Hiring an Entertainment Lawyer

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

At some point in your entertainment career, you may 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, attorneys are an important part of the entertainment industry. They facilitate connections between performers, producers, and venues, and also assist in drafting and negotiating contracts. If a deal goes wrong, for example a venue refuses to pay you, you will want an aggressive attorney to defend your interests.

There are many attorneys out there, particularly in major cities. How do you choose the right one?

Hire an Attorney Who Fits Your Legal and Related Needs

Like in most areas of law, one size does not fit all. Your choice of an attorney usually depends on the situation. 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 situations.

Some lawyers only draft and negotiate contracts; some only handle lawsuits and represent actors (or producers or venues); and some are only in the business of "shopping" the entertainer. (Shopping is the process of soliciting business on behalf of an entertainer). Some attorneys perform all of these functions as "generalists."

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

Locating, Hiring, and Firing an Attorney

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 is also possible to locate, interview, and hire a entertainment attorney through an online directory, like Nolo's Lawyer Directory.

There are also 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.

Interviewing a Prospective Attorney

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 references; most successful lawyers would be more than happy to provide a few names of current satisfied clients.

You should also ask whether the attorney believes that your expectations are realistic. Also, remember to ask questions about the timing of services. Will the lawyer return all of your phone calls personally? What other entertainers does the lawyer or law firm represent? How long will it take to get you a first draft of a contract?

Talking About Money

After you have discussed the legal tasks required, it's time to start talking about money. You should 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 fee 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.

Most 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. Read it and understand your rights as a client. If you sign a fee 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 is 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 when work begins.

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 some billing tips that will help protect you:

  • Understand exactly how you will be billed. If you are billed 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.
  • Watch out for hidden expenses. Find out what costs and expenses you must pay other than the fees for the lawyer’s work, such as costs for copies or faxes, travel expenses, or court fees. Watch out if your attorney wants to bill for services such as “word processing” or “administrative services.” This often means you will be paying the secretary’s salary.
  • See whether you can avoid hourly rates. 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”). 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

You should not make your decision purely based on the attorney's "know-how." Consider also his or her 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?

You should 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, you can take determine which qualities feel the most right for you.

Firing Your Entertainment Attorney

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 if you are unhappy with your lawyer’s services. Switching attorneys means that you fire one attorney and hire another.

However, switching attorneys is a nuisance, and you may lose time and money during that transition. (See How to Avoid Common Problems With An Entertainment Attorney).

How do you fire an attorney? You should notify the attorney by letter that you are terminating services and that you 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 representing you to a third party (for example, a record company or movie studio), you should notify that third party that you are 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 attorney to send the file to the new attorney. 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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