What Does an Entertainment Lawyer Do Anyway?

Demystifying any beliefs

What Does an Entertainment Lawyer Do Anyway?

Whenever I answer “entertainment lawyer” to that age-old question of “What do you do” it tends to elicit the same curious and confused look I would give someone who told me they were an avid base jumper. Many tend to assume that an entertainment lawyer is either (i) the person a celebrity calls when he or she runs afoul of the law or (ii) Ari Gold from “Entourage.” While there are enough perks to make for good dinner party conversation, the day-to-day practice is far less salacious than either of the above options would suggest.

At the heart of it, entertainment law is a transactional commercial practice with the lawyer negotiating agreements for the exploitation of intellectual property, most notably copyrights, related to the entertainment space. Clients can be broadly categorized into two camps – talent (those who generate intellectual property) and business (those who exploit intellectual property). Similar to many corporate/commercial practices, entertainment lawyers tend to represent clients on both sides of the fence. From my experience as a primarily talent-side lawyer in the music, film and television fields, there are three things that are particularly distinct to the entertainment law space.

The first is that more so than your expertise in copyright law, clients retain you for your in-depth understanding of what business terms are standard in the industry. For many clients it’s their first time being offered an option agreement or record deal. Even for those who have been there before, given the dynamic nature of the industry, a transaction from just five years ago will have key commercial differences from a transaction today. As a result, an entertainment lawyer is often very active in guiding the key business terms of the transaction and clients tend to look to you to tell them what constitutes a fair deal in the circumstances.

The second is that, as a lawyer trying to build a practice in the field, you’re essentially placing bets on each new client you retain. The failure rate for projects in the entertainment field is extremely high. While it is theoretically possible to build a practice out of a revolving door of clients whose businesses fail to go anywhere, the real traction lies in having key clients that find prolonged success. Being able to spot clients with that rare combination of true talent and work ethic, and then leveraging your own contacts to surround those individuals with the right team, benefits not only your client but ultimately your own practice.

The final point is really a natural consequence of the first two, namely that the number of hats you may end up wearing with any particular client is almost limitless. It’s quite common for the entertainment lawyer to act as a go-to general counsel for a client. You manage all legal issues arising over the course of the relationship by overseeing the appropriate specialized counsel to handle those issues (e.g. real estate, tax, criminal, litigation, wills, etc.). In addition to lawyer, business strategist, creative advisor, financial planner and therapist, these are a few of the additional roles that I’ve fallen into over the years as I’ve watched clients grow from starving artists to leaders in their fields.

When your clients are primarily artists and entrepreneurs they value flexibility. For me, it’s the opportunity to flex a variety of skills beyond traditional legal analysis that has continued to make this a rewarding career as I enter my fifteenth year of practice.

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