Hiring an Entertainment Lawyer

Entertainers often need attorneys to draft contracts, negotiate deals, or litigate disputes.

Entertainment professionals often need the services of lawyers. Whether you are an actor, director, dancer, or musician, there are various legal services that could prove essential to your career.

Their services won't come cheap, of course. Indeed, you might find yourself sitting in an attorney’s waiting room preparing to hire someone who charges more per hour than you earn earn in a whole night! For better or worse, however, attorneys are part of the fabric of the entertainment industry. They facilitate connections between performers, producers, and venues, and assist in drafting and negotiating contracts. If a deal goes wrong; perhaps a venue refuses to pay you, for example; you will want an aggressive attorney to defend your interests.

But just as there are many entertainers, not all of whom are right for a particular role, there are many lawyersespecially in major cities. How do you choose the right one?

Hiring an Attorney Who Fits Your Legal and Related Needs

As in most areas of life, one size does not fit all. Your choice of an attorney usually depends on the situation you face. The most common reason that an entertainer hires a lawyer is to review, draft, or negotiate a contract.

But you might also hire a lawyer if you need to litigate, for example if your producer breaches a contract, or if your manager has stolen money from you.

There are different types of entertainment lawyers for these two broad categories of legal problems: writing a contract versus fighting a battle.

Some lawyers only draft and negotiate contracts; these are known as "transactional" attorneys. Some only handle lawsuits and represent actors (or producers or venues); these are known as "litigators."

To make matters more confusing, there's a third category of lawyers whose primary business is "shopping" the entertainer. ("Shopping" means soliciting business on behalf of an entertainer). While these professionals may be lawyers by training, they're primarily acting as agents or business managers rather than legal advisers.

Often, an entertainer maintains an ongoing relationship with an entertainment lawyer, much like a patient with a family doctor. If problems arise, such as tax concerns, criminal charges, or bankruptcy, the entertainment attorney will help the client find a specialist. For example, if an entertainer faces a lawsuit, the entertainment attorney can help the entertainer find a litigator who specializes in the type of litigation at issue (such as a copyright dispute).

Finding an Entertainment Lawyer

The first step in finding an entertainment attorney is to be sure you know your goals. Often, the best way to locate an attorney is through referrals from other entertainers. It's also possible to locate, interview, and hire a entertainment attorney through an online directory, such as Nolo's Lawyer Directory, which splits attorneys into different practice areas (copyright, business, litigation, and so on).

Another important resource is your local bar association; essentially a professional organization for lawyers in a particular geographic area, such as a state or city. Often, these organizations offer lawyer referral and matching services, or at least lists of local attorneys with active practices in different areas of law.

Finally, there are many nonprofit organizations, such as the Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts in New York City, that can give referrals of attorneys whose practices focus on artists, singers, musicians, performers, and others in the entertainment industry. Law school clinics are another similar option. For example, Cardozo School of Law's Indie Film Clinic assists independent filmmakers with legal issues without cost.

Interviewing a Prospective Attorney

Entertainers must audition to get work, and the same is true for attorneys. They will often start with an initial consultation with a prospective client, in which the client can get a sense of how the attorney would approach the issue at hand and determine whether or not working with that attorney seems like a good idea.

If you are determined to achieve a specific result, such as escaping a contract that you have signed or leasing a studio, discuss whether the attorney has undertaken that task successfully before. Do not be shy about asking for professional references; most successful lawyers would be more than happy to provide a few names of current or former satisfied clients. Does the lawyer represent other entertainers, especially entertainers who have similar careers and legal issues as you?

During your initial meeting, also ask whether the attorney believes that your expectations are realistic. Can you actually achieve the outcome you wish? A good lawyer should be able to answer honestly.

Also, remember to ask questions about the timing of services. How long will it take to achieve your desired outcome? Will the lawyer return all of your phone calls personally? How long will it take to get you a first draft of a contract? Non-lawyers are often surprised to learn how slowly the legal system moves, particularly when courts are involved. It's best to clarify those timing expectations at the start of your relationship.

Talking About the Lawyer's Fees

Legal services can be expensive. After you have discussed the legal tasks required, it's time to start talking about money. Understand up front that most attorneys bill on an hourly basis (often between $300 and $700 an hour) and send a bill at the end of each month.

Some attorneys bill on a fixed-fee basis, in which you pay a set amount for services (expect to pay $5,000 to $25,000 to negotiate a major entertainment deal, for instance). The so-called "billable hour" is still the most common method of payment.

Many attorneys ask for a retainer, which is an advance payment for legal work. The amount of the retainer is included in the attorney-client fee agreement.

The fee agreement is negotiated between you and your lawyer and establishes the payments and the lawyer’s responsibilities. It is usually contained within a broader retainer agreement, the contract between you and your lawyer outlining your relationship. You should carefully read the retainer agreement to understand your rights as a client. If you sign a agreement, be sure to include a provision stating you have the right to drop your attorney at any time. (In many states, such as California, a client always has the right to terminate the attorney for any reason or no reason at all.)

Do not be embarrassed to get specific about billing. It's important for all concerned to know whether you can afford the lawyer's services. Ask how charges are calculated, and what the estimated cost for the job at hand will be. Is a retainer required? If the lawyer bills by the hour, can you get a cap on the price in case negotiations are unusually protracted? Find out whether you can use a credit card, or pay over several months, and whether interest will be charged if your payments are late.

Be sure you will be provided with a written retainer letter outlining payment terms. You would not want a situation where the lawyer makes certain oral representations, for example that you could pay in installments, but then fails to honor that promise later.

Some entertainment attorneys use unique billing systems. An attorney may, for example, charge the entertainer a percentage of the “value” of a deal. This “value billing” system can be unpredictable. Usually, only the powerhouse lawyers engage in value billing. Beware of attorneys who may attempt to switch to value billing during the period of legal representation. Every lawyer should provide a retainer letter up front saying how charges will be calculated.

Below are billing tips that will help protect you:

  • Understand exactly how you will be billed. If it's on an hourly system, find out the increments. For example, some attorneys charge a minimum of one quarter of an hour (15 minutes) for a phone call, no matter how short the conversation.
  • Be alert for hidden expenses. Find out what costs and expenses you'll be expected to pay for over and above the lawyer’s fees for services, such as for photocopies or faxes, travel expenses, or court fees. Watch out if your attorney wants to bill for services such as “word processing” or “administrative services.”
  • See whether you can avoid hourly rates. Hourly billing is tricky, because it's difficult to know how many hours a particular task will take. If you can, get your attorney to agree to fixed fees for certain work rather than hourly billings. For example, if your attorney is negotiating a merchandising deal, get a flat rate for the whole job. That way, you will know exactly what to expect. If you cannot get fixed billings, ask your attorney to estimate fees for work and to explain any time that the bill exceeds the estimate.
  • Review billings carefully. Billings should be prompt and clear. Do not accept summary billings (for instance, one sentence such as “litigation work” covering a block of eight hours). Every item should be explained with rate and hours worked, including fractions. Late billings are not acceptable, especially in litigation. When you get bills you don't understand, ask the attorney for an explanation—and request that the attorney not bill you for the explanation.

Evaluating Your Attorney's Personal Style

Don't choose an attorney purely based on his or her "know-how." Consider also style and personality. While these qualities might seem superficial, remember that you may spend long hours working together. You may prefer to be represented by an attorney whose style and demeanor correspond with yours. Do you want someone aggressive? Ambitious? Accommodating? Serious? Boisterous?

Also consider whether you want someone with a particular reputation in the industry. For example, how well does the attorney understand your particular field of work? Does the attorney have a reputation as ethical, or sneaky? Does his or her name strike fear into the hearts of other lawyers and, if so, do you want that?

After you talk to a number of different lawyers, decide which qualities feel best for you.

Firing an Entertainment Lawyer

An entertainer does not need to love his or her attorney, but should at least respect and trust the attorney’s abilities as a hired professional. As a general rule, you should switch attorneys (fire one and hire another) if you are unhappy with the services you've received. But also remember that switching attorneys is a nuisance, and you may lose time and money during that transition.

How do you fire an attorney? Send a letter stating that you are terminating services and want your files returned. The attorney will probably retain a copy of your files and return the originals to you. You may be asked to pay any outstanding bills. However, an attorney cannot withhold your files because you have failed to pay your bills.

If your attorney is in the midst of representing you to a third party (for example, a record company or movie studio), you should also notify that third party that you're no longer working with the attorney and that future correspondence should be sent to you directly (until you retain a new attorney).

The easiest way to switch attorneys is to find a new attorney and ask the old one to send the file to the new one. In that case, before terminating your current attorney, you would have another attorney prepared to take over any outstanding legal work.

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