Assembling a winning team: The Entertainment Lawyer.

In the past two issues, I discussed the roles played by the agent and the manager. In this issue, we'll look at the involvement of the entertainment lawyer. Most people think of an attorney as the person you call to get you out of trouble. It's true, many lawyers do that kind of work, but many others are involved in the day-to-day business of the entertainment industry, negotiating contracts, structuring deals and generally looking after their clients' interests.

While most performers just starting out won't have an immediate need for a lawyer, it's often a good idea to consult with one early in your career just to avoid any costly missteps. Even before signing an agent's or manager's contract, it's a good idea to have the agreement reviewed by a lawyer.

Generally, where a minor is being employed in a movie, play, television show or record contract, the employer will insist that the contracts be “confirmed” or approved by a court. Even when this isn't the case, it's wise to have an attorney look things over. Contracts can have long-term implications and should be entered into with caution. The bottom line is this: The producer has a lawyer, the director has a lawyer, so should you.

When choosing an entertainment lawyer, you want someone who is a specialist, focused primarily on the entertainment industry. Of course, almost everyone knows or has a family member who is a lawyer, but only someone experienced with entertainment transactions will have a proper understanding of the nuances of a deal. Entertainment industry contracts are unlike those used in almost any other business, so unless your lawyer regularly deals with agents, managers, producers, record companies, and such, he or she will be unable to understand and address the finer points of your deal. Your attorney's level of experience is also important because his or her relationships with executives and others in the entertainment industry can mean the difference between an average deal or a favorable one.

Finding an experienced and knowledgeable entertainment attorney can be a daunting task, and requires some research. Often, the best approach is to ask other people you know for a referral. Other artists, your agent or manager, or even your family's accountant or stock broker are good places to start.
Another good resource is the local bar association. Many of these organizations have referral services and will point you toward their members who practice in a particular field. Finally, you can investigate potential attorneys on the Internet. Most law firms nowadays maintain useful websites containing lots of information about their attorneys. When in doubt, google it.

Most attorneys will waive their fees for an initial meeting, so you should probably meet with a few lawyers before selecting one. Choose someone with whom you feel comfortable and to whom you can relate. This, like your relationships with agent and manager is a long-term arrangement. You'll want to ask the lawyer about his or her background and experience as well as about fees. Different lawyers charge in different ways, often depending on the kind of matter involved. Many entertainment lawyers charge a percentage-based fee, typically 5-10%, much as agents and managers do. Others charge flat rates for each deal, usually depending on the difficulty and size of the transaction. By and large, however, most lawyers charge by the hour. Hourly rates will vary depending on the lawyer's location and experience. In the major entertainment industry cities, entertainment lawyers charge anywhere from $250 to $500 per hour. In some cases, it's possible to arrange a reduced hourly fee as an advance against a percentage.

When you hire a lawyer, you should expect to pay the lawyer a retainer, which is typically held in trust and applied against fees and costs as they accrue. You should also expect to receive and sign a written fee agreement. This agreement is a contract between you and the lawyer and sets forth the scope of the lawyer's responsibilities and the fees to be charged. Unlike contracts with agents and managers, a client is always free to terminate his relationship with lawyer, subject to the continuing obligation to pay outstanding fees.

Finally, a word about conflicts of interest. The entertainment industry is a small, insular group of professionals. In many cases, agents, lawyers and managers work together again and again over the years. In fact, these relationships are often the reason that deals happen at all. For attorneys and their clients, this presents a special problem, since an attorney cannot represent multiple parties without fully disclosing the existence of the relationship and potential conflict, and securing both clients' written consent to the representation. If your attorney presents you with a conflict of interest waiver, you should consider carefully whether or not the attorney can be counted on to protect your interests over others'. In many cases, it's wise to consult with another lawyer or trusted advisor before signing.

Ultimately, your lawyer should be someone you trust and with whom you can be completely honest. A knowledgable entertainment lawyer can help you grow and prosper in show business and should be considered an integral part of your winning team!

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