universal because he knew someone from the company whom he had worked with on opposing sides while at a firm. "You do repeat business in this town," he says. It is important to maintain collegial relations with opposing counsel. You need to build relationships to "make something positive happen," he says.
The range of work you do is the key difference between working in-house and at a firm, says Watson. Movie studio attorneys work on talent deals, financing arrangements, and any issues that arise during production.
Working at a firm includes more than that, a "limitless" list that includes distribution deals, creation of joint ventures, and writing, directing, or producing deals from the other side of the table.
"Ok, so what'll it be?" (My Blue Heaven)
Your job in entertainment law will differ in some ways if you concentrate on music, film, or TV. We asked our sources about the differences and the similarities.
The music industry is not the same as film or TV, says Porter, because the deals move a lot faster from start to finish. From the idea to putting an album out could last just one year, whereas a movie could take a total of three or more years to go from idea to actuality.
Other things particular to the music business - careers like Frank Sinatra's are rare, Porter says. An artist will be popular and then not popular and may even go up and down like that a few times. A downside to the music business is that it does attract people who are risk takers, so there is a certain solidity that is missing.
One big difference between negotiating music and TV deals, says Watson, is that actors have a union and musicians do not. Actors have a guild (The Screen Actors' Guild) that sets minimum salary and work-condition requirements for projects. There is a baseline for acting contracts that just does not exist for musicians.
Acting and music contracts are similar, however, in that they are negotiated well before the product (album, movie or show) is ever released, and the artist is bound to the guidelines of the contract whether the show or album is a big success or not.
Knowing people and getting good word-of-mouth from clients are very important in entertainment law in general. From a client perspective, says Collins, there is high turnover in the entertainment world. Your clients will likely not be musicians or actors forever. And, as they move up and down the ladder of success, they may also move on to other attorneys as their careers progress. As opposed to other specialties, in which you build a client base over time, there is often a revolving door in this field, and you are continuously looking for clients.
"A deal's a deal!" (Fargo)
You can take it with you. Or, more to the point, your clients can take you with them. If you are an entertainment lawyer, you can work for your clients' transactional needs even if your clients have gigs going in more than one state, says Watson.
For example, an actress/playwright has an upcoming deal to be in a TV series that films in Los Angeles. And, because she is highly skilled, she also has written a play in production on Broadway. Her lawyer in Los Angeles can do the work on both contract deals; she does not need to hire a lawyer in Los Angeles and another in New York, says Watson.
Jurisdictional issues mainly come into play when there is litigation at hand, he says, but not for contract negotiations or other transactional issues.
Aerosmith does not automatically have to get a new lawyer in every town on its concert tour, confirms Jodi Sax, unless, of course, they have some sort of mishap on the road, like getting sued by a disgruntled fan and needing representation in an out-of-state court.
"Don't ever take sides with anyone against the family again." (The Godfather)
Is entertainment law an old boys' network? Do unqualified attorneys get jobs because of whom they are related to or whom they know?
"The cream rises," says Sax, explaining that nepotism is not a major problem in entertainment law. While knowing people does help you get job leads, those who do not have the skills do not last long. So if a studio executive hires his niece to be in the legal department, it is not difficult to see, says Sax, "if they're good lawyers." If the hire is based on relationship alone and the lawyer does not have the ability, then they won't last long.
As for women in this specialty, aside from the much older generation, there are many working in this field. In fact, says Sax, there seem to be more women than men in the in-house entertainment law positions.
African Americans in this field should follow the same advice given to any to any other law student or young lawyer pursuing entertainment law, says Porter, who represents an even split of white and African American artists and says that things have changed slightly since he was first starting out.
Previously, Porter would work with African American clients "on their way up or on their way down." Those at the top would tend to seek out larger, white-run firms. Now, prominent African American artists, such as Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, will choose African American attorneys.
"Live! Live! Live!" (Auntie Mame)
An entertainment lawyer is primarily a lawyer who can advise those in the music, television and movie industry regarding contracts, intellectual property, taxation, business and litigation. That’s a wide field, so if you want to be an entertainment lawyer, chances are you will be part of a firm if your client is big enough. But you can also go solo, especially if your client base is comprised of the fledgling to the moderately successful.
Having said this, your training will be pretty much the same as any other lawyer, but you will want to apprentice with established entertainment law firms. This will give you a working knowledge of the industry as well as some valuable connections for when you pass the bar and become a bona fide licensed lawyer. The best schools would be those which are in entertainment hubs, such as Los Angeles and New York City. This is based on the rationale that you are more likely to connect with prospective clients and other entertainment lawyers in the natural course of things.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, the following are the top 10 schools for entertainment lawyers:
1. UCLA School of Law (Los Angeles)
2. USC Gould School of Law (Los Angeles)
3. Harvard Law School (Cambridge)
4. Southwestern Law School (Los Angeles)
5. Columbia Law School (New York)
6. U.C. Berkeley School of Law (Berkeley)
7. Loyola Law School (Los Angeles)
8. Stanford Law School (Stanford)
9. Vanderbilt Law School (Nashville)
10. Fordham University School of Law (New York)
As of early 2011, the annual salary for entertainment lawyers ranged from $96,099 (Indianapolis) to $150,627 (New York City). The average salary was $120,574, slightly higher than the average for all lawyers at $110,590. Salary projections through 2018 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics place the growth of the industry at 13%.
These are just averages, though. Entertainment lawyers who make it big don’t really charge by the hour. Instead, they charge a percentage per transaction, usually 5%. For example, if you are drafting and negotiating the contract for a big-name actor that’s worth $5 million, you pocket a fee of $250,000. Not bad for work that will take you at most 40 hours. That’s $6,250 an hour!
And although it can be difficult working for someone who has a big head or who doesn’t know the meaning of obligation, the work itself is not usually hard if you know how to talk the talk and walk the walk. Negotiations can be intense, but it is not that complicated. Moreover, the entertainment industry is largely deregulated; there are no monitoring bodies that are watching your every move unlike in public trading or company mergers.
But don’t get the idea that just because you want to be an entertainment lawyer that it will happen overnight. Just like the stars you would like to represent, you need to work hard to get your foot into the door. You may have to start out filing papers at an entertainment law firm, and even then there is no guarantee you’ll get to hobnob with the celebrities. With a little luck, though, you have a chance at that big break.