How Entertainment Lawyers Work


Hip-hop artist Nas hired an entertainment lawyer to lobby for a particular album title.
Hip-hop artist Nas hired an entertainment lawyer to lobby for a particular album title.
© Jason Kempin/WireImage/Getty Images

Rapper Nas (Nasir Jones) delayed an album's release for months while he lobbied to have the n-word used as its name. But even with seven previous platinum albums and no illegality noted for his chosen album title, which has been used before, he couldn't get the concept approved. He ended up calling the album "Untitled" and using cover art with a graphic allusion to slavery [source: USA Today].

A writers' union strike crippled the 2007-08 television season, leaving viewers with less to watch, networks scrambling for offerings and cancellations of series that didn't have a chance to show their stuff. During the next summer, a possible actors' union strike threatened to have a similar effect on the following TV season as well as derailing movies that are planned or in production [source: Associated Press].

A lawsuit by Viacom against Google, parent company of YouTube, accused the video site of copyright infringement for hosting videos lifted from copyrighted TV shows. But with movie studios, record labels and individual artists using YouTube to promote their latest offerings, how can YouTube weed out piracy dropped on the site by users? And what is its obligation to do so? [source: CNET]

These three examples show some of the work that an entertainment lawyer may do. All of these -- research on a potentially incendiary album title, contract negotiations and a copyright infringement suit -- require experts who know the law and can protect the rights of companies, unions, artists and the public. But lawyers do plenty more in all areas of the entertainment industry, sometimes even acting as agents helping artists manage their assets and careers.

You may be wondering: What else does an entertainment lawyer do? What areas of specialization are available? How does someone become this type of lawyer? And, if you are in the music, TV or film industry, how do you select the right entertainment lawyer for your needs? Read on to find out.

Job Description of an Entertainment Lawyer

Occasionally entertainment lawyers like Mike Flanagan find themselves defending their clients in court. Flanagan represents Britney Spears.
Occasionally entertainment lawyers like Mike Flanagan find themselves defending their clients in court. Flanagan represents Britney Spears.
© Valerie Macon/Getty Images

Being an entertainment lawyer may seem like a glamorous career that offers a way to rub shoulders with celebrities and up-and-coming artists. While that may be true for some successful lawyers, entertainment law is a demanding career that requires a firm grounding in legal areas like contract law, labor law, litigation and intellectual property, as well as extensive knowledge of how the entertainment industry works. Bear in mind, too, that plenty of would-be entertainment attorneys are jockeying for a limited number of jobs in the industry.

Entertainment lawyers provide legal help for artists, employees, companies and individuals involved in all areas of the entertainment industry, including film, radio, television, music, publishing, theater and digital or multimedia entertainment like video games.

This could mean helping an actor negotiate a contract with a studio, filing suit over a pirated film, ensuring that stuntmen have adequate medical coverage, overcoming an impasse in union contract negotiations, assisting a young recording artist with financial or real estate decisions, protecting a recording star from illegal use of a copyrighted song or even preventing invasion of a client's privacy [source: Lawyers.com].

Here's a list of activities that might be part of an entertainment lawyer's job description:

  • Draft contracts for a client, review contracts from managers, publicists, record labels, film studios and others to make sure they're legal and fair to the client and then negotiate those contracts.
  • Maintain relationships with studios or record labels and be aware of who's influential and what deals are being made in the industry. Having strong contacts can help a lawyer get a deal done quickly, while knowledge of what's being offered elsewhere can help the lawyer get the best deal for a client.
  • Help clients new to the industry understand how the business works, including which types of contracts to choose, how to identify pitfalls in business deals, what performing rights they have and where to find a manager, agent, accountant or other business contact.
  • Act as general counsel for established artists, helping with marketing and merchandising deals, as well as real estate transactions and tax issues.
  • Help artists secure the rights to use music that other artists have written, complying with copyright laws.

[sources: MusicBizAcademy, Randy Jackson and K.C. Baker, William K. Gibson and Reid F. Trautz]

Like any other lawyer, an entertainment lawyer has spent three years earning a law degree after receiving a bachelor's degree. But an entertainment lawyer has chosen to specialize, probably graduating from a law school that offers a specialization in entertainment law. Some of the top schools are University of California at Los Angeles, University of Southern California, Stanford University and New York University. If you're interested in this type of law, look for a school that offers entertainment law courses and has an entertainment-focused law review or association [source: Top Law Schools].

After finishing school, an entertainment lawyer usually works for a law firm specializing in this type of law. Most of these firms are located in Los Angeles (music, film and television), New York (music, publishing and theater) and Nashville (music). Young attorneys start as associates, and partners direct them in writing contracts and assisting with negotiations. Because of the limited number of spots, the large number of available attorneys and nature of the entertainment industry, moving up often depends on the relationships and contacts that an attorney can make [source: Mark Litwak's Entertainment Law Resource].

Interning in an entertainment firm before law school and during summers, volunteering with a pro-bono organization like California Lawyers for the Arts and joining groups like American Bar Association's Forum on the Entertainment and Sports Industries can all help a lawyer make industry contacts.

Not all entertainment attorneys have the same job description. Let's look next at the different specialties that entertainment lawyers can have.

Specializations of Entertainment Lawyers

Attorneys often negotiate contracts for actors. Here Monica Rosenthal, left, attorney Patti Felker, center, and producer Phil Rosenthal, right, chat.
Attorneys often negotiate contracts for actors. Here Monica Rosenthal, left, attorney Patti Felker, center, and producer Phil Rosenthal, right, chat.
© Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Subtleties among the various entertainment arts call for specialization, as do the client's specific legal needs. If your band is signing its first recording contract, for example, you want an entertainment lawyer who focuses on the music industry and contracts, not a film or publishing expert. If someone has lifted some of your song lyrics, you want an entertainment lawyer with expertise in both music law and intellectual property -- and you may even need a litigator who can take the music thief to court.

One way of looking at the specialties of entertainment lawyers is to take a by-industry approach. Here are some of the areas lawyers may handle for each industry:

  • Film -- Contracts with stars and other talent, labor negotiations with various union crews and employees, financial backing arrangements, distribution agreements, equipment and space rental, production liability issues, merchandising and product placement, and copyright and trademark issues.
  • Theater -- Contracts with talent and crew, rental and co-production agreements, producer agreements, production liability issues, ticket sale agreements, and copyright and trademark issues.
  • Music -- Contracts with record labels, managers, agents, concert promoters and concert producers; tour crew agreements and equipment rentals; recording studio rentals; music licensing and royalty agreements; and copyright issues.
  • TV/Radio -- Contacts with talent and crew, production studio and network agreements, distribution agreements, broadcast licensing and regulatory issues.
  • Digital -- Space and equipment costs, employee contracts, talent agreements, music and image use agreements, licensing arrangements, and copyright issues.
  • Publishing -- Production contracts, author agreements, advertising and marketing agreements, and copyright and trademark issues.

Another way of splitting up the specialties to look at the type of law being practiced. Attorneys divide the practice of entertainment law into two basic categories: transaction-based and litigation-based. Transaction-based focuses on drafting and negotiating entertainment contracts, while litigation-based means resolving disputes by filing a lawsuit or though mediation or arbitration.

More specifically, an entertainment lawyer can focus on any or several of many practice areas: intellectual property, corporate law, labor law, arbitration and alternative dispute resolution, litigation, estate planning, real estate, criminal law, international law, matrimonial law, taxation and immigration.

Larger entertainment law firms are likely to offer a wide variety of these specialties. Smaller firms may be more focused on a specific area, such as writing and negotiating contracts. Litigation is often handled by a separate, specialized law firm.

Perhaps your biggest concern is finding the right entertainment attorney to help you with your needs, such as negotiating a contract with a record label. Keep reading to find out how to choose an entertainment lawyer.

Choosing an Entertainment Lawyer

Attorneys may negotiate contracts for musicians. Here shown from left, Sony ATV CEO Martin Bandier, rap artist Flo Rida, AVP Sony Music Publishing Juan Madrid and attorney Sandy Lal celebrate Flo Rida's signing.
Attorneys may negotiate contracts for musicians. Here shown from left, Sony ATV CEO Martin Bandier, rap artist Flo Rida, AVP Sony Music Publishing Juan Madrid and attorney Sandy Lal celebrate Flo Rida's signing.
© Gary Gershoff/WireImage/Getty Images

If you're a musician or an actor, you probably didn't think about the importance of having an entertainment lawyer until you had a contract to sign. Once you signed, you'd be bound by the contract's terms. Suddenly, looking at those terms, you knew you needed a lawyer to look it over and make sure everything worked as much to your advantage as possible. Perhaps your agent could offer an opinion, but a lawyer would have more expertise.

In looking for the right entertainment lawyer to meet your needs, you'll want to consider the following about the lawyer or firm:

  • Expertise -- Look for someone who has the specific background you need, in this case, handling contracts within the music industry.
  • Experience -- Focus on finding a lawyer or firm that has years of experience in the area you need.
  • Cost -- Decide which form and level of billing suits your needs best. Entertainment lawyers may bill on an hourly basis for work completed, as a percentage of the income from a contract, as a flat rate per contract or as a retainer (set fee per month). They also may use value billing to set a fee based on the size of the deal and the lawyer's contribution to it. Make sure you know about any hidden costs beyond fees, likes charges for long-distance phone calls, messenger service and photocopies.
  • Conflicts of Interest -- Check to make sure the lawyer does not represent anyone who would be on the opposing side of the contract or have a close relationship with them.
  • References -- Request and check references for clients similar to yourself in terms of needs and years in the business. You'll want to know how responsive the lawyer is about returning phone calls or e-mails and how quickly he can get your job done.

[sources: How Recording Contracts Work and MusicBizAcademy]

Here are some suggestions on finding an entertainment lawyer:

  • Network! The entertainment industry runs on contacts, and a colleague or someone further along in his career may have used a lawyer that would work well for you.
  • Use an industry database. In the music industry, for example, StarPolish offers a database of lawyers offering services related to music publishing and copyrights.
  • Check ads in industry publications like Billboard.
  • Contact the ABA's Forum on the Entertainment and Sports Industries or a law school's entertainment law association or publication, such as the UCLA Entertainment Law Review.

Regardless of the entertainment industry you call home, an entertainment lawyer can help you to protect your interests and move ahead in your career.

For lots more information about entertainment lawyers and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • "Best Entertainment Law Schools and Sports Law Schools." Top-law-schools.com. (http://www.top-law-schools.com/entertainment-law-schools.html)
  • "Breaking into Show Biz: For Those Who Aspire to a Career in Entertainment Law." Litwak, Mark. (http://www.marklitwak.com/articles/general/show_biz.html)
  • "Choosing an Entertainment Attorney." Friends, Stacey, Esq. ImagineNews.com. (http://www.imaginenews.com/Archive/2003/DEC_2003/02_DEPARTMENTS/05_LEGAL_LENS.html)
  • "Entertainment Law Attorneys: An Introduction to Working with Them." Knab, Christopher. MusicBizAcademy.com. February 2008. (http://www.musicbizacademy.com/knab/articles/elawyers.htm)
  • Entertainment Lawyer. Pinguelo, Fernando, Esq. (http://www.tvradiolawyer.com)
  • "Flying Solo: A Survival Guide for Solo and Small Firm Lawyers." Gibson, K. William and Trautz, Reid F. American Bar Association, 2005, page 113. (http://books.google.com/books?id=-8I50F2hQc8C&pg=PA113&;lpg=PA113&dq=how+to+become+an+entertainment+lawyer&source=web&-lots=bpOooqERxM&sig=vfv38ikiY6xOLrXp_sZprSGhGDo&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&­resnum=2&ct=result#PPA113,M1)
  • "How to Become Successful in the Music Business." McVey, Dick. (http://www.dickmcvey.com/Success.htm)
  • Lawyers.com. (http://entertainment-law.lawyers.com/)
  • "Movie producers set Aug. deadline for SAG contract." Nakashima, Ryan. Associated Press. July 9, 2008.
  • http://ap.google.com/article/ALeqM5iE0uIqtrdPXiNMr1qniAIsCAa0fwD91QQU300
  • "Rapper Nas 'Untitled,' unbowed over epithet." Jones, Steve. USA Today. July 7, 2008. (http://www.usatoday.com/life/music/news/2008-07-07-nas-untitled_N.htm)
  • What's Up Dawg? How to Become a Superstar in the Music Business." Jackson, Randy and Baker, K.C. Hyperion, 2004, pp. 158-159. (http://books.google.com/books?id=K3v6gPypo14C&pg=PT169&lpg=PT169&dq=how+to+become+an+entertainment+lawyer&­source=web&ots=dIpon2rP3v&sig=zTZDFCfX0MTLfItncE-cfi1uzzg&hl=en&­sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=5&ct=result#PPT170,M1)
  • "Why it matters what Chad Hurley watches." Sandoval, Greg. July 16, 2008. (http://news.cnet.com/8301-1023_3-9992191-93.html)
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