The 'Artistic' form of legal practice by Elena M. Paul

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"I'm not artistic at all, but it's kind of my way of participating," says Ms. Paul.

A 1988 Harvard Law School graduate, Ms. Paul oversees a staff of eight and works with 1,100 attorneys who volunteer their time to VLA. They represent a wide range of clients—from yet-to-be-discovered musicians to movie costumers to aspiring Picassos—in a city that serves as the cultural capital of theater, dance, music, and other art forms.

"The main thing for me is to teach the artists that a lot of this stuff is not brain surgery," she says. "It's not stuff they can't learn on their own. You see a lot of people get into trouble because they rush in to do the creative part and they haven't dealt with the business issues. So (problems with) ownership and authorship and copyright and different things can happen unintentionally if you don't think through the business end up front."

To break into the field, Ms. Paul strongly recommends developing solid practical skills as a lawyer with a firm or other organization and volunteering in the arts world.

Q: Why is VLA an important organization, particularly in New York City?

A: VLA in New York is a 35-year-old organization that was founded to provide free representation to low-income individual artists and to nonprofit arts communities. It's basically a service, just like there are many service organizations for arts in different areas. The arts is a business, and it has to run like a business in order to flourish and thrive.

Q: Who are the artists you represent?

A: VLA represents a broad range of every discipline imaginable. The big constituency is the nonprofit arts community. In addition, we help individual artists, a lot of musicians. Basically any artist who wants to live or work in the world or put their work into a commercial context comes to us. Musicians typically come because very early in their careers they'll get slapped with a 30-page contract.

Q: What advice do you have for those interested in arts and entertainment law?

A: People ask us all the time, "How do I become an entertainment lawyer?" and "How did you get where you are?" When we sit down and do career counseling, we say, "What's your dream job?" and get people really focused on what it is about being an entertainment lawyer or art lawyer that's interesting to (them).

If they really want to do this work, they can do it that same day if they volunteer. For my whole staff, that's how we got into it. We worked in law firms, and we volunteered on top of that workload.

It's very, very competitive. There are a lot of people who want to be in the arts and entertainment area. But there are also a lot of people who aren't willing to spend their extra time reading about things or volunteering. If you're not willing to do that, it's not going to happen. Most associates sitting in a law firm doing general commercial litigation are not going to get a call from an auction house or a museum saying, "Oh, work for me."

Q: What's one big misconception among law students and new lawyers?

A: That somehow being smart is a guarantee of success.

Q: What's something thing law school doesn't teach, but should?

A: Helping students figure out where you go if you're not going to a law firm, looking at different options, looking at the broad spectrum of the world and figuring out all the different jobs.

If someone's doing general commercial litigation, they think, "Oh no, I'll never be an arts and entertainment lawyer." Well no, it's really about the skills of being a lawyer and learning how to advise people. You need general training. The law degree is valuable, but there are also practical skills. If you can't go to a law firm, the answer is not, "You have no choices at all." There are lots of different options.

The non-Ivy League schools should do a better job of helping people understand how to set up their own businesses, solo practitioner stuff. It shouldn't be, "I work at a giant law firm or I'm unemployed," which is what we see a lot. It's really about translating your legal skills into different contexts.

Harvard Law School.


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